Swedish Language Blog

Looking good in Swedish: “att se ut” Posted by on Feb 11, 2016 in Grammar, Swedish Language


Hejhej, Swedish learners!

One of many things that we generally need to know how to talk about in a language is how something or someone looks. In English, there are two common patterns with “look” which are very much alike:

Pattern 1:  That cloud looks like a dog.
Pattern 2:
  That cloud looks dark.

As you can see, the first pattern uses “like” and a noun to describe how the cloud looks, whereas the second pattern uses a simple adjective.

Well, great news! Swedish uses the very same patterns. There is one difference, though, and it has to do with clause structure relating to the verb meaning “to look/appear”. Let’s take a look!

The verb which means “to look” or “to appear” in Swedish is att se ut. At first glance, it might look like a three-part verb, but it’s only really a two-part verb – att simply means “to”. Att se, as you may very well know already, means “to see”, and ut means “out”. So technically, att se ut literally means “to see out” – but no Swede hears it that way. Two-part verbs (also known as phrasal verbs) are very common in Swedish and consist of one verb and one verb particle, which can take the form of a preposition (such as  “on”) or an adverb (such as ut “out”). Don’t fret, though – we have them in English, too! “Throw out” and “hold on” are examples of phrasal verbs in English.

(German speakers: If you know German, I’m sure you recognize the similarity to aussehen. The main difference is that in Swedish, it’s not *utse, but se utUtse means something else!)

So, se ut works the same way as “look” in English, but the grammar is different, because se ut is a phrasal verb and “look” is not. At first glance, there appears to be no difference. Let’s take Pattern 1 as an example:

Det där molnet ser ut som en hund.
That cloud looks like a dog.

But what happens if we make this a question?

Ser det där molnet ut som en hund?
Does that cloud look like a dog?

Se and ut split from each other! Blasphemy! But wait – isn’t that exactly what happens to “does” and “look” in the English translation? Think about it for a second.

Pattern 2 also features a split verb:

Det där molnet ser mörkt ut.
That cloud looks dark.

Whenever you are making a statement with Pattern 2, i.e. not using inverted word order such as in direct questions, the verb se and the verb particle ut are separated by the adjective. So what happens if you turn it into a direct question?:

Ser det där molnet mörkt ut?
Does that cloud look dark?

When you make a direct question with a phrasal verb, the only thing that moves is the verb part of the phrasal unit. You’ll notice that this is the same for both Pattern 1 and Pattern 2. In fact, the verb part of a phrasal verb unit works just like a normal verb – it’s the particle you have to keep track of. In most cases, the particle will be placed as in Pattern 1. Se ut is a special case, and what you really have to keep track of is where to put the ut.


This is kind of a complicated matter, so here’s a simple summary:

1.  When you’re saying something looks “like a dog” (i.e., “like” + noun), the formula is se + ut + som + [noun].
2.  When you’re saying something looks “dark” (i.e., adjective only), the formula is se + [adjective] + ut.

Keep in mind that moln “cloud” is of neuter gender, so the adjective mörk “dark” gets a -t (mörkt). If the subject is hunden “the dog”, the adjective, for example glad “glad, happy”, remains in common gender form: Hunden ser glad ut (not glatt).

Deep breaths. Lycka till!

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About the Author: Stephen Maconi

Stephen Maconi has been writing for the Transparent Swedish Blog since 2010. Wielding a Bachelor's Degree in Swedish and Nordic Linguistics from Uppsala University in Sweden, Stephen is an expert on Swedish language and culture.