Saw vs. Seen

I had a request to do “saw” and “seen.” Most people tend to inherently know when to say “seen” or “saw.” For example, I’m sure several of you know enough not to say “I seen that movie.” The issue comes in when people try to explain WHY they don’t say that. This post is to help you better understand the difference and to help you explain it to others!

NOTE: The picture is of a see-saw! Get it? 😀


“Saw” is the simple past tense form of “see.” It is something that happened in the past and is over and done with. For example, “I saw the movie yesterday.” We know that you’re referring to the past–yesterday, to be exact–and that you’re referring to a particular moment in the past.


“Seen” is the past participle of “see.” Past participles cannot be used on their own in a sentence; they need what we call an auxiliary, or “helper,” verb. In this case, “seen” would be connected to the “has” words–“has,” “have,” or “had.” The participle verb form connects the past to the present. For example, saying “I have seen the movie yesterday” would be incorrect. The verb form is being used correctly (“have seen”), but the word “yesterday” refers to a specific moment in the past–it does not connect the past to the present, right? So let’s take out “yesterday” and replace it with something else: “I have seen the movie before.” This means that somewhere in the past up through the present, you saw the movie. It could be when you were one year old or yesterday, but you have seen the movie before. Also, please note that “has” follows the same structure, but is used with the third person point of view (he/she).

In conclusion

That’s the basic gist of “saw” and “seen.” If you want to use “seen,” you need to use a helper verb with it–“I seen” is incorrect. If you want to understand verb forms better, check out my grammar guide on Verb Tenses. Good luck!

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.


  1. I know this was posted about a year ago. I’m hoping that by making a post now, I’d still get a response from you. First, I ‘d like to establish that I’m perfectly content with present perfect tense. But with the example you used in your blog has gotten me stumped because if I had seen the movie when I was one years old or yesterday, wouldn’t it be correct to write: “had seen the movie before”? Or do I need to take out the word “before” if I want to established that I saw the movie sometime in past but no longer in the present?

    • “Had seen” would be the past perfect tense, which means the event started at some point in the past and ends at another point in the past. In my post, I–unfortunately–didn’t explain why you can’t use “yesterday” with the present perfect “have seen” but can use “before.” “Yesterday” indicates a moment that started and ended in the past. “Have seen,” being present perfect, indicates a moment that started in the past and ends in an unspecific period of time–up through the present. Since “before” is relatively vague, the present perfect works.

      Now with the particular example you mention, you don’t necessarily need the word “before”–but you can use it if you want. Since it’s past perfect, even if you use the word “before,” it means it ended in the past. If you saw it when you were one year old, you’re no longer one (I think! ;-)), so you would use “had seen.”

      Hope that helps! 😀 Sorry the post wasn’t clearer.

  2. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question. It certainly was most helpful. I re-read your post, and to tell you the truth, your examples are fine. So, no harm, no foul 🙂

    • If you read through my earlier comments, someone else asked a quasi-similar question and I clarified my post.

      “Have seen” is the present perfect tense. It begins in the past, but it can end in any unspecified time up through the present. As such, it can end in the present and uses the present tense auxiliary verb (i.e. “have”). “Had seen” is the past perfect. It begins and ends in the past. It cannot continue through to the present. Ergo, we use “had”–the past tense auxiliary verb.

      Using “have” allows us a sense of un-specificity, which can be quite helpful at times. If I say, “Have you seen this movie before” its lack of concrete time frame allows the person to answer in a particular way. Whether the person saw it when he were three or the person is walking out of the movie theatre as we speak, it still works within the present perfect time frame.

  3. This is just a followup on these comments from last month.

    It’s my understanding that the use of “had seen” is reserved for situations not only ending in the past but also relative to a later past point. So, in the case of this movie we keep seeing, if I said, “I had seen this movie before,” the “before” would have to refer to some point later than when I saw the movie, but already referenced in the conversation, perhaps in the question I’m being asked. For instance, if someone asked me, “By the time you got to the airport, had you seen Sally?” this would be correct…right? The second point, “the time I got to the airport” is definite, and the first point, “seeing Sally” is indefinite, but earlier.

    (I’m beginning to confuse myself but I’ll wrap up…) So isn’t it that all past perfect verbs taking “have” as an auxiliary verb use “had” as an indicator of relation between an indefinite point in the past and a later, definite point?

  4. I found your post helpful. I have been seeking for better examples to define “saw” and “seen.” This post is by far the best one to come across!

  5. Sorry, but my head hurts from all this grammar! >_<

    Today a colleague showed me a sentence.

    It said,

    'It was the best movie I have ever seen'.

    The textbook said that was the right answer.

    A student had written the answer as:

    'It was the best movie I HAD ever seen'.

    My colleague then asked me why it was wrong. If the sentence has 'was' in there, shouldn't the student's sentence be correct?

    I couldn't give her a satisfactory explanation because I'm not sure myself!

    Please help!

  6. Well the situation you discuss, Monique, is something I didn’t really cover in this post.

    By saying, “had seen” in your example–it is not connecting to “was”–it illustrates that you’re pretty much never going to see another movie again. All the movies you saw were in the past and in the past they shall remain.

    However, by saying “have seen,” you create a realm of flexibility. It was the best movie in the past and up to the present (and possibly in the future too).

    “Had seen” is much more limiting than “have seen.” It’s contained solely in the past. As such, with your example, we want to show that it’s the best movie up until NOW, and thus use the present perfect.

    Hope that helps!

    • These are, technically, correct but are written in passive voice. In the US, passive construction is atypical and generally avoided except in legal documents, etc. That may be more typical of British English, perhaps.

  7. “In the US, passive construction is atypical and generally avoided except in legal documents, etc.”

    Are you being ironic here, or did you simply not notice that you had used passive construction?

    • /facepalm

      Frankly, I don’t have any problems with passive voice. I LIKE passive voice, which may be due to lots and lots of convoluted academic writing and reading. But yeah, I didn’t notice. 😀

  8. It happens all the time. ;-D I like passive voice too, which is why I never tell people not to use it. Most of the time, when teachers are pointing out the horror of passive voice in classes, they use the passive voice to do so. The whole rule is silly.

    Shameless plug time: Check out my YouTube channel if you’d like, I teach English there through a web series called “Plain English.”

    I actually talked about “saw vs. seen” today. Cheers.

  9. Hey, I had read through all your explanations. But there is something still confuse me. What’s the difference between ”saw” and ”had seen” then?

  10. Pretty insightful publish. Never believed that it was this simple after all. I had spent a excellent deal of my time looking for someone to explain this subject clearly and you’re the only 1 that ever did that. Kudos to you! Keep it up

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