Difference between ‘look’, ‘watch’ and ‘see’

For me, one of the advantages of using Systemic Functional Linguistics in class is being able to answer clearly all those common EFL questions that generally pop up, especially ‘What’s the difference between…?’-type questions.

One of the most common is the difference between ‘look’, ‘see’ and ‘watch’, as in this (made up) example:

I wanted to watch TV yesterday so I looked through the TV guide but saw nothing interesting

The difference between them is often answered semantically by bringing in vague notions of intentionality, which I’ve never found to be particularly helpful. It is actually quite clear when looking at the transitivity:

  • Watch – is a material Process. It describes an action that unfolds through time and so usually takes the present-in-present: “I’m watching TV”.
  • Look – is a behavioural Process. It construes physiological behaviour and generally takes a Circumstance: “I’m looking in the TV guide”.
  • See – is a mental Process. It takes place within the world of our consciousness, our perception of events around us. The unmarked tense is thus simple present and it is also able to project an additional clause: “I see there’s nothing on TV again”.

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