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Grammar books say that when we are talking about being able to see something, the verb see is used in the present simple. But in the 11th episode of the 3rd episode of Friends, Chandler used it in the present continuous. Here is the scene. It's at around 38 seconds.

Joey’s Sisters: (entering) Joey!!! Happy Birthday!! (all 7 of them look almost identical)

Joey: Hey!! Hey-hey-hey!

Chandler: (to Monica) Okay, how many of that girl are you seeing?

Monica: How hammered are you? Huh? These, these are Joey’s sisters.

Would the meaning somehow change if Chandler said how may of the girls can you see? If it wouldn't change, then can I am seeing and I can see be used interchangably? For example:

I can see a bird in the distance.

I am seeing a bird in the distance.

  • They're definitely not interchangeable. If you start saying I am seeing instead of I can see, people will notice you're talking like a foreigner. I can't explain how it works grammatically, but Chandler's use of the continuous here serves to convey the question: "do you the same thing I see?" See here for a similar use of see in the present continuous. – Peter Shor Jun 17 at 11:32
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Verbs of sensation or inner state are usually used in the present simple, as you say.

But they can be used in the continuous, putting emphasis on the fact that the seeing (or whatever) is going on right at this moment. Often (but not always) there is an implication that it has not been going on up to that moment, or will not be going on after.

So, in the example, he could have asked "How many of that girl can you see?" (more idiomatic than "do you see", but that's a different issue). But the question "How many of that girl are you seeing?" puts emphasis on the fact that it is seeing at that moment that he is talking about. This suggests that it is something remarkable (as it is). Monica thinks he's drunk ("hammered"), and perhaps he too is doubting his own sight: perhaps he's thinking "at this moment I can see seven of her. Perhaps in a moment my eyesight will go back to normal and I'll only see one".

[All the replies about the use of "seeing somebody" to mean "dating" are correct, but I don't think they apply in this case]

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  • Yes, it's an issue of 'at that/this moment' / 'right now' – squidlydeux Jun 17 at 12:41
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If someone is seeing double, there is something wrong with their visual perception that causes them to 'see' two images of the object they are looking at. The brain is not combining the images from the two eyes as it should.

Presumably Chandler is jokingly suggesting that he has a disorder causing him to see the same person seven times.

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I am seeing (someone) would imply that you are dating that person: "He is seeing Jessica" or "I have been seeing Jessica for the past month". Alternatively it could just mean meeting someone, for example "I am seeing a doctor later today".

A case where "I am seeing" would imply visually looking might be "I cannot believe what I am seeing". Even the phrase "I am not seeing something here" would not be taken literally and rather interpreted as meaning that you were missing the point of something.

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I think it has two functions; the first being a stative verb in " how many girls can you see?". The second being a dynamic verb (or action verb) in " how many of that girl are you seeing?" meaning dating or going out with.

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