Which is correct and why: “I didn’t (see, saw) her”?


A MEMBER of Jose Carillo’s English Forum who goes by the username Baklis recently raised this very basic but hard-to-explain grammar question: “Sir Joe, my classmate and I argued about this matter: ‘I didn’t (see, saw) her.’ Which is correct and why?”

Here’s my reply to Baklis:

That sentence construction confuses a lot of English learners because it forces them to make a choice for the tense of the main verb, only to get themselves deadlocked when they discover that tense isn’t the basis for the form of that main verb after all.

Before demonstrating how that deadlock happens, I’ll tell you offhand that the correct form of the main verb for that sentence is “see”—“I didn’t see her,” or, in the uncontracted form, “I did not see her.” The word “not,” positioned between the helping verb “did” and the main verb “see,” negates the action expressed by the sentence.

Now let’s take up the two rather quirky rules of English for constructing such negative statements:

Rule 1 – It’s the helping verb that takes the tense. In negative statements in the past tense, it is the helping verb and not the main verb that takes the tense. This is why in “I did not see her,” the helping verb “do” takes the past-tense “did” while the main verb “see” doesn’t take a tense at all. Although it looks like “see” is in the present tense, it actually isn’t; instead, it is the infinitive form “to see” stripped of  “to”—the so-called bare infinitive. The choice is therefore not between the present-tense “see” or the past-tense “saw”; indeed, the deadlock in choosing between them often results from not recognizing early enough that there’s no choice at all, for the main verb in such negative statements always takes its bare infinitive form.

Rule 2 – The helping verb must come before the word that negates the main verb.
Stucturally, negative sentences must position the helping verb before the word that negates the action of the main verb. Thus, in the sentence “I did not see her,” the past tense of the helping verb “do” comes before the negator “not,” after which “see,” the main verb’s bare infinitive form, follows. Unlike other languages that negate sentences by putting negator words at their beginning or tail end, English uses the negative form “do not” or its contracted form “don’t” before the verb. Only in rare archaic constructions or in poetry does English negate sentences with “not” at their tail end, as in “I saw her not.”
Other than its role in making negatives, the auxiliary verb “do” is also used to indicate questions and to emphasize statements.

“Do” to indicate a question. The auxiliary verb “do” takes the front-end position in the construction of present-tense and past-tense questions, as in “Does (Did) he take criticism badly?” (In future-tense questions, the auxiliary verb “will” or “would” takes the place of “do,” as in “Will (Would) he take criticism badly?”) In both past-tense and present-tense questions, it is also the helping verb “do” that takes the tense, not the main verb. The main verb, “take” in the example given above, takes the bare infinitive form.

“Do” to emphasize a statement. To emphasize the response to present-tense and past-tense questions, the auxiliary verb “do” must be positioned right before the main verb of the response, as in “I do (did) ride the MRT.” Such constructions use “do” to reply more emphatically to such probing “do” questions as “Do (Did) you really ride the MRT?” The helping verb “do” takes the tense and the main verb takes the bare infinitive form.

I trust that you and your classmate will finally have a meeting of the minds once you’ve shared with him this discussion of the workings of the auxiliary verb “do.”

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  1. Thank you, Mr. Carillo, for the illuminating grammar lesson and for reminding me of an argument I had in high school with my classmate over the same grammatical issue. The argument started when he asked, “Did you ate your snack?” I replied by pointing out that the correct verb was “eat.” He, in turn, insisted it was “ate” because another verb in the past tense must accompany “did.” It was only after we consulted our English grammar textbooks that he found out he was wrong and thus relented.

  2. Instead of getting bogged down in that issue a very basic issue in this country is knowing the difference between him & her, when speaking a with filipinos i think they are talking about a guy & then they say her so now i think they are talking about a woman. It seems most filipinos dont know him is a male & her is a female. He is a male & she is a female. I think that needs to be understood before they lear about see & saw & when to use each or either. & by the way most people of my age who left school without qualifications know when to use see & saw, with the youth of today im not so sure.

    • Uhm, until you said so, Dustin, I never realized that the misuse of the pronouns “him” and “her” is a very serious problem among Filipinos who speak English. Perhaps I should find time then to take up that usage in my column. As to the correct usage in the negative sentence “I didn’t (see, saw) her,” you’re most fortunate indeed that you did learn it before leaving school–and I must say here that your school and its teaching of English must have been excellent. Most other schools don’t teach that usage as well though, as evidenced by the unresolved debate over it between Baklis and his classmate (and several other students who had called my attention about that grammar dilemma over the past 12 years). I trust that by analyzing the problematic usage in my column, such debates among English learners will be minimized and become a thing of the past. Now, as to your observation about the misuse of “him/her,” I should be able similarly help bring down its incidence by clarifying the usage sometime soon, and I would like to thank you very much for bringing up the matter here.