The Grammarphobia Blog

You can look it up!

Q: I have a question about the phrase “looking to buy,” as in, “He’s looking to buy a house.” Isn’t he just looking for a house or just plain shopping for one?

A: The verb “look” here means expect, a sense of the word that has been around since the early 16th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So the sentence you’re asking about (“He’s looking to buy a house”) actually means “He’s expecting to buy a house.”

The first recorded use of “look” this way is from Sir Thomas More’s unfinished work The History of Kyng Richard the Third, which More wrote about 1513: “In these last wordes that ever I looke to speake with you.”

It’s a popular construction in English, and has been so for nearly five centuries. Today we commonly use “look to” (or “looking to”) for expressing anticipation or intent. The meaning is expect to, hope to, intend to, and so on.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, the expression today “is most commonly found with looking but other forms of the verb are used as well.”

Here are some examples.

From Shakespeare’s King Henry V (late 1590s): “Even as men wrecked upon a sand, that look to be washed off the next tide.”

From Henry Brooke’s novel The Fool of Quality (1760-72): “I never look to have a mistress that I shall love half as well.”

From A. E. Housman’s poem cycle A Shropshire Lad (1896): “Two lovers looking to be wed.”

From People magazine (1984): “If you’re looking to strike up a conversation….”

And finally from Jesse Kornbluth, writing about Philip Roth on the Huffington Post in January 2010: “He’s not looking to create either charmers or complainers; he’s seeking reality.”

Despite its long history, some people criticize the “look + to + infinitive” construction on the grounds that it feels ungrammatical. Some even brand it a “pet peeve.”

My advice to them: look it up!

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