I'm reading a novel in which once in a while a character says something like "I are", "He do", and similar stuff. I understand the author is just reproducing the way people talk on the streets.

However I've found a piece of text of which I'm not sure if it's proper English. One of the characters, who almost always speaks proper English, is reproducing a conversation that happened many years ago using the present tense in the following manner:

I was with this guy and "Hi", says he, "how are you", says I...

and so on.

My question is if the "says I" is proper English (a special case in which "I" is treated as a third person because we are relating in present tense something that happened in the past) or it's just kind of slang.

I was also a bit surprised by how the usual order is switched ("says he" instead of "he says") but to me it's secondary to the "says I" issue.

  • 1
    I am listening/reading Moby Dick and there I also found this construct: "Hello", says he. This book is not from the 1950's, but from 1851. I suppose it is just a construct that was being used in the past, but not anymore. Still it is an interesting question whether this is correct or not according to the grammar rules.
    – user190790
    Aug 11, 2016 at 12:47
  • Analogically, thinks I occurs thirteen times in Moby-Dick, e.g. Thinks I, I’ll wait awhile; he must be dropping in before long.
    – John Smith
    Jun 26, 2020 at 11:43

2 Answers 2



"Says he... Says I" (pronounced sez hee/eye) was a very popular slang perhaps 40 - 50 years ago, and is most definitely not grammatically correct. Is is possible that the setting is that far in the past.

If the character is recounting a conversation he had in the recent past, proper grammar is, "said I" or "I said". If he is recounting wht he said in the present tense, "says I" is still incorrect. "Say I" is appropriate. But without more context, it's hard to say.

Sounds like a good book.

  • Ok, I was lucky enough to find in google the very book where I found it (by the way, it's "Everybody dies", by Lawrence Block). books.google.es/… Some more context: the character, Mick Ballou is from New York with Irish roots. He's kind of a gangster, but this character, unlike many other, speaks most of the time proper English. Dec 7, 2013 at 14:28
  • In that case maybe you'll prefer to start with "The sins of the fathers", as it's the first one of the "Mathew Scudder" novels: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Block#Matthew_Scudder_novels Dec 7, 2013 at 15:31
  • I don't know if this can be called ungrammatical when it is quite commonly used - we make the language, not the other way round. It can also be used with 'you', maybe in a scornful, unbelieving way: "I promise I won't let you down next time, I'll do it next week." - "Says you!"
    – Mynamite
    Dec 7, 2013 at 22:37
  • @Mynamite: we make the language… in the long run. But, in between, grammatical and ungrammatical have to apply, otherwise how can we communicate if everything means anything I want it to mean, just because this is how I write and speak?! There has to be a modicum of common ground in language (grammatical and lexical correctness) for people to communicate. You cannot be a poet all the time!
    – user58319
    Apr 26, 2015 at 19:05
  • Informally: Says who? ... Says me!
    – Lawrence
    Aug 11, 2016 at 12:56

English has many nonstandard dialects, and in some of them is is used as the present tense of be in all persons and numbers.

  • 1
    That is not what the question is about, though. Dec 7, 2013 at 13:50
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: Actually it is, though it may not be what the questioner thought it was. Dec 7, 2013 at 14:55
  • @Tim, the question was specifically about the phrase “says I” in speech that is not normally characterised by non-standard forms. Forms of ‘to be’ in dialects characterised by non-standard forms does not address that. Dec 7, 2013 at 15:02
  • @JanusBahsJacquet: the answer is about the possibility of using the third person singular ending -s in the Present Simple with other personal pronouns, for any verb; a general problem, of which the question about "I says" was just one particular case. So it IS the answer to the question!
    – user58319
    Apr 26, 2015 at 18:53
  • @user58319 The question is about says. While it is true that I is is standard in some dialects, it is ungrammatical in most dialects. The usage found here, where says I parallels says he, is a different matter: it is a specific, rhetoric variant found in all dialects, and it is limited more or less to this one verb. The more ‘correct’ version, “say I”, is in fact much rarer than this version when used as a quotative. Apr 26, 2015 at 19:01

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