Is the following phrase correct?

I sightsaw London/the museum.

  • 10
    I must admit that I have never seen the simple past tense of "sightsee" used before. (And, admittedly, it gave me a bit of a chuckle.) It's not obvious that it's wrong, but it's certainly not idiomatic.
    – Hot Licks
    Feb 20, 2016 at 13:44
  • 1
    I like it! Congratulations on minting this shiny new coin, or perhaps on noticing an old coin that no one else has seen long lying in a neglected corner.
    – Drew
    Feb 20, 2016 at 17:24
  • 2
    This might be a better fit for ELL.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:15
  • I like the combination of "sight" and "saw", but sadly there is (not yet) a verb of "to sightsaw" .. - "I sightsawed the city..." - this would sound so much like it actually had a meaning..
    – Imago
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:28
  • 1
    @Imago I think "sightsaw" isn't supposed to be the infinitive ("to sightsaw"), but rather the past tense of "to sightsee".
    – Earthliŋ
    Feb 20, 2016 at 20:39

9 Answers 9


Surprisingly, some dictionaries such as Collins and Dictionary.com do list sightsee as a verb, with sightsaw as the past form.

On the other hand, I have never heard anybody actually say it. I have heard plenty of people say went sightseeing. A quick trip to Ngram to compare the usage of sightsaw against went sightseeing comes up with plenty of instances of went sightseeing, but sightsaw is 'not found'.

It appears that although some dictionaries are willing to list it as a verb, real live people don't actually use it as a verb.

  • 2
    To back you up, the dictionaries apparently do list sightsaw as the past of sightsee, but I've never heard anyone say it. If you Google "sightsaw -definition -dictionary" (to eliminate such dictionary sites) you get very few hits, some of which are sellers of saws, and some are sentences where the two words appear back to back, unrelated to tourism ("An old man with second sight saw huge beasts...") Feb 20, 2016 at 20:29
  • 3
    Your ngram comparison link is wrong -- actually sightsaw is found, just seldom Feb 22, 2016 at 14:15
  • 1
    @MichaelChirico Most of them are linguistic books again, but there are some normal literature examples mixed in. Feb 22, 2016 at 14:37
  • 1
    I agree with @MichaelChirico, the Ngram cited charts the two-word phrase Sight saw (capitalized) with "went sightseeing". Little wonder "Sight saw" is not found.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2016 at 13:22
  • 1
    books.google.com/ngrams/… sightsaw is "found", you have to reclick on the search box.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 25, 2016 at 15:22

It's debatable, and a lot of contributors are going to say no. MW says it is an intransitive verb and lists the past tense as "sightsaw". OALD on the other hand only mentions sightseeing, and that it is a noun. Depends on your dictionary I guess. It is not in common usage now, but language is always evolving, and what is not in usage now may very well be in 50 years.

  • 3
    MW online doesn’t mention transitivity at all (as far as I can tell, at least), so if your version of it says that sightsee is an intransitive verb, then the sentence in the question would not be correct, because it’s used as a transitive verb there. Feb 20, 2016 at 21:17
  • @JanusBahsJacquet merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sightsee Please check just below the headword. Also, do not rely on only one reference. The point we have been making is that the topic is debatable, depending on the dictionary. Feb 21, 2016 at 1:46
  • @JanusBahsJacquet Actually, you have made a very valid point, and I would like to throw it back out to the contributors. Tr. or Intr. ? Feb 21, 2016 at 1:55
  • Well, now that is just utterly bizarre. That is precisely the page I looked at before, and I swear when I looked before, it only said “verb” (which I found rather odd: it usually does include transitivity). Anyway, my point—which was perhaps not very well-worded, but which this mysterious reappearance of the missing word on MW does support—was that the way it’s phrased in this answer, MW seems like it should support an affirmative answer; but since the example sentence is transitive and MW specifies intransitive, MW would be one of the nay-sayers. Feb 21, 2016 at 2:10
  • @JanusBahsJacquet ne pas avoir honte. or is ne vous inquiétez pas better? You are absolutely correct, which is why we are letting the wiser heads debate the point. Prof Ashworth is on point. Feb 21, 2016 at 2:17

Actually. it is. My first reaction was "Of course not, sightsee is intransitive", and that is certainly the only way I have ever heard it used. However, Collins Dictionary implies that it is transitive, and the OED (subscription-only, so not linkable) has a secondary transitive meaning with respectable citations, including one from 1968, "I spent the day sight-seeing Berlin.", which seems an almost exact parallel.

So yes you can use the phrase, but I still wouldn't recommend it in a formal (or even non-journalese) context.

