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 here’s one in a story from the Daily Mail.

“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 40

  • 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!

    • I’m sure this is inadequate, but it’s all I can think of:

      In order for it to make sense, perhaps you need to substitute another word which ends in “ed” as well, so:

      “A western couple are seated near an ice bucket.”

  • 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.

    • Hallelujah!!! Someone actually gets it , and knows right from wrong – a rare thing indeed today !

    • Exactly! Just leave out the was, i.e he stood at the bus stop for 2 hours. No need for the ugly and incorrect “was.”

  • 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.

  • 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!!

  • I think that you have missed a point here. Standing can mean the act of being on your feet, but it can also mean the action of getting to your feet from a sitting position. It is quite acceptable, and grammatically correct, to say that you are stood when you have completed the act of standing, in the same was as you would say that you were parked when you had completed parking your car.

    • As I said towards the beginning, I was referring to past continuous actions. Besides, I think you’d say “I have stood (up)” rather than “I am stood”, in the situation you describe.

    • Nope – it’s either ‘ you stood ‘ or ‘ you were standing. It’s not ‘ you were stood ‘ unless someone placed you there. End of story. What shocks me is this is primary school stuff that I was taught at a very young age.

      • But ppl are using it as “we ARE stood” when they are standing right there now, in the present, not in past tense.

        • I’ve just read this article today and couldn’t help laughing at myself. I listen to a lot of audiobooks on YouTube, mainly by British writers, and noticed the use of the words ‘was sat’ in many of them. I thought that the English language must have been updated in my absence. I’m from Libya, so with all that’s been going on here for the past decade, reading British novels took a backseat in my life.

  • The house at Crickhollow stood silent.
    He shrank back, and for a moment he stood trembling in the hall.

    Both from ch 11 Fellowship of the Ring by the great J.R. Tolkien
    I think if it’s ok for him….

  • “a western couple are sprawled near an ice bucket” – “sprawled” in this sentence is a noun describing the state of being sprawled, not the verb “to sprawl.”

  • “I was sprawled” makes perfect sense because, again “sprawled” here is a noun describing a state you were in rather than an action you were taking. Just like you can say “I was happy.” Many verbs can also be nouns, which is where I think the confusion is, and “sprawled” even more so because it has the same spelling as the past participle of “to sprawl.”

  • Sorry I meant adjective, not a noun

  • It’s an idiom, and people define themselves through its usage. So I you’ll never quash it.
    It’s hard, and i feel your pain, but in the real world literacy takes myriad forms.

  • PS is annoying that there’s no “edit” function here so we can polish our ideas and weed out the typos!

  • Read the third line of ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith.

  • This is just a mild contribution but I just read the third line of ‘White Teeth’ by Zadie Smith as you suggested. Here is an excerpt below;

    “Early in the morning, late in the century, Cricklewood Broadway. At 06.27 hours on 1 January 1975, Alfred Archibald Jones was dressed in corduroy and sat…”

    According to this text, I think ‘was dressed’ as used in the passage was referred to in passive voice.
    Although I didn’t read the entire novel but I think the story is reported in third person.

    ‘Was dressed’ suggests an action that has already been completed hence it was used appropriately.

    However, ‘was dressed’ was used in passive voice whereas I believe we are trying to figure out if it would be appropriate to use such example in cases of active voice, for example, ‘I am stood’ or ‘I am standing’

  • So, is ‘Sitting on the dock of the bay’ wrong?

  • Nowadays you read “xxx was stood”, “xxx was sat” in every recently written book. Alas….

    • It does seem to be increasingly the case that both sub-editors and copy editors are either leaving it / accepting it, or simply missing it …

  • What is wrong with “I was sitting there for fifteen minutes before she arrived?
    In my view that is correct, but all one hears is “I was sat….” which offends my ears!

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