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I'm reading a book about most common mistakes in English by Polish speakers (written by George Sliva, a British native speaker).

As an example of a common mistake he gave a sentence:

"In this picture I can see an old woman watching TV."

and explained:

Almost every person taking an FCE Speaking Test starts describing a photo with this sentence. I have never heard any native speaker use that expression, it sounds very awkward or even funny. It's like saying "I can see because I have eyes".

Instead, use one of the following:

"There's an old woman watching TV."

"The picture shows an old woman watching TV."

[it's my translation, the book is in Polish]

However, I have found many sources that suggest using that expression, for instance:

If you are asked to describe a photo or a picture in the exam, here is some language you can use:

In the picture I can see...

https://learnenglishteens.britishcouncil.org/exams/speaking-exams/describe-photo-or-picture

I also have found some similiar cases in Corpus of Contemporary American English:

Dan Cooke, KITV, Honolulu Prediction: Looking at the satellite picture I can see some strong tan lines developing on the beach at Waikiki.

[source: Weather Forecast, USA Today]

He makes a right onto an indistinguishable dirt road (...) and we bump along through the woods until we come to a bosky clearing of giant ferns (...) In my side mirror I can see the buck's hooves, crossed like a ballerina's, bouncing along.

[source: Jay Kirk, Harpers Magazine]

I'm quite confused. Does that expression sound unnatural for native speakers or is it just not very common?

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  • Hello Adrian. Welcome to ELL. It is a very proper framed question for a first-timer. Good job! – Dhanishtha Ghosh Dec 1 '20 at 14:42
  • The expression "I can see..." about a picture, mirror, the TV etc, is very normal and natural. Are you quite sure this George Sliva person is a native English speaker? What are his credentials? – Michael Harvey Dec 1 '20 at 15:27
  • The phrase would be used more when picking out details in the picture than when you simply say what it's a picture of. – Kate Bunting Dec 1 '20 at 17:58
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It is true that if you're talking about the main figure in a picture or scene, you would generally not use "I can see." Instead, it is added for emphasis or to convey some sense that you are paying attention to a particular part of a scene. The type of emphasis could vary quite widely depending on context, but it is generally about the viewer's experience of seeing or ability to see.

For example, if you are looking at Vincent Van Gogh's famous painting of sunflowers, it would sound strange to say, "In this painting, I can see a vase of sunflowers." This sounds unnecessary because of course you can see sunflowers - that's the subject of the painting! It would be more natural to say, "This is a painting of a vase of sunflowers." On the other hand, it does sound natural to say, "In this painting, I can see how the brushwork was used to portray light and shadow." Here, the phrase I can see is being used to show that you're paying particular attention to the artist's technique, rather than the actual subject of the painting.

Looking at your examples in particular:

If you are asked to describe a photo or a picture in the exam, here is some language you can use:

In the picture I can see...

Looking at the link, it looks like they're asking you to describe a picture in detail, so the I can see is placed in the sentence to emphasize that this is your subjective experience as you are scanning the picture, taking it in detail by detail. Going back to Van Gogh's sunflowers, you might say,

In this painting of sunflowers, I can see that some are very fresh while others are almost overblown. I can also see that the vase, the table, the background are all shades of yellow to match the flowers rather than contrasting with them.

The next example:

Dan Cooke, KITV, Honolulu Prediction: Looking at the satellite picture I can see some strong tan lines developing on the beach at Waikiki.

Here, see is being used in a figurative sense. The newscaster cannot literally "see" individual people's tan lines on a satellite picture of Honolulu. Instead, he's saying that, based on the current weather, he can predict that there will be people getting tanned on the beach. Essentially, see is being used as a synonym of foresee.

And your final example:

He makes a right onto an indistinguishable dirt road (...) and we bump along through the woods until we come to a bosky clearing of giant ferns (...) In my side mirror I can see the buck's hooves, crossed like a ballerina's, bouncing along.

Here, the emphasis is on the word can, stressing the writer's ability to see. A car's side mirror is fairly small, so the passenger has to be paying particular attention to it to see what is reflected in it, and it is only going to reflect a particular angle of view. This have to be aligned precisely to see an object. So this final sentence essentially has the meaning:

I looked at the car's side mirror and it was aligned so that I could see the buck's hooves.

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  • Thanks for your detailed answer! It's much clearer to me now. – Adrian Ciechalski Dec 2 '20 at 16:44

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