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I've been teaching English in France for a year now and am amazed at how often I am having to consider how my own language works. The nuances come thick and fast.

Here is the current question I'm pondering:

If I stand in my garden why do I lean towards saying, "I can see flowers," rather than "I see flowers"?

It seems as though the context changes the construction. If someones asks me, "What can you see?" or, "What do you see?" I will answer with the same construction. However, "can" seems erroneous. If I see then obviously I can see. Is there an actual difference or is there simply a subtle current common usage which I have assimilated?

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Using "can" here is not necessarily erroneous. Yes, obviously you can see if you [do] see, but those do not mean exactly the same thing. Saying "I can see flowers" places the emphasis on the ability to see flowers, perhaps as a product of a particular vantage point, time of day, or other situation, in contrast with a situation in which I cannot see flowers (e.g. "I can see flowers from the east window" or "I can see flowers when I close my eyes"). "I see flowers," on the other hand, is merely a statement of fact.

The answer to the questions "What can you see?" and "What do you see?" are not the same, when phrased as a complete sentence. Conversationally, one would probably just say "flowers" in response, but "I can see flowers" or "I [do] see flowers" as a complete answer to those two questions, respectively.

  • I agree that "I can see flowers" is situational. I'm unlikely to say, "I can see flowers" while standing in a flower garden in the middle of June, but I may say it as an exclamation in early April when the newly-blooming daffodils are a sign that the long winter is at last subsiding into spring. – J.R. May 13 at 15:17
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What do you see? It's enough to say " I see flowers." When saying "I can see flowers," then "can" is redundant but not necessary wrong.

What can you see? means "What are you able to see?" You can say "I can see flowers." You can omit "can" and just say "I see flowers."

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