Sunday, November 17, 2013

Random thoughts - he was sat, she was stood

Some time ago there was a rather lively discussion on the language blog, Pain in the English, about these two idiomatic expressions. Let's take a look at a couple of examples from Google Books:
He was sat there with his arms over the back of the sofa looking really upset so I thought there was something ...
Under the Rotunda - Danny Bernardi
In an instant Dave knew that he was stood on a road and that there was a vehicle coming ...
The Company - James McCann

And here's one with both

We saw him later on chatting to another bunch of bemused holidaymakers, only they were sat down and he was stood in front of them, in his Speedos ...
Thai Tales - Justin Dunn
Read a bit more about these expressions. What do they mean and are they grammatically acceptable?

What do they mean?

In standard English we'd normally use past continuous here - he was sitting, he was standing, but in certain regions of England, especially in the north, these expressions are quite common. These expressions are for the moment 'non-standard', that's to say, considered as dialect, but I think that is changing.
I should perhaps stress that this is very much a phenomenon of British English; I haven't heard these expressions being used by Americans.

Are we witnessing a revival?

They seem certainly to be growing in popularity, as you can see in the first graph. And what's more they seem to be emerging from being purely dialect expressions to being used in what RW Burchfield, writing in the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern English, describes as being on the fringes of standard English.
I certainly know educated northerners who use these expressions, but who otherwise speak standard English. But increasingly, I'm also hearing this expression used by non-northerners.
According to Burchfield, the Oxford English Dictionary refers to he was sat as "NOW dial" (dialect), suggesting that at one time it was in fact standard English, but is now limited to dialect use. This graph, showing use in British books, certainly appears to show that it was quite popular in the past, and seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival today. A similar picture emerges with the much less used present tense version.
I can find very little informed comment on the Internet about this, so I have to largely rely on Burchfield, and as Burchfield points out, it seems to have more recently coming out of the dialect closet, appearing in works by authors like Kingsley Amis and Ben Elton. These graphs seem to confirm this:
I have recently heard it used quite frequently on the BBC, for example:
  • by a Labour member of parliament.
  • by a Welsh comedian on the quiz programme based on the use of language 'Just a Minute' (without any comment from the other participants, who are usually very quick to spot any grammatical errors).
  • by the narrator of a dramatisation of a Scandinavian crime thriller - Larssen was sat at his desk
And here is member of parliament Caroline Flint MP speaking in the Scottish Affairs Committee of the House of Commons 27 Nov 2007
They know that person much better than I ever will because they are sat in front of them. They will be able to say, "Actually, can I have some discretion to provide this?"
The rise in the use of the present version is even more dramatic:

What is their status?

One problem is that these expressions don't seem to appear in any online dictionaries. Most of the references to them on the Internet are on forums, which are never a reliable guide to what's grammatically acceptable.
Indeed, some people get very angry at this usage, and the debate at Pain in the English included a couple of grammatical arguments to prove that this usage was not correct. Very often commenters on forums provide us with rather condescending lessons in the formation of the past continuous, to prove their point. You can see typical examples if these at Mum's Net, and Yahoo Answers, linked to below.
But I think they're missing the point: these are idiomatic expressions. I also think they were barking up the wrong grammatical tree, but we'll see about that later.
In the Telegraph, a certain Peter Mullen, in a diatribe against modern teaching, complained that a whole generation of teachers know no grammar, saying:
They say, “I was sat” when they mean “I was sitting.” They say, “I was stood” when they intend – insofar as such thickos are capable of intending anything – “I was standing.”
But fortunately, the Telegraph also has Tom Chivers, one of the best journalists commentating on the English language, who gave a balancing view. This opens up the fascinating subject as to what the relationship between Standard English and its non-standard variants should be, and as to their relative status. This is especially important in British schools, where it has been estimated that less than fifteen percent of children arriving at school have Standard English as their mother tongue, but that's a subject for another post, perhaps.
My own bet is that within twenty years these expressions will be seen as perfectly standard, if informal and idiomatic, British English.

Am I suggesting that learners should use these expressions?