  • 9
    I'd put 'We spent the day sight-seeing Berlin.' // 'We sight-saw Berlin' // 'We sight-saw the museum' at 85% // 15% // 1% on the acceptability scale (the rarely encountered Marx-Unwin scale). Feb 20, 2016 at 16:25
  • 3
    @Jan Dvorak: I haven’t heard of Marx–Unwin either, but the general concept of acceptability is well-known (Wikipedia section). If The dog barked is 100% acceptable and The cat meowed is 100% acceptable, too, that doesn’t mean that the sum being 200% is in any way a problem.
    – chirlu
    Feb 20, 2016 at 20:16
  • 5
    Marx as in Groucho and Unwin as in Stanley: two expert language-manglers. True acceptability ratings require input from panels of linguists (and often fail to agree with each other). The percentages I suggest are subjective and unauthoritative (but I'm sticking to them). Feb 20, 2016 at 21:15
  • 1
    @Edwin Two is a panel, right? I agree entirely with your percentages (and so do five others, though it’s hard to say how many of those are linguists), so I think we can promote them to at least a semi-true acceptability rating. :-) Feb 21, 2016 at 2:20
  • 5
    @Janus I refuse to belong to any panel that will accept me as a member. Feb 21, 2016 at 15:54

Short Answer

Use of the form sightsaw, while grammatically consistent, is nevertheless nonstandard and awkward. Furthermore, if used as a verb, to sightsee is intransitive, so the formulation "sightsaw London" would be incorrect; "sightsaw in London" should be used instead.


The reason why it seems awkward to place to sightsee in the past tense, more so than other verbs, is that the word was not coined as a verb. Rather, it was first coined as a noun, to describe the activity of sightseeing, with a sightseer being one who sees sights. And because of its historical use as a noun, repurposing the word as a verb is novel, and therefore comes across as nonstandard and even awkward.

For this reason, I would recommend caution using to sightsee as a verb in writing, the same as any other nonstandard grammatical construction. The prerogative is yours as a writer, but you should be aware that the usage is nonstandard and will come across that way to your readers.

Now, regarding transitivity, I assert that to sightsee, if used as a verb, must be intransitive (despite dictionary opinions to the contrary), the reason being that the original verb to see is transitive in this construction and already has an object, "sights". Since to see has already discharged its transitivity in the object "sights", the full construction to sightsee cannot anticipate another object, and must therefore be intransitive.

To apply this to the proposed clause "I sightsaw London", "London" cannot be the object of the verb sightsaw because to see has already been satisfied with an object, "sights". The correct formulation of the clause must be "I sightsaw in London", equivalent to "I saw the sights in London".

It may be instructive to compare with other similar constructions in English, such as faultfinding and whale watching, both coined as nouns describing activities.

  • Incidentally, my 1977 Merriam-Webster does list sightsee as an intransitive verb with etymology "back-formation from sightseeing."
    – Gooseberry
    Apr 26, 2016 at 21:14

Supplementing the answers that have been posted, I feel that some clarification is in order.

The expression sightseeing is normally fixed, it is often preceded by the verbs do, be or go.

Q: What are you doing tomorrow?

A: I'm sightseeing
A: I'll be sightseeing
A: I'm doing some sightseeing
A: I'm going sightseeing
A: I'm going to go sightseeing

The structure of go sightseeing is no different from say: go swimming, go dancing, or go fishing, but whereas swimming, dancing and fishing are also verbs, the expression sightseeing is different, it is more like a noun. You do not normally conjugate sightsee

  • He sightsees when he's on holiday/in vacation. (RARE)
  • We want to sightsee in New York. (RARE)
  • They should sightsee, it's a wonderful city. (RARE)
  • Yesterday, I sightsaw (in) Paris (VERY RARE)

Instead the following is more idiomatic in English

  • He goes sightseeing when he's on holiday/in vacation.
  • We want to go sightseeing in New York.
  • They should go sightseeing, it's a wonderful city.
  • Yesterday, I went sightseeing in Paris
  • Yesterday, I did some sightseeing in Paris

However, sightsee is often conjugated in the past continuous tense, and this structure feels very natural and idiomatic to me.

  • While I was sightseeing in Rome
  • ... you were sightseeing
  • ... she/he was sightseeing (etc.)

Lastly, you do not normally go sightseeing in a museum. The verbs visit and see are usually preferred in English.

Q: What did you do yesterday?

1. I visited the British Museum
2. I saw the British Museum
3. I went sightseeing in the British Museum. (RARE)
4. I sightsaw the British Museum (INCORRECT)


To understand how rare sightsaw (blue line) is, compared to went sightseeing (red line) see the Ngram chart below

enter image description here

Although sightsaw has been used very rarely by native speakers, at least in its written form, we cannot dismiss it as being non-existent. Even distinguished British and American authors didn't flinch at using it in their informal correspondence.

The following is an excerpt from the Diaries of James Lees-Milne written between 1942 and 1954

It was their first time on the Continent, and they sightsaw for a week in Paris—daytripping to Versailles, where they visited the Grand Trianon and the Palais. The rest of September, they visited Switzerland and Italy's lakes before sailing home ...

