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Saw vs. Seen: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Harlon Moss || Published on January 4, 2024
Saw is the past tense of "see," used to describe an action of seeing that happened in the past. Seen is the past participle of "see," used in perfect tenses and requires an auxiliary verb.

Key Differences

"Saw" is the simple past tense form of "see," used to describe an action that occurred in the past. "Seen" is the past participle form of "see," used in perfect tenses (like present perfect, past perfect) and always requires an auxiliary verb such as "have" or "had."
"Saw" is used in sentences where the action of seeing is completed in the past with no connection to the present. "Seen" implies an action that has been completed at some point in the past but is relevant to the present or is a part of a larger time frame.
An example using "saw": "I saw a movie last night." This sentence indicates a completed action in the past. For "seen": "I have seen that movie before," which suggests the person saw the movie at some unspecified time in the past, with relevance to the present.
"Saw" stands alone as the main verb in a sentence in past tense. "Seen," however, cannot stand alone as a main verb; it must be accompanied by an auxiliary verb to form a complete verb phrase.
The usage of "saw" is straightforward in past narratives, while "seen" is used to express experiences or actions without specifying when they happened, as long as they have relevance to the present or the speaker’s experience.

Comparison Chart


Simple past tense
Past participle

Auxiliary Verb Required

Yes, requires an auxiliary verb like "have"

Example Usage

"I saw a bird."
"I have seen a bird."

Time Reference

Specific past moment
Any time in the past with present relevance

Function in a Sentence

Main verb
Part of a verb phrase with an auxiliary verb

Saw and Seen Definitions


Past tense of "see," indicating the act of perceiving by sight in the past.
She saw a rainbow yesterday.


Indicates having the experience of seeing something at an unspecified time before now.
She has seen that movie three times.


A simple past form used in narratives or descriptions of past events.
We saw the sun set over the ocean.


Used to express the completion of the action of seeing in relation to another time.
By the time I arrived, he had already seen the document.


Used to describe an event or object that was visually perceived in the past.
They saw a play at the theater last weekend.


Past participle of "see," used with auxiliary verbs in perfect tenses.
I have seen many changes in this city.


Indicates a past visual experience without connection to the present.
I saw an old friend at the reunion.


Suggests a visual experience that is relevant to the present or ongoing situation.
The ideas we've seen in this project are innovative.


Expresses the completion of the action of seeing at a specific time in the past.
He saw the error in his calculations immediately.


A form used to link past visual experiences to the present context.
They have seen better days.


Any of various tools, either hand-operated or power-driven, having a thin metal blade or disk with a sharp, usually toothed edge, used for cutting wood, metal, or other hard materials.


Past participle of see1.


A familiar saying, especially one that has become trite through repetition.


Past participle of see


; saw.
I seen it with my own eyes.


(Jamaica) To understand, to comprehend.
Everything irie, seen?


The letter س in the Arabic script.


Versed; skilled; accomplished.
Well seen in every science that mote be.
Noble Boyle, not less in nature seen,Than his great brother read in states and men.


What is the main difference between 'saw' and 'seen'?

"Saw" is the simple past tense, while "seen" is the past participle requiring an auxiliary verb.

How is 'seen' correctly used in a sentence?

"Seen" must be used with an auxiliary verb, as in "I have seen" or "they had seen."

When should I use 'saw'?

Use "saw" when referring to a specific instance of seeing in the past.

Is 'saw' used for ongoing actions?

No, "saw" is used for actions that were completed in the past.

Can 'saw' be used to describe a habitual action in the past?

Yes, if it's a specific instance in the past, like "I always saw him there."

Is 'seen' used in present perfect tense?

Yes, it's commonly used in present perfect tense.

What is an example of 'saw' in a sentence?

"Last year, I saw a meteor shower."

Does 'seen' imply a connection to the present?

Yes, "seen" often implies a past action with present relevance.

Can 'saw' be used in formal writing?

Yes, "saw" is appropriate in both formal and informal contexts.

Can 'seen' be used without an auxiliary verb?

No, "seen" always requires an auxiliary verb.

Is 'seen' appropriate for academic writing?

Yes, when used correctly with an auxiliary verb.

Can 'saw' be used in questions?

Yes, in past tense questions like "Did you see...?"

How is 'seen' used in questions?

With an auxiliary, like "Have you seen...?"

Are there exceptions to the rules for 'saw' and 'seen'?

The rules for their use are quite consistent, with no notable exceptions.

Can 'saw' and 'seen' be interchangeable?

No, their usage depends on tense and sentence structure.

Can 'saw' refer to a recent past?

Yes, as long as it's a completed action.

How does the context change with 'saw' versus 'seen'?

"Saw" focuses on a specific past moment, while "seen" relates past experiences to the present.

Does 'seen' always refer to a distant past?

No, "seen" can refer to any past time up to the present moment.

What is an example of 'seen' in a sentence?

"I have never seen a meteor shower."

Is 'seen' ever used in past tense narratives?

"Seen" is used in past tense narratives when combined with a past tense auxiliary verb.
About Author
Written by
Harlon Moss
Harlon is a seasoned quality moderator and accomplished content writer for Difference Wiki. An alumnus of the prestigious University of California, he earned his degree in Computer Science. Leveraging his academic background, Harlon brings a meticulous and informed perspective to his work, ensuring content accuracy and excellence.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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