Of course not, but not because it's some terrible crime, but because firstly, for you it wouldn't be natural language, unless you've had a teacher from Northern England who has really influenced the way you speak.
And sadly, as it is not universally accepted, some people will judge you negatively for using it, although personally I think these people are getting fewer and fewer.
But I have to say that personally I find them rather attractive and, like a lot of idiomatic English, an enrichment of the language.
The main thing is that when you hear a native speaker say it, don't think they are making an error or are grammatically ignorant: this is a perfectly natural British English expression, albeit one that is not accepted in all quarters.

So what's happening grammatically?

The normal argument against these expressions is that it is simply incorrect grammar, and that the correct way is to use past continuous, end of. But some people put forward a second argument.

A false passive?

The verbs sit and stand are usually intransitive, they don't take an object. But they are occasionally used transitively, as in:
  • He sat the child down at the table.
  • She stood the ladder against the wall.
  • If you'd like to sit yourselves down over there.
This has led some of the commenters on Pain in the English and elsewhere to suggest that 'he was sat in the armchair' and 'he was stood in the corner' are really passive constructions, but as there is no 'agent', nobody actually sat anybody down or stood anybody in the corner, so they suggest that this is a passive form being wrongly used. Here are some examples of correct passive use:
  • The nurse took me through to the recovery room where I was sat in an armchair. (by the nurse)
  • I was sat to work cleaning some small brass decorations. (by my boss)
  • First I was sat at a table by a rude hostess.

Two verbs - sit and seat

This is further complicated by the existence of a separate verb - to seat. This is quite formal and is usually transitive. Here are some examples:
  • Please wait here to be seated. (notice in typical pizza restaurant)
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, please be seated. (formal announcement at a ceremonial dinner)
  • He seated himself behind the desk.
  • This bus can seat 100 passengers.
This has led some people to think that "he was sat" is an incorrect form of "he was seated", and that again it is a passive being used incorrectly.

Adjectival participles?

But I disagree. I think these are actually past participles being used as adjectives. In French there are the expressions:
  • Il était debout au coin de la rue. (= He was standing at the corner of the street)
  • Elle était assise sous un arbre. (= She was sitting under a tree)
The standard English translation for these sentences uses past continuous, but debout is in fact an adjective and assis(e) is the past participle of the verb asseoir - to sit. Could something similar be happening with these?
  • He was stood at the corner of the street.
  • She was sat under a tree.

Digression - the exams will be sat

The verb sit is often commonly used to mean to take an exam - He's sitting his finals this year - and as it's transitive, we can have a passive construction. Last year the Daily Telegraph had this headline:
  • A-levels will only be sat in summer.
A-levels are the standard school-leaving exams in England and Wales, and their results are crucial for getting into university. It had previously been possible to take them in January and June, but last year a rise in the standards of the exams after January led to worse results in June than in January, so there was a big scandal.

Stationary verbs

Used intransitively, both sit and stand are 'stationary verbs', they don't involve any movement. So how do other stationary verbs work. Well the obvious one is lie, but it doesn't seem to be used like this, so I'll look at another three - place, position and situate
  • The patio had been carefully positioned to get the best of the afternoon sun.
  • Two vases of flowers had been placed on the table.
  • These events have been clearly situated in their historical context.
Those sentences are clearly all passive. But what about these ones:
  • The patio is positioned to get the best of the afternoon sun.
  • There were two vases of flowers placed in the middle of the table.
  • The house is situated between two large oak trees.
In that last example, situated is definitely an adjective, and I wonder if positioned and placed are not also functioning in a similar way.

Other idiomatic expressions with past participles.

We have a couple with run
  • He's a bit run off his feet just now (He's very busy)
  • She's a bit run down at the moment (She's feeling exhausted)
And another couple with done
  • OK. Are we all done? (Have we all finished?)
  • I'm all done in (I'm exhausted)
These may all look like passive constructions, but nobody did these things to the people in the examples. And it is generally accepted that done as in finished is an adjective. So I'm wondering if the case is not the same for sat and stood.

Are we done? I'm done.

