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Today’s two words are different inflections of the same verb, dealing with visual sight. Verb endings and verbs tenses are one of the most confusing topics for English speakers, so don’t feel bad if you need a refresher.
A quick note before we begin, there are other meanings to these words, such as a cutting saw, but, today, we are only going to deal with the sense of visual eyesight.
When to Use Saw
Saw is the past tense of the verb see. It forms the simple past, which is used to express an action that has started and finished at a specific time in the past.
- I saw Star Wars yesterday.
- We saw the parade this morning.
- He saw her jogging on the sidewalk in the afternoon.
As you can see with all of these examples, the action that takes place is over and done with. I saw Star Wars yesterday. That event is over and done with; it isn’t ongoing.
There doesn’t always have to be a specific time mentioned in the simple past, but the speaker generally has one in mind.
- The security camera saw the burglars.
- John saw the accident take place.
One important note about saw is that it can be used as a standalone verb; it doesn’t need a helping verb.
- I saw you.
- You saw me.
There is no need for a helping verb, which is important when comparing seen vs. saw.
When to Use Seen
Seen is the past participle of the verb see, and it is used to form the perfect tenses: present perfect, past perfect, etc. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry. It is explained below
The easiest way to tell which word is correct and which is incorrect is that seen must have alongside it a helping verb. Past participles cannot appear by themselves in a sentence.
- I saw the movie. (Correct)
- I seen the movie. (Wrong)
Instead, past participles need what we call helping verbs to form the perfect tenses.
- I seen the movie. (Wrong)
- I have seen the movie. (Correct)
If you see the word seen all by itself, you know a mistake has been made.
Seen with the Present Perfect Tense
The present perfect tense is formed by the words has/have + the past participle.
- She has seen you around here before.
- We have seen all that we need to see.
It is important to note that you cannot use the present perfect tense with specific time expressions.
Instead, it is used to describe an action that has happened at an unspecified time before now or one where the action extends to the present.
- I have seen this happen all my life.
In this example, it is described as a past (and ongoing) event that leads up until the present. In such cases, the participle verb (seen) acts as a connector from the past to the present.
Let’s look at one more example.
- I have seen this play last week. (Wrong)
This example is an incorrect use of the present perfect tense. The verb formation itself is fine (have seen), but last week refers to a specific moment in the past, which the present perfect tense cannot do because there is no connection between the past and present. It is acting as the simple past should and deals with an event that is over, completed, and definite.
Instead, let’s change last week to a different word.
- I have seen this play before. (Correct)
This sentence is correct. The word before is an unspecified time and simply means that you have seen the movie at somewhere in the past up through the present. You could have seen it last week; you could have seen it last year.
The point is, however, that is it unspecific and bridges the gap between the past and the present. At some point between all things past and where we are now, you saw the play.
Seen in the Past Perfect Tense
The past perfect tense is formed by the word had + the past participle.
The past perfect tense is used to describe the idea that something occurred before another action in the past.
- I had already seen the movie twice before seeing it tonight.
- I had never seen such a gorgeous landscape before I went to Bengaluru.
In other words, if you are talking about a past event and need to go further into the past to talk about something else, that is what the past perfect tense is used for.
Trick to Remember the Difference
The best way to keep track of saw vs. seen is to use the trick mentioned above.
Saw should never appear with a helping verb in front of it and stands alone.
- I saw you.
- You saw me.
Seen is the exact opposite; it cannot appear without a helping verb and never stands alone.
- I have seen you.
- You have seen me.
The differences in meaning between these two examples are outlined above.
Is it saw or seen? While these two verbs forms are sometimes mixed up, they are pretty easy to keep track of.
Saw is used with the simple past. It can stand alone and doesn’t appear with helping verbs.
Seen is a past participle and forms the perfect tenses. It cannot stand alone and must always appear with a helping verb.
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