English English language Expression Grammar Language Usage Writing

We were sat … or were we?

Q: Do all British people say “sat” instead of “sitting,” as in this example from a Brit’s blog: “we were sat around the coffee table”?

A: No, not all British people would say something like “we were sat around the coffee table.” That usage isn’t considered standard English in either the UK or the US.

However, quite a few people in the UK do indeed use “sat” that way, and the usage shows up once in a while in the US too.

In an Oct. 3, 2012, post on the Oxford Dictionaries blog, the lexicographer Catherine Soanes notes the increasing nonstandard use of the past participles “sat” and “stood” for the present participles “sitting” and “standing” in British English.

She reports hearing several instances of the usage on the BBC, including “She’s sat at the table eating breakfast” and “we were stood at the bar waiting to be served.”

Soames, editor or co-editor of several Oxford dictionaries, says the use of “sat” and “stood” for “sitting” and “standing” in continuous, or progressive, tenses is “regarded as non-standard by usage guides.”

“So are we witnessing a general decline of continuous tenses?” she asks. “Thankfully, no: this error predominantly seems to crop up with ‘stand’ and ‘sit.’ ”

So why do so many people, primarily in the UK, say things like “She’s sat” and “we were stood”?

“The answer’s not clear,” Soames says, “but my research shows that this usage (which used to be restricted to some regional British dialects) is becoming more widespread in British English, and is even appearing in edited writing such as newspapers and magazines.”

She reports finding over 3,000 instances of this construction in the Oxford English Corpus, including these two examples from the database:

“It is 2pm and I am sat in my parents’ living room, talking to one of the cats.”

“Three hooded kids are stood around the corner drinking alcopops and it’s raining.”

Although the usage is uncommon in US English, she says, it “isn’t completely unknown there, with around 340 examples (11% of the total)” in the Oxford corpus, including this example:

“My Mom and Alison were stood in the hallway watching me as I limped down the stairs.”

She also reported finding examples in the Oxford corpus from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and India.

We suspect that in some cases “sat” is being used in place of “seated” (that is, as the past tense of the verb “seat”) rather than in place of “sitting.” So “we were sat around the coffee table” may be another way of saying “we were seated around the coffee table.”

Our own searches of the News on the Web corpus generally confirm Soames’s findings, though we’ve found the usage more overwhelmingly British now than she found it five years ago. Here are a couple of recent examples from London newspapers:

“We were sat in a pub having a drink” (from the Oct. 7, 2017, issue of the Telegraph).

“We were sat there for two and a half hours just studying it, watching it flying around the sky” (from the Sept. 21, 2017, issue of the Sun).

When the usage shows up in an American publication, a British citizen is often being quoted, as in this example from the July 9, 2017, issue of the Washington Post, about tennis fans living in a tent city near the Wimbledon tournament:

“And so all we had was a rucksack and an umbrella, and it started to rain, so we were sat up leaning against somebody’s garden wall, and it poured down with rain.”

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