Expressions with be done, such as 'I'm done with the photocopier, if anyone wants to use it are common on both sides of the Atlantic, and for this reason have received a lot more attention than be sat and be stood. They also raise the hackles of some people, but this usage goes back a long way. Although I wouldn't use it in formal written English, I find it perfectly acceptable in conversational English.
And I would say the same for he was sat and she was stood.

Is standard English static?

In an answer to somebody who had arrived from South Africa - the Grammar Blog at replied
If "sat" has snuck down to London, it just confirms America's good sense in declaring our independence. Whatever you do, don't take it back to South Africa with you.
This reply in itself unwittingly shows that Standard English can change. In British English the past of sneak is sneaked, and so it used to be in American English. But increasingly snuck is being used instead in American English. Not everyone agrees with it, but most American dictionaries are now listing it.

Examples from literature

Update - I've noticed that these are mainly with sat down, but I think that the principle is the same.
Well, scholar. Now we are sat down and are at ease, I shall tell you a little more of Trout-fishing, before I speak of the Salmon.
Izaak Walton - The Compleat Angler 1653 (Google Books)
Timandra, and myself, as we were sat
In her apartment grieving for your fate
Thomas Otway - Alcibiades 1675 (Google Books)
The company were the farmer and his wife, three children and an old grandmother : when they were sat down, the farmer placed me at some distance from him on the table, which was thirty feet high from the floor.
Jonathan Swift - Gulliver’s Travels 1726 (Google Books)
then facing about, he marched up abreast with her to the sofa, and in three plain words, — though not before he was sat down, — nor after he was sat down, — but as he was sitting down — told her, ”he was in love;”
Lawrence Sterne - The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman 1759 (Google Books)
A little time after Ebn Thaher and he were sat down, a very handsome black slave set before them a table covered with several very fine dishes
Arabian Nights Entertainments - translated from M.Galland - The Novelist’s Magazine Vol 18 1785 (Google Books)
(of Pontius Pilate) When he was sat down on the judgment-seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, “Have thou nothing to do with that just man”
The Book of Common Prayer 1799 (Google Books)
As the conversation is commonly renewed when we are sat down, one talked of the tigers which walked about very quietly, or played at a good reasonable distance from us.
Constable's miscellany of original and selected publications Edinburgh 1827, edited by Henry G.Bell (Google Books)

Some more examples from Google books - 'he was sat'

The room he was sat in was more like a windowless box, twelve feet wide by twelve feet long by ten feet high.
The Samsara Project - David Burgess
He was sat with his knees up, arms huddled around them,
The Christie Legacy - Jennifer Marshall
That Saturday evening he was sat at his computer searching the Internet when his phone bleeped
Thailand - the ups and downs - Alan Little

Some more examples from Google Books - 'he was stood'

The Troop was stood in three ranks, [Private BQ] and myself were in the first rank, however, he was stood approximately 5 or 6 men down on my right
The Deepcut Review - Nicholas Blake
He was stood, hunched over a pint of stout.
The Polyphonic Ringtones of the Damned - Alan Walsh
As Dylan stood up from his desk and moved towards the printer, where my contract was to be put together, Jo's eyes opened excitedly and she smiled, tilting her head towards where he was stood behind me.
Just a Girl - Jazzie Williams

Examples from the British press and other media

Most instances of was sat in the press are, to be honest, quotations from other people, not the journalists themselves. Nevertheless, the following are all part of the main article. These seem to be mainly in the sports and crime pages

The Guardian

  • According to the Toronto Sun (via NME), 50-year-old Eric Costello's daughter was sat on her father's shoulders waving a placard that said "Smash Your Guitar, Pete!"
    The Guardian 04/03/2013

The Independent

  • Police were called to the scene and when an officer approached him, he was sat at a table reading a book.
    The Independent 15/03/2013
  • And a relatively rare sighting of it being used in a present tense (although a passive reading is also possible here):
  • the low-power E-Ink can display passive information (like notifications or the time when the phone is sat on a desk) without draining the battery.
    The Independent 14/11/2013

The Times

  • So furious were Inter that Francesco Toldo, the reserve goalkeeper, was cautioned for dissent even though he was sat on the bench
    The Times 25/02/2009

