Sat and sitting; stood and standing (Mistakes #115 and #116)

It is perfectly correct to say, “I was stood at the bus stop” — but only if someone picked you up physically, walked you to the bus stop, placed you down and stood you there.

It is just fine to say, “We were sat at the table in the restaurant” — but only if the waiter walked you over to the table, and indicated that you should sit there.

These are both completed actions, in the past tense.

If you are describing past continuous actions — which, let’s face it, is far more likely — then you need standing, and you need sitting.

Please use them. Please, please use them.

“I was stood there ages”, “I was sat there waiting” … expressions which sound ugly to my ear, which I know I use in conversation, and you might too.

That’s fine.

Just don’t let them stray into your writing (notable exception: unless it comes out of the mouth of a character in fiction).

A published example hasn’t been easy to find, but — health warning — here’s one in a story I’m at pains to emphasise I wouldn’t normally read, in a paper I wouldn’t normally touch with my worst enemy’s bargepole.

“Photographers also claim he was spotted outside the apartment that was raided with Kim inside and that he was stood there for two hours, constantly looking inside the gate and clutching his phone.”

Let’s give the final word to the Guardian Style Guide, shall we?

To invoke the present continuous this time: I’m not stood beside you on this one, GSG, but I am definitely standing.

Enjoy this mistake? Find many more in the eBooks 50 Mistakes Beginner Writers Make and 50 More Mistakes Beginner Writers Make, both available for £1.99 / $2.99 in UK / US respectively, as well as other Amazon sites worldwide. 

Comments 15

  • I thought I understood this construction until I read the following in a usage guide: “a western couple are sprawled near an ice bucket”.

    It’s clearly not a passive construction, as the subject – the couple – are doing the sprawling. So why is it not ‘are sprawling near an ice bucket’?

    I’ve looked up the verb ‘to sprawl’ and many reputable grammar sites permit this quasi-passive construction when it comes to the verb ‘sprawl’.

    Can anyone help me to wrap my head around this?

    • What a good question …. I might have to call for back-up on Twitter!

      • Thanks – I hope someone knows the answer! It’s been driving me mad all weekend.

        • I’m wondering whether it’s quite the same because you’d say “in a standing position” (not “in a stood position”) at a bus stop, but you wouldn’t say “in a sprawling position” (not “in a sprawled position”) on the floor?

          Is it because to stand (i.e. to be standing) is an ongoing action, as is to sit (i.e. to be sitting), but to sprawl is to put yourself into a sprawled position, and therefore is a complete not ongoing action – even if you continue to maintain the position, because you’ve stopped putting yourself into it (as you already are in it).

          And now my head hurts too …. Have appealed for help on Facebook as well, Daniel, so someone will hopefully relieve our befuddled misery soon ….

          • I definitely think you’re on to something with that explanation. It’s analogous to ‘positioned’. You can say ‘I was positioned on the floor’ without it being a passive construction (although I note that in passive voice the sentence would be exactly the same?).

            What I still don’t understand, however, is who gets to decide which actions are ongoing and which are complete! A statue in a standing position will maintain his activity for just as long as one that is sprawled!

          • This from a chap called Nicholas via my Facebook page:

            “‘He was stood’ or ‘He was sat’ imply that someone had stood him there or sat him there (he didn’t do it for himself). You can ‘send somebody sprawling’ but you can’t ‘sprawl’ someone. With ‘sprawled’, there is no direct implication of another agent involved. OK – so this is my best guess… ‘sprawled’ – he was already there – ‘sprawling’ – he’s in the middle of a sprawl!”

            I quite like that one too!

  • It’s much simpler than any of this, you don’t put 2 consecutive verbs together. Therefore, you either say ‘He stood at the bus-stop’ or ‘He was standing at the bus stop’…..But never ‘was stood.’

    • Huh? You can say ‘he was stood at the bus stop’ if someone picked him up and stood him there (i.e. he was placed there). But that’s not normally what someone means when they say that …

      • No, in that context it would be ‘he was left standing….’
        Same rule applies, don’t follow a verb with a verb.

        • No, I meant ‘he was placed there’. He was positioned there. Somebody picked him up and put him there. He was set down there. He was stood there. All legitimate phrases, surely.

          • Ah yes, but not as a standalone statement. For it to make sense and be fully understood in that context, the sentence would need to be completed.

  • Sat and Stood are used in the past, present and future tenses where sitting and standing would be more correct. This was originally a northern turn of phrase but is now commonplace across the UK and increasingly across the pond in the US. It is not usually acceptable in written English, unless quoting someone and would be positively frowned upon on a formal document (career suicide if you use it on your CV!!). However it is preferred in speech as it is used more as an adjective than a verb and therefore confers some sense of ‘attitude’. ‘I was sitting at the table’ sounds very passive compared to ‘I was sat at the table’ which implies you were either annoyed at having to wait or determined not to move until you were satisfied.

    ‘I was sprawled’ works the same way but ‘I was ran’ or ‘I was walked’ make no sense. ‘I was drunk’ is grammatically correct but may not be quite the impression you wanted to give!!

    • Thank you – very interesting perspective, re: the adjectival sense and how it works for ‘sprawled’ … although that one ‘feels’ less wrong, strangely …

  • To be fair, I think it started as a well meaning but misguided attempt to differentiate between the past continuous and the past complete. To some folk, ‘sitting’ would be the ongoing action of going from a standing position to being seated for example.
    I was just (in the process of) sitting there when some one shouted ‘Stop! There’s a scorpion on that log!’
    I was just sat there waiting like a lemon for 2 hours.

    I saw him sprawling on the ground, arms and legs flailing around.
    I saw him sprawled on the ground, spark out!

    I do understand the sentiment but it still makes me cringe slightly and I find myself correcting people under my breath.
    Goodness me, don’t start me on ‘Hence why….’ or ‘me and John’ etc.
    ;o)

  • Sorry, posted too quickly. I meant to say:- Sprawling vs sprawled is actually a correct differentation. That one doesn’t make me cringe. Hence, it sounds less wrong because it isn’t wrong!

    Just sat and stood!!

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