Seam and Seem

Commonly Confused Words

seam and seem
A woman trying to shut a suitcase that's bursting at the seams. (JW LTD/Getty Images)

The words seam and seem are homophones: they sound alike but have different meanings.

Definitions

The noun seam refers to a line formed by sewing together two pieces of material, or to any line or mark like this. The noun seam may also refer to a thin layer of coal, ore, etc. As a verb, seam means to join together to form a seam.

The verb seem means to appear or to give the impression of being something.

Examples

  • If you can sew a straight seam on a sewing machine, you can make a quilt in just a day or two.
     
  • "The shoulder seams of the man's blue waffle-weave jacket were visibly straining; around the brace was tied a necktie, which reached only a third of the way down his chest."
    (Gish Jen, "Birthmates." Ploughshares, 1995)
     
  • "Historical research is often rather like mining: the researcher finds a rich seam of 'ore' and keeps digging until the lode is exhausted."
    (John Tully, Silvertown. NYU Press, 2014)
     
  • After the attack, the battleship seemed to be spouting flames at every seam.
     
  • "Once she had pampered her students, singing them songs, letting them call her at home even, and ask personal questions. but now she was losing sympathy. They were beginning to seem different. They were beginning to seem demanding and spoiled."
    (Lorrie Moore, "You're Ugly, Too." The New Yorker, 1990)
     
  • "The street looks tremendous. People on the far side seem tiny and archaic, dwarfed by the great sky and the windy clouds like pedestrians in old prints."
    (Walker Percy, The Moviegoer, 1961)

     

    Idiom Alerts

    • Bursting at the Seams
      The expression bursting at the seams means very full or crowded.
      - "His long hair hung like rags in the heat; his clothes were much washed and faded to pastel colors. His suitcase, a canvas affair, repeated his worn appearance and was bursting at the seams."
      (Paul Theroux, The Great Railway Bazaar. Houghton Mifflin, 1975)

      - "The house burst at the seams, and hilarious pandemonium reigned. Chinese Lady, Emily and Tommy, up at six in the morning, had spent until ten o'clock preparing the wedding breakfast for fifty and more people."
      (Mary Jane Staples, Down Lambeth Way. Corgi, 1988)

       
    • Coming Apart at the Seams
      The idiom to come (or fall) apart at the seams means to be weak or in poor condition and close to the point of collapse.
      - "Looking around me in the months after my return from New York, I saw a city falling apart at the seams, torn by political strife and civil unrest, a city eaten alive by greed and envy."
      (Rupert Smith, I Must Confess. Cleis Press, 2007)

      - "Lepski hung up. He walked, heavy footed, out to his car and headed back to headquarters. He felt as if his ambitious little world had come apart at the seams."
      (James Hadley Chase, You Must Be Kidding. Robert Hale, 1979)


    Practice
     

    (a) Conflict and anger are often not about what they _____ to be about on the surface.

    (b) Marcie took out a penknife and ripped open the _____ of her jacket.

    (c) "Uncle Willie didn't _____ to notice that Mr. Taylor was oblivious to everything he said."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)
     

    Answers to Practice Exercises

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words

    200 Homonyms, Homophones, and Homographs

    Answers to Practice Exercises: Seam and Seem

    (a) Conflict and anger are often not about what they seem to be about on the surface.

    (b) Marcie took out a penknife and ripped open the seam of her jacket.

    (c) "Uncle Willie didn't seem to notice that Mr. Taylor was oblivious to everything he said."
    (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Random House, 1969)

     

    Glossary of Usage: Index of Commonly Confused Words