The Daily Telegraph

  • Steve Cram was sat alongside Brendan Foster in the BBC’s commentary box on that extraordinary evening
    The Daily Telegraph 28/12/2012
  • During one call Mrs Allen even told nurses she was with her mother who was sat up in bed, chatting and drinking a cup of tea.
    The Daily telegraph 04/02/2103

Daily Mail

  • Kim, who was sat in the audience during the show, is said to have not known that her man would reveal their pregnancy and was in shock like many of the rappers fans.
    Daily Mail 31/12/2012
  • Fabio struggled to hide his emotions when Rafael's shot flew past keeper Julio Cesar as he was sat next to QPR owner Tony Fernandes.
    Daily Mail 26/02/2013

Daily Express

  • The former Hull City chief executive – who was sat in the directors box at Headingley
    Daily Express 02/02/2013

The Mirror

  • In contrast, love-rat Rupert was sat on a step eating a takeaway sandwich.
    The Mirror 16/01/2013
  • "Did you expect to become this successful?" Caroline then asked Zayn. Who was sat next to Harry. Who was staring at the floor.
    The Mirror 11/11/2012

The Sun

  • A ROBBER dressed as a G4S guard walked out of a store with £14,000 takings — while the real security man was sat outside reading a paper.
    The Sun 18/09/2012
  • A DOPEY taxi driver zoomed off in his cab - without realising a four-month-old baby was sat in the back.
    The Sun 08/05/12

BBC Regional News

  • Steve Allen, who was sat near Ms Banks while she was having contractions on the train said it was like Christmas.
    BBC Regional News 08/03/2013
  • A would-be thief attempted to steal a snow-covered car while the owner was sat inside with the engine running.
    BBC Regional News 22/01/2013

The Guardian Northerner's Blog

Not surprisingly, it turns up a few times on the Guardian Northerner's blog.
  • As a result, such places are seldom much fun. Bright lights, fusty smells, sticky tables: they can exude a cold, static atmosphere, a room-full of people killing time, sat alone and in silence, other than the TV stuck on a sports news channel or the beep and clatter of bandits and quiz machines.
    The Northerner Blog
  • The Tap provides £100,000 in rent per year to the railway station, money that when the building was sat empty, simply wasn't there.
    The Northerner Blog
  • This was not simply because she was sat on my table in the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall, albeit separated by large swags of fruit and flowers
    The Northerner Blog

Google site searches for was sat in the British press

League table on Tuesday 26th April 2013, but the numbers have changed considerably, so I've removed them.

These do include some passive uses, but the majority seem to be of the idiomatic use we've been discussing. Click on the newspaper name to see an up-to-date site search:
The Daily Mail
The Daily Express
The Guardian
The Daily Telegraph
The Times
The Daily Mirror
The Sun
The Independent
BBC News


Standard English and non-standard English in education etc


  1. Congratulations once again on the painstaking research. In connection with your idea about participles used as adjectives I suggest further that the nature of the verbs has something to do with it. They are exceptional in that the continuous aspect describes a state rather than an action. I was sitting could mean that I was in the process of lowering myself onto a seat, but it is far more likely to mean that I was in a sitting position; similarly with I was standing. So, by analogy with I was there for example, people seek a monosyllable that does not imply an action. Interestingly, there is ambiguity with live, where both continuous and simple forms are used for what is a state rather than (usually) an action. Normally of course, stative verbs do not have a continuous form.

  2. Thanks for the kind remarks, Peter. It's an interesting point you make about the ambiguous active / stative nature of the verbs, perhaps illustrated by this sentence from Jane Eyre:

    'Next day I was up and dressed, and sat wrapped in a shawl by the nursery hearth'

    At first I thought this was an example of 'was sat' - was up, dressed and sat - but then I realised that, no, she was using past simple. But is she really talking about her action of sitting down, or is it more like 'I was sitting'?

    You make a good point about 'live', to which I would add 'work'. Usually an action verb - 'I'm working late tonight' - it can also be a state verb. We can't say, for example, say - 'I used to live in Manchester and would work at the local council for several years', although we can say 'very often I would work late'.

  3. I always direct my proficiency students to your website - it gives them plenty of fodder to chew their way through.