Q: Greetings from the OC, where “I seen” is a fairly common regionalism among people of all ages, socioeconomic levels, and walks of life. As in, “I seen him in concert.” I even heard it in a radio commercial. Has “I seen” gone mainstream?
A: The use of “seen” for “saw” isn’t just an Orange County, CA, regionalism. This dialectal usage is heard in much of the US, as well as in England, Scotland, and Ireland, though it’s not at all mainstream.
The Dictionary of American Regional English describes the usage as “widespread” in the US, tersely adding that it appears “esp freq among rural speakers and those with little formal educ.”
We’ll add that some formally educated speakers—rural, urban, and suburban—may be slurring the expression “I’ve seen” so that it sounds like “I seen.”
DARE has examples from across the country or, in the words of Woody Guthrie, “From California to the New York Island, From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters.”
Similarly, the English Dialect Dictionary has many regional examples from England, as well as a few from Scotland and Ireland.
In fact, the use of “seen” as the past tense of “see” is often found in the news media. We saw several thousand examples in a search of the News on the Web corpus, a large database of reports from online newspapers, broadcasters, and magazines.
However, most mainstream examples were quoting people in the news, as in this recent one from the Oct. 16, 2017, issue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “After I seen what I seen, you know I called the police.”
And here’s an example from an Oct. 9, 2017, broadcast on the local CBS TV station in New York City: “I seen where it was going, and my friends too.”
The earliest American example in DARE is from an 1818 letter by Henry Cogswell Knight, an Episcopal clergyman in Massachusetts, about his travels in the South and West:
“Some words are used, even by genteel people, from their imperfect educations, in a new sense; and others, by the lower classes in society, pronounced very uncouthly, as … I seen.” (Knight was writing about local speech in Kentucky.)
And here’s a citation from Widow Rugby’s Husband and Other Tales of Alabama, an 1851 collection of short stories by the American humorist Johnson Jones Hooper: “That’s the last time I seen my face.”
The most recent DARE example is from a 1997 report on “coal speak” in eastern Pennsylvania: “Seen: Commonly used instead of ‘saw.’ ‘Don’t tell me yiz wasn’t dere, I seen yiz wit my own eyes!’ ”
The earliest EDD example from the British Isles cites Tom Brown at Oxford, an 1861 novel by Thomas Hughes: “I seen em.” (The novel appeared serially two years earlier in Macmillan Magazine.)
Here’s a Scottish citation from the April 3, 1899, issue of the Glasgow Herald: “Dod aye, I seen him hanged.” And this Irish example is from Mrs. Martin’s Company and Other Stories (1896), by the Irish writer Jane Barlow: “She that seen it took.”
In addition to “seen,” DARE has examples for “see” and “seed” used in place of “saw” as the past tense of “see”:
“I see him yesterday, or I see him last week, for I saw him” (from the May 16, 1781, issue of the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, Philadelphia).
“List of Improprieties … Seed for Saw” (from The Columbian Grammar, 1795, by Benjamin Dearborn).
EDD includes many other regional British dialectal past tenses for “see,” including “saigh,” “seed,” “seigh,” “zeed,” and “zid.”
We’ll end with a “zid” example from Desperate Remedies, an 1871 novel by Thomas Hardy: “When I zid ’em die off so.” (The novel, published anonymously, was Hardy’s first to appear in print. A rejected earlier novel was never published.)