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”.

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).

Mental Processes

Mental clauses “are concerned with our experience of the world of our own consciousness” (H & M, p.197). Mental clauses consist of a Sensor, which is a human participant, and a Phenomenon:

Mary (Sensor) liked (Process: mental) the gift (Phenomenon)

Alternatively, this example may also be construed as:

The gift (Phenomenon) pleased (Process: mental) Mary (Sensor)

There are, therefore, two directions of mental Process: those that emanate from the Sensor (‘like’-type) or those that impinge upon the Sensor (‘please’-type). More examples can be seen here. As well as this, mental Processes may be divided into four distinct types:

  1. Perceptive – He saw the car
  2. Cognitive – He knows the car
  3. Desiderative – He wants the car
  4. Emotive – He likes the car

The Phenomenon may be a thing, as in ‘the gift’ above, or it may be an act or a fact. In the case of the Phenomenon as thing, this may also be metaphorical:

Amnesty (Sensor) found (Process: mental) persistent abuses (Phenomenon)

Where the Phenomenon is an act (termed macrophenomenal clauses) it is usually realized by a non-finite clause and the Process is usually restricted to those of perception:

He (Sensor) saw (Process: mental) [[the sand dredger heading for the cruiser]] (Phenomenon)

The macrophenomenonal Phenomenon may also function as Subject, yet it is usually only the Subject of the non-finite clause that is picked out rather than the whole Phenomenon:

The sand dredger was seen heading for the cruiser

Where the Phenomenon is a fact (termed metaphenomenal clauses) it is typically realized by a finite clause:

I (Sensor) can see (Process: mental) this town is going to hell fast (Phenomenon)

(All examples from H & M, p.200-205)

One further option available to mental clauses that distinguish them from both material and relational ones is the ability to project another clause as an idea, as in this Peanuts cartoon where Charles and Linus project their ideas and opinions (underline) using mental Processes (bold) (but I don’t actually know how to embed a cartoon in here) –

Charlie: You know Linus, I admit I can see some value in this blanket business…It seems to put you in a mood for contemplation…I imagine it really quiets your mind so you can think about things…

Linus: On the contrary. I find that, to be done properly, sucking your thumb and holding your blanket requires complete concentration!


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.