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continuous tenses

We were stood at the bar talking about continuous tenses. . .

Shock horror – Auntie ventures into non-standard English!

Call me a dyed in the wool reactionary, but the BBC (familiarly known as ‘Auntie’ because the broadcaster is regarded as the UK’s rather staid maiden aunt) has surprised me twice recently. Firstly, I was shocked to encounter someone saying ‘sh** happens’ at around 11.45 a.m. on Radio Four – and it was a Sunday to boot! Nowadays many people (including me) use this word, but context is everything. Four-letter words (indeed, any obscenities) aren’t standard English and are rightly disapproved of in most public and formal situations (for example, you’d never use them in a job application). In broadcasting, such words used to be relegated to late-night programmes: our dictionaries still mark them as taboo or vulgar slang, after all.

Secondly, I’ve noticed several instances of, for example, ‘She’s sat at the table eating breakfast’ or ‘we were stood at the bar waiting to be served’.  Aarrgghh!!!  This construction is still regarded as non-standard by usage guides and (being a sensitive soul when it comes to incorrect grammar) it gets to me just as much as hearing four-letter words on daytime radio.

The decline and fall of continuous tenses?

What’s grammatically amiss with ‘we were stood at the bar waiting to be served’? Well, the speaker is describing an action that, although it was in the past, was continuing rather than completed: we were standing and waiting to be served for a length of time, probably because the bar staff were busy.

To describe a continuing action in English we use continuous (also known as progressive) tenses. There are three of these: present, past, and future. They’re respectively formed with the present, past, or future of the verb to be but, no matter when the action happened, are always followed by the present participle (the form of a verb that ends in –ing), for example:

I’m thinking of you.

We were standing at the bar waiting to be served.

She’ll be singing in the choir tonight.

‘We were stood. . .’ is not a well-formed continuous tense, because it uses the past tense of to be (were) with the past participle of stand (stood) instead of the present participle (standing). Sit and stand are both irregular verbs, but their continuous tenses are formed in exactly the same way as a regular verb such as jump, that is, with the relevant tense of to be plus the present participle. You can see a full run-down of the English verb tenses here, but the following table shows the ones which we’re focusing on:

Present simple tense Past simple tense Present participle Past participle Present continuous (progressive) tense Past continuous (progressive) tense
I sit I sat sitting sat I am (or I’m) sitting I was sitting
I stand I stood standing stood I am (or I’m) standing I was standing
I jump I jumped jumping jumped I am (or I’m) jumping I was jumping

So are we witnessing a general decline of continuous tenses? Thankfully, no: this error predominantly seems to crop up with ‘stand’ and ‘sit’ – to test this, would you say ‘I was ran down the road when I tripped and fell’ or ‘He is flown to New York later today ’? No, you’d rightly opt for the past continuous ‘I was running down the road….’ or the present continuous ‘He is flying to New York …’ – so why, oh why do many people say ‘I was sat’ or ‘we’re stood’?

The answer’s not clear, 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. There are over 3,000 instances of this construction on the Oxford English Corpus (OEC), for example:

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.

The OEC reveals that, while uncommon in US English, the usage isn’t completely unknown there, with around 340 examples (11% of the total):

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

It’s also found in Australian, Indian, Canadian, and New Zealand English:

Lonely, bored, excited people are sat at the bar.

Passive or active?

Some commentators (including Pocket Fowler’s Modern English Usage ) categorize this usage as ‘quasi-passive’ but I’m not convinced that there’s a strong sense that the person has been put in a sitting or standing position by someone else: the above examples all seem active to me. Of course, it’s perfectly acceptable to use sit and stand in the passive voice, as these verbs can be transitive in some contexts:

We. . . showed up 20 minutes early and demanded a table. . . We were sat by a redhead and were soon greeted by a rather stiff waiter.

This example is a true passive:  in a restaurant, we were placed at a table by a redhead.  Here’s another clearly passive example, in which an unknown agent has put the mirrors in this position:

The mirrors were stood on edge and were arranged to. . . form an equilateral triangle. 

Over to you

However we categorize ‘we were sat at the bar’ and similar usages, they’re still non-standard English and should be avoided. I hope this blog has helped those of you who (perish the thought!) use this construction to see the error of your ways. While researching this topic I discovered that it’s frequently raised in online language forums. Some contributors regard it as non-standard but others seem to be prepared to accept it. I’m still firmly in the ‘anti’ camp: perhaps I’m fighting a losing battle, given that this usage is now so widespread that the BBC and newspapers such as The Guardian implicitly appear to endorse it as well.

What are your views on this? Use the Comments section below to tell me what’s happening or acceptable in your part of the world.

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