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Difference between 大きそう and 大きく見える when saying "how something looks" / "what something looks like"

When talking about how something looks we can use ~そう. However, I have realized that the verb 見える can also be used to say how something appears or what it looks like. What is the difference between them? When can each be used and not used?

e.g 大きそう and 大きく見える both mean that something looks/appears big. What is the difference between them?

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"大きい見える" -- Do you mean 大きく見える or 大きいみたい ? – user1016 May 12 '14 at 15:19
Provided you don't directly see it, you can say 大きそうだ. Similarly, as far as you don't directly taste it, you can say おいしそうだ. So 大きそうだ is probably not the word you would use. – Yang Muye May 12 '14 at 15:25
I haven't heard anything like 大きそう before. Most often I hear it expressed as 大きいみたい. – Ataraxia May 12 '14 at 15:29
「大きそう」ってよく使います、こんな感じで ← 結構エッチな話題がヒットす((ry – user1016 May 12 '14 at 15:37
@Ataraxia フツーに、"大きそう" でググったら、「ちんちXが大きそうな俳優・・・」とか「おっぱXの大きそうなキャラ・・・」とか「エッチの声が大きそう・・・」とかヒットする・・・ – user1016 May 12 '14 at 16:23
"大きそう and 大きい見える both mean that something looks/appears big. What is the difference between them?"

For starters, 大きそう is grammatical, while 大き見える isn't. :) The latter would have to be 大き見える to work: since the adjective 大きい is immediately followed by a verb, the adjective ending in い must change to the adverb ending in く.

大きそう often doesn't really mean "it looks big" in the literal sense of "look" as something's visual appearance. If something is just plain old big, folks will generally just say 大きい. The -そう on an adjective stem without the final い comes across more as "it seems like ..." So 大きそう comes across more as "X seems big." This might imply a relative comparison (which is probably the connotation of the uses that Chocolate mentions).

(Note also that -そう after an adjective that includes the final い indicates reported speech -- "I've heard that XX is YY; apparently XX is YY". So 大きそう would be "[someone told me] that XX is big.")

Whether to use -そう or -く見える also depends on the grammatical context: what comes next in the sentence? If someone is trying to say "X seems big, but it isn't really", you might run across something like the following:

  • 大きそうに思えるけど、実は些細なことだ。
    Ōkisō ni omoeru kedo, jitsu wa sasai na koto da.
    It might seem big, but actually it's just a minor thing.

Alternately, you could say:

  • 大きく見えるけど、実は些細なことだ。
    Ōkiku mieru kedo, jitsu wa sasai na koto da.
    It might look big, but actually it's just a minor thing.

Note also that 見える implies something visible. If you say おいしそう, it might be that something looks delicious, or sounds delicious, but if you say おいしく見える, you're saying that something specifically looks delicious.

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大きそう doesn't mean "I've heard that it is big", which is 大きいそう. – user4092 May 13 '14 at 2:57
@user4092, maybe he meant to say “it sounds like that is big” – Yang Muye May 13 '14 at 5:06
Nope, user4092 is correct -- I had a brain fart on this one. Reported speech would use the full adjectival form with the final い included. I'll rework the main post later to fix that. – Eiríkr Útlendi May 13 '14 at 8:00

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