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”.

Behavioural Processes 1

Behavioural processes construe “(typically human) physiological and psychological behaviour, like breathing, coughing, smiling, dreaming and staring” (H & M, p248). The participant who is ‘behaving’, typically a conscious being, is labelled the behaver (H & M, p250).

I’ve noticed that in some ESL teaching behavioural Processes are often lumped in with material ones. This does make it easier for students, but it may also be slightly misleading. Characteristically, behavioural clauses are partly material (the unmarked tense is the present-in-present) but also partly mental (we do find non-habitual present tense – Why do you laugh?). I think also for students it’s important to point out that “certain types of circumstance are associated with behavioural processes” (H & M, p251). Here is an example from the BNC:

   1284 Stok looked at me blankly — still listening through the wall — and nodded

Students will often interpret the Circumstance as Goal, producing *He looked me. A simple way to introduce this is using a picture of a party and describing the varous behaviours and the associated Circumstances.



The second element in the figure of the clause as representation is the Participants, which “are inherent in the process: every experiential type of clause has at least one participant” (H & M, p.175). The type of participant (bold) is dependent on the process (underlined) involved:

1. Actor + Process: material – The lion ran.

2. Senser + Process: mental The tourist noticed the lion.

3a. Carrier + Process: relational + AttributeThe lion was hungry. 

3b. Token + Process: relational + ValueThe lion was the king of the jungle.

4. Behaver + Process: behavioural The tourist screamed.

5. Sayer + Process: verbalThe police announced there would be a search.

6. Existent + Process: existential – There was no trace.