Yeah, I Seen Her (That is to say I Saw Her…)

 I seen that guy yesterday.

I done a lot of work yesterday.

Reading those sentences in your head might drive you crazy. Such terrible grammar!, you might say to yourself. And yes, they are grammatically incorrect. They should be, of course:

I saw that guy yesterday.

I did a lot of work yesterday.

What interests me about such utterances is: how wrong are they really, and why do people get so annoyed by them? First, let’s look at how exactly they’re wrong.

The two sentences are examples of the past simple tense, referring to a discrete action in the past. To construct this tense, we need a subject (I in both these cases) and a past simple form of a verb (to see becomes saw, to do becomes did). We might also have an object of that verb, and quite possibly a time indicator like yesterday.

The mistake people make with the past simple is to use the past participle form of the verb (seen, done) instead of the past simple form (saw, did).The past participle form (or third form, as in do/did/done, see/saw/seen, run/ran/run) is used in a variety of forms, but most commonly in the present perfect simple tense, which looks like this:

I’ve seen that guy.

A plane has crashed in Ecuador.

I’ve lived in Galway all my life.

The present perfect simple tense is quite similar to the past simple as both refer to the past. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably. The main difference is that with the present perfect simple, there’s always a relationship with the present. We could be talking about a state beginning in the past and continuing to the present and beyond (I’ve lived in Galway all my life), focussing on the present result of a past action (I’ve painted the room red: isn’t it nice?), a finished action that’s still of interest (A plane has crashed in Ecuador), or a finished action at an unspecified time in the past (I’ve seen that guy).

Any confusion between the past simple and present perfect simple is fairly understandable to me, as they’re structurally and conceptually similar. This similarity is particularly evident in the case of regular verbs, whose past simple and past participle forms are identical (e.g. walk/walked/walked, work/worked/worked [isn’t that a Rihanna song?], call/called/called). Couple this with the fact that we normally contract I have… or She has… to I’ve… or She’s… and the two tenses barely sound different at all.

So that’s why people make these errors, but are they so bad? For me, not really. Grammar is defined pretty well by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

The whole system and structure of a language or of languages in general, usually taken as consisting of syntax and morphology (including inflections) and sometimes also phonology and semantics.

In terms of syntax, saying I seen him is ok, as the words are all in the correct order. The error is really one of morphology: using the wrong form of the word. So it is an error, but not an egregious one. The words are all in the right order, and they’re basically all the right words too: it’s just that one of them is the wrong form. Even then, we’ve already seen how conceptually similar the past participle and past simple forms of verbs are. The real litmus test for how important a grammar error is: do you understand what the person is saying? I can’t imagine any way someone would have trouble understanding I done a lot of work yesterday.

So why does this error annoy people then? I think at its most basic level, it’s simply a case of not liking to hear something different from what we say. We know in our head that saying I saw… is correct, so when we hear I seen… it’s abhorrent and we therefore have to insist that it’s wrong. Even if we know what the person means, and can’t articulate why exactly it’s wrong (I firmly believe that to qualify to criticise a grammar mistake you have to be able to explain why it’s wrong, and display your blemish-free grammar record).

I think there’s also a class element involved too. This error is always used as a shorthand in fiction for a stereotypical, unsophisticated, blue-collar schmuck. And there probably is some correlation between socio-economic background and tendency to say I seen… or I done… In most English-speaking countries, if you’re from a less-privileged background you’re less likely to have the same level of educational attainment as others, and therefore to be taught the “correct” way to construct sentences. You’re also less likely to read as much as someone from a more privileged background, and therefore be exposed to standard grammatical forms. This is all very general of course, and there are still plenty of people from deprived areas who speak impeccably, just as there are plenty of “educated” people who have no capacity for clear communication. Certainly in Ireland the seen/done error is so widespread that I don’t think it can entirely be attributed to class (there may be other more specific connotations to saying I seen/done in other countries that I’m not qualified to comment on, but please feel free enlighten me below).

Still though, people on both sides of the fence reinforce their sense of self through how they speak: They say I saw/I seen and we don’t, and that’s just another sign of how different we are from them, and of how we therefore shouldn’t mix. Which is sad, but it seems like such tribalism is a pretty fundamental aspect of human psychology. It is a pity though, because regardless of whether we say I seen or I saw, we can still perfectly understand someone who uses the other form. I think it’s a great example of how so many different versions of English can all exist alongside each other, and be used to communicate across different lines. Though its not going to be taught in any grammar books, I think I seen/done is a perfectly valid non-standard form of English which doesn’t hamper communication. Sadly though, it’s all too easy to use it to define ourselves against someone else, to say who or what we’re not.

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