The Grammarphobia Blog

They sore what they seen

Q: Is there a reason people use the pronunciation “sore” for “saw” or use “seen” instead of “saw,” as in “I sore her yesterday” or “I seen her last week”?

A: These are two entirely different issues, and they have different causes.

The use of what sounds like “sore” for “saw” is merely a regional pronunciation.

The speaker here is being grammatically correct, since he or she is actually using the word “saw” (and would write it that way), but is pronouncing it with a regional accent.

In this case, the accent represents a speech pattern often heard on the East Coast, and one that we’ve written about before on our blog.

As we wrote in 2008, the speaker inserts an “r” sound, sometimes called the intrusive “r.”

This “r” is sometimes inserted just before a word beginning with a vowel sound. So, for instance, the speaker would say, “That’s a bad idea” (normal pronunciation), but “That idear annoys me” (intrusive “r”).

As we’ve said, this pronunciation should not be considered a mistake, merely a regionalism.

The use of “I seen,” on the other hand, isn’t standard English; it’s a grammatical error.

The mistake is using the past participle (“seen,” the form used with “have” or “had”) instead of the simple past tense (“saw”).

The basic tense forms for the verb “see” are “I see” (present), “I saw” (past), “I have seen” (present perfect), and “I had seen” (past perfect).

Interestingly, “saw” has been spelled may different ways since it showed up in Old English, suggesting that its pronunciation has varied too.

The word is spelled “saeh” in the Lindisfarne Gospel of John, which is believed to date from the early 700s. Some other early spellings in the Oxford English Dictionary are “seah,” “sauh,” “saue,” and “sawhe.”

The use of “I seen” for “I saw” may not be standard English (the OED describes it as colloquial and dialectal), but it’s been around for quite a while.

The earliest Oxford example of the usage is from the Sept. 30, 1796, issue of the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper: “So fine a sight (says Yankee to his friend) I swear I never seen—you may depend.”

And here’s an 1861 example from Tom Brown at Oxford, a sequel to the better-known Thomas Hughes novel Tom Brown’s School Days: “ ‘Hev’ee seed aught o’ my bees?’ … ‘E’es, I seen ’em.’ ”

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