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”.

Material Clauses 4

Material clauses represent “a quantum of change…unfolding through distinct phases” (H & M, p.184). This unfolding necessarily has an outcome: “a change of some feature of one of the participants” (H & M, p.184). This outcome may be either creative or transformative.

In a creative type of clause, the Actor (in an intransitive clause) or the Goal (in a transitive clause) “is construed as being brought into existence as the process unfolds” (H & M, p.184):

  • Intransitive (What happened?) – Icicles formed.
  • Transitive (What did they do?) – They built a house.

In a transitive type of clause, the outcome is “the change of some aspect of an already existing Actor (intransitive) or Goal (transitive)” (H & M, p.185):

  • Intransitive (What happened to it?) – The icicles melted.
  •                        (What did he do?) – He ran away.
  • Transitive (What happened to it?) – The sun melted the icicles.
  •                     (What did they do to him?) – They chased him away.

The outcome of the transformation is an (1) elaboration, (2) extension or (3) enhancement of the Actor or Goal. For examples, see here.

As for EFL, I think this creative/transformative distinction could also help make the whole transitive/intransitive a bit clearer for students by focusing not just on the process (for example, by having a long list of tansitive and intransitive verbs) but also demonstrating the function of the Actor and the Goal in the unfolding of the clause.


Activity: relational & material Processes

Here is an activity I often do with Elementary or Pre-Intermediate students that gets them noticing and thinking about the difference between relational Processes which construe ‘states’, and material Processes construing change through time.

On a piece of paper, you need three columns: the middle column is blank while on either side there are opposing relational clauses (either written or visual), for example:

[The cup is empty]    [    blank    ]    [The cup is full]

The task for the students is to explain how the change in state occurred, which requires a material clause, such as, She is pouring the tea. This also gets students noticing that there is no ONE right answer but may be construed in many different ways: She is filling the cup, The cup is being filled, The tea is being poured, etc. Some other relational clauses I’ve used are: The water is cold/ The water is hot; He is in the hall/ He is in the living room; I have the pen/ She has the pen; The door is closed/ The door is open; She is on the platform/ She is on the train, etc.

For more advanced students, the activity may also be expanded to include choices involving transitive (She is filling the bottle) or intransitive (The bottle is filling up) clauses. The sequence may also be linked into one sentence with conjunction:

The cup was empty and then she filled it until it was full;


Relational Processes (1)

A typical EFL first lesson often includes self-introductions of the kind like:

My name is Taro. I am 12 years old. 

These clauses use relational Processes, which “serve to characterize and to identify” (H & M, p.210). These two categories may also be termed attributive, such as Taro characterized as a member of that class of beings called ’12 years olds’, and identifying, such as the identity of the person named ‘Taro’. Note the important difference between the two is that identifying relational clauses may be reversed (My name is Taro/ Taro is my name) whereas attributive clauses may not (I am 12/ *12 am I).

Within these two categories of attributive and identifying, we may also provide more information about Taro through three different types:

1. Intensive:  Taro is tall (attributive) / Taro is the tallest in the class; the tallest is Taro (identifying)

2. Possessive: Taro has a black bag (attributive) / The black bag is Taro’s; Taro’s is the black bag (identifying)

3. Circumstantial: Taro is at home (attributive) / Home is Tokyo; Tokyo is home (identifying)

Relational processes “prototypically construe change as unfolding ‘inertly’, without an input of energy” (H & M, p.211). They are construed as ‘static’ as opposed to material processes which are ‘dynamic’. Also, whereas material processes construe the world of ‘outer’ experience (Taro is watching TV) and mental processes construe ‘inner’ experience (Taro likes Conan), relational processes may construe both ‘outer’ (Taro is in the living room) and ‘inner’ (Taro is happy).


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.

Material Processes 2: Participants

Besides the Actor, there are “a number of other participant roles involved in the process of a material clause” (H & M, p.190).

  1. Scope: The lion crossed the field.

 2.  Recipient: I gave her a letter./ I gave a letter to her. This could also be metaphorical: The ranger sent a warning to the tourist/ The lion gave the tourist a bite on the leg.

3.  Client: I made myself a drink and one for her.

4.  Attribute: The lion ate the tourist clean.

Material Processes 1

Material clause construe “a quantum of change in the flow of events as taking place through some input of energy” (H & M, p.179). The unmarked tense is present-in-present (e.g. is doing). Material clauses answer the questions: What did X do? or What happened to X?

The material clause consists of one participant, the Actor, which “brings about the unfolding of the process through time” (H & M, p.180). The clause in its most basic form is Actor + Process to produce the intransitive clause:

  • The lion (Actor) ran (Process: material).

Alternatively, “the unfolding of the process may extend to another participant” (H & M, p.180), the Goal, to produce a transitive:

  • The lion (Actor) caught (Process: material) the tourist (Goal).

We may also add more information to both of these clauses with a Circumstance:

  • The lion (Actor) ran (Process) towards the tourist (Circumstance).
  • The lion (Actor) caught (Process) the tourist (Goal) quickly (Circumstance).

Note here the change in function of the word tourist.