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According to the Oxford learner's dictionary, "see somebody" mean "to spend time with somebody". It does not say the 2 have a romantic relationship or not, so I reckon the 2 could be just friends or couples.

Say, Tom and Mary are just friends nothing more. They like to talk with each other, they they are never in love with each other.

Can we say "Tom has been seeing Mary for a while" in that situation?

Does the phrase "Tom has been seeing Mary for a while" always imply they have a romantic relationship?

To remove the confusion, do you think we just say "Tom has been hanging out with Mary for a while" or the likes?

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    My experience is that people's understanding of expressions relating to romance or sex is very strongly biased by their own personal experience and expectations, so unless you write a completely 100% explicit sentence, different people will always interpret it differently.
    – Stef
    Sep 11, 2023 at 10:01
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    If Mary is a doctor, psychiatrist, or other personal service provider, Tom seeing Mary can also mean availing himself of her services regularly. Sep 11, 2023 at 11:04
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    Since this site is for learning English, I point out that using "2" instead of "two" in this context is quite jarring. See here and here for citations. Sep 13, 2023 at 5:16

3 Answers 3

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Without any context, the sentence "Tom has been seeing Mary for a while" would strongly imply that they had a romantic relationship. In the dictionary entry that you cite, the only example that uses the progressive aspect of "see" with a person as the direct object is the first ("Are you seeing anyone"), and the dictionary notes that the meaning is "having a romantic relationship with anyone". It's quite unlikely that a listener would understand that "Tom and Mary are just friends nothing more".

However, if we knew that Mary was a psychotherapist, then your sentence would indicate that Tom had attended therapy sessions with her for a while. (This was suggested by gidds in a comment below.) Other meanings are also possible in other contexts.

Yes, you could say, "Tom has been hanging out with Mary for a while", but the verb "hang out" is more colloquial than "see". If you didn't want to change the tone so much, then a better option might be "spend time with".

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    If they are both young people - say 18 to 25, the more likely expression for a developing romance would be "Tom is going out with Mary". "Seeing" I believe gets used with older people - at least that's my UK sense.
    – WS2
    Sep 11, 2023 at 5:35
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    @WS2 - Perhaps I'm a very old person, but my impression is that seeing someone meaning 'in a romantic relationship with them' is a comparatively recent usage! Sep 11, 2023 at 8:48
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    @KateBunting - when I started having anything to do with the opposite sex, around 1968, if a regular arrangement ensued it was definitely called 'going out with'. Sep 11, 2023 at 9:13
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    As an illustration of why this may not be true in specific contexts, consider that Mary may be a psychoanalyst, and so Tom's ‘seeing her’ may consist of sessions of psychoanalysis, and their relationship would be entirely professional. Or Mary could be providing some other service, such as hairdressing or dentistry or accountancy or music lessons. — However, without knowing any such context, a romantic relationship would be a reasonable assumption.
    – gidds
    Sep 11, 2023 at 14:09
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    Strictly speaking, it could also be literal, given the right context: "Tom loves creepily watching people with binoculars from his balcony without their knowledge. He's been seeing Mary for a while." What it cannot mean is that they're platonic friends who frequently hang out together.
    – neminem
    Sep 11, 2023 at 17:09
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Depending on context "seeing" could be in a professional capacity i.e. Mary is a psychiatrist, doctor, hairdresser, personal trainer, etc.

However, lacking additional context, I would assume romantically, as it is the most common usage.

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    When would a client or patient refer to a professional/doctor by only their first name? It's more likely "I'm seeing Dr. Baker this morning" followed by "I've been seeing him for a while" You would have to be long term friends with a dentist, family physician (etc.) to be on first names basis.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 13, 2023 at 5:16
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    @Mari-LouA: Pick a profession that's associated with less formality, then. Hairdresser, life coach, personal trainer, piano teacher, etc. still have one-on-one sessions with clients. Easy to imagine someone preferring to be professionally known by their first name in some of those fields. Sep 13, 2023 at 5:42
  • @PeterCordes How often would anyone say about their hairdresser "I've been seeing Mary for a while?" Its more likely "Mary's been cutting my hair/giving me piano lessons/teaching me for a while“ If you began saying "I've been seeing Mary for a few months" 99% people will presume a romantic relationship.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Sep 13, 2023 at 6:02
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    @Mari-LouA: Yeah, without context, romantic is the default meaning. For a context where another meaning is clear, imagine 2 people chatting, one recommending a hairdresser to another. The phrase "I've been seeing Mary for a while" could easily come up after the subject of hairdressing is established. Or a third person chiming in that they've also been seeing Mary after the subject of Mary as a hairdresser has been raised, as an implicit recommendation, not as a statement about their love life. Sep 13, 2023 at 6:09
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    @Mari-LouA That was the entire point of this particular answer.
    – MikeB
    Nov 23, 2023 at 10:14
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Yes, "seeing" means "having a romantic relationship with". Well, unless the context calls for it to be taken literally. Like, "Once he got new glasses, Tom could see Mary."

If you wanted to say that they were friends but not romantically involved, you could say, "Tom and Mary are friends" or "Tom and Mary spend a lot of time together."

But note that the idiom "sees a lot of", like, "Tom sees a lot of Mary lately", does NOT necessarily indicate a romantic relationship. You could say, "Since they both started working for the same company, Tom and Mary see a lot of each other."

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