You were sitting down. Sitting, I tell you!

We really should be sitting down to talk about this

Woman sitting down on a bench to illustrate a blog post on the past continuous tense


Photograph via Death to the Stock Photo

I find language fascinating. Babies learn to speak intuitively and apparently effortlessly, yet learning a foreign language is so difficult. The way we speak to people is dependent upon our relationship with them – siblings may speak to each other in a language that is so full of in-jokes and shared references that it sounds almost coded to outsiders, while lawyers and judges, for example, use a legal discourse that ensures clarity and lucidity but sounds intimidatingly formal to those outside their profession.

And there are so many linguistic rules (most of which, as native speakers, we are not aware of) – yet languages are always changing and evolving. As someone who is very aware of grammatical dos and don’ts, it can be hard to accept that, sometimes slowly, and sometimes very quickly, those rules are broken – and broken forever.

Did you know, for instance, that certain words take specific prepositions? For example, strictly speaking it should be “different from” and “similar to”. You wouldn’t say “similar from” but you’ll almost certainly say “different to” at least now and again. People do it all the time, it doesn’t sound weird, and therefore it’s become an acceptable part of our language. Once you know it’s “wrong” it grates a little – but you’ve got to let it go.

There’s one phrase, however, that appears to have become entirely acceptable yet still makes me want to run screaming from the room and inhale The Economist Style Guide. Most grammar geeks have their pet hates and this is certainly mine. I hear it five times a day, and I every single time I have to fight the urge to correct the person I’m speaking to (because, let’s face it, correcting people’s grammar is never going to be an endearing trait).

Are you ready? Here it is:

“I was sat.”

And its best friend, “I was stood.”

Here is what I want to say when I hear that phrase. You were not sat, you were sitting. The thing that you were doing, in your seated position, was done continuously, therefore you need to use the past continuous (also known as progressive) form of the verb, ie, “I was sitting”.

Whenever you are describing a continuous action, ie, one that happened for a length of time, you use the verb “to be” in either the past, present or future tense (I was, I am, I will be) – followed by the present participle (an “-ing” word). Saying “I was sat on the bus” instead mixes things up by using the past participle (stood), which would normally be used for an action that was over and done with in your narrative. To put it another way, it’s like saying “I was looked in the mirror” or “I was ran to the front” or “I was watched the film”. It sounds ridiculous.

I usually keep quiet, of course, but I do shout at the TV and the radio where I often hear this devilish phrase uttered, even on the BBC, dammit. It is a losing battle but I will be correcting people in my head forever more…

Do you have a particular grammar gripe? Is there a particular phrase that sets your teeth on edge?