The American writer Allen Ginsberg used the noun as if it were a proper verb in a letter addressed to Robert Creeley in 1967

…then we went on to Paris and sat on Pont des Arts and looked at the summer trees along the seine and sat in cafes and sightsaw, I got hotels and taxis and carried luggage…

  • So, I should use the verb "sightsee" only in progressive tenses just like OALD site points out: oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/definition/english/… . Could you tell if "I was sightseeing in London." means the same as "I was visiting London". ?
    – masterkomp
    Feb 22, 2016 at 12:33
  • @masterkomp if you're referring to its grammar, and not strictly to its meaning, then "I was visiting..." and "I was sightseeing..." are both used in the same way, to express an action that was in progress at a specific period in the past.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 22, 2016 at 14:36
  • I mean the meaning. What's the difference?
    – masterkomp
    Feb 22, 2016 at 15:59
  • @masterkomp well they're not always interchangeable, for instance I can visit a country, a park, a castle, or a friend. In none of them do I go sightseeing. I could visit London without seeing the typical sights that a tourist may want to see and take photos of. I might be interested in seeing a museum or an art gallery, would I say "I went sightseeing" when I came back home? No, not really. Sightseeing in London means going to places that are world-famous tourist attractions such as; Big Ben, Buckingham Place, The London Tower, Oxford St., Piccadilly Circus, the London Eye etc..
    – Mari-Lou A
    Feb 22, 2016 at 16:43

A better usage is, "I saw sights in London."

Even though "sightseeing" is the noun, the verb form is not "sight see." It is more like "see sights."

  • 2
    Shouldn't it be, "I saw the sights of [London/the museum]?"
    – Elian
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:19
  • @Elian: That is ok also.
    – Tom Au
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:20
  • How about, "I took in the sights of [London/the museum]?"
    – Elian
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:28
  • @Elian: "Six of one, half a dozen of the other."
    – Tom Au
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:31
  • 1
    I've often seen sights when I wasn't sightseeing.
    – Jon Hanna
    Feb 22, 2016 at 16:54

As the other answers point out to sightsee sth. as a full-fledged transitive verb is very rare if not generally unacceptable. To me, "sight-seeing" is visiting famous places, doing "touristy" things. For one place only, I would use visit (or saw):

I visited the museum.
I saw Big Ben.

For London, it might be better to paraphrase as

I went sight-seeing in London.
I did some sight-seeing in London.
I spent the day/week-end sight-seeing London.

  • 2
    "I saw the Big Ben" Proper nouns rarely take articles, and the ones that do are usually phrases that would have meaning as improper nouns (e.g., "the United States"). You saw Big Ben. Feb 20, 2016 at 18:08
  • @DavidRicherby I have never been to London, but I did search for this before I posted. "saw the Big Ben" seems to be a lot more common than "saw Big Ben" but if you're certain I shall take your word for it.
    – Earthliŋ
    Feb 20, 2016 at 19:27
  • 2
    That's strange. I wonder if most of the hits were from non-native speakers? Feb 20, 2016 at 20:24
  • 1
    @DavidRicherby Lots of non-native speakers posting in English about visiting Big Ben... Maybe! If you look at results from UK-based websites, "Big Ben" without the article seems to be the norm. I don't know if the other results are mainly from non-native speakers or non-British native speakers (and I don't care enough to read a representative number of results).
    – Earthliŋ
    Feb 20, 2016 at 20:34
  • 1
    Reminds me of this George W Bush quote: "And one of the things that I use on the Google is to pull up maps [...]" BTW I live in London and have often seen Big Ben.
    – Paul Evans
    Feb 21, 2016 at 20:45

Your other answers are right in the general case. But you could get away with it in the right register -- not a formal one. I suggest that to go sightseeing somewhere is to see some/most of the sights, while to sightsee -- transitive -- somewhere is to see all the sights. So "I sightsaw London until there were no more sights to see"/"I sightsaw the hell out of London" would be non-conventional but easily understood forms for seeing all the sights.


No. Regardless of a couple of dictionaries, the past tense of 'sightsee' does not see use, and 'sightsee' itself does not see use except in extremely rare circumstances.

The common use is 'sightseeing' as in 'I went sightseeing in [town, city, or area]', or 'saw', as in 'I saw the [more specific landmark or very specific location]'. Also as a response to 'where did you go' 'sightseeing in [town, city, or area]' or 'what did you do?' 'sightseeing in [town, city, or area]'. Sometimes tours will be advertised as 'sightseeing tours', or just 'sightseeing'.

I have never seen or come across 'sightsaw' and google backs up that that phrase/word does not see use whatsoever even amongst poor english speakers.

  • I'm old-fashioned enough to believe it should be sight-seeing. As for usage, is your analysis about poverty-stricken Englishmen, Anglophones with little liquidity or those with a poor command of English?
    – Magoo
    Feb 21, 2016 at 8:15
  • @Magoo - the modern usage is sightseeing. Sight-seeing is archaic at this point. Poor english speaker is likewise a well known term for someone who is poor at speaking english - it's usage to describe english-speakers who are below the poverty line would be at best in the context of a multiple-language region with language/cultural discrimination. 'English speaker' no longer, if it ever did, describes solely residents of the UK.
    – user2754
    Feb 22, 2016 at 2:20

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