You might have noticed this structure used by native speakers, particularly from Ireland or the UK. And you might have thought: Well that’s not right. It should be I was sitting there, shouldn’t it?
Yes, it should. But also, well, not really, no. Let’s investigate…
I’ve noticed criticisms of the expression I/She etc. was sat (or stood) recently, particularly of its use in public forums, such as in news reports, with the general sentiment that it’s not good grammar.
And while I have some sympathy for this point of view, these criticisms also don’t quite sit right with me (or should that be aren’t quite sat right…?) But let’s start at the start first, and answer the question, Is it bad grammar?
Certainly, using the past continuous – I was sitting – is correct. And at first glance, I was sat doesn’t seem correct. It might not appear to follow the structure of a recognisable English tense, following the past-simple form of the verb to be (was) with the past-participle form of the verb to sit.
But what if I told you that I was tired? Or I was scared? I was confused, surprised, bored, excited, interested, lost, exhausted – they’re all OK, aren’t they?
And what we’re doing in all those cases is on one level the same as what we’re doing when we say I was sat – using a past participle as an adjective. Now if you look back at all those examples, you’ll notice that they’re all referring to feelings, either physical or emotional, and that’s obviously not the case when we say I was sat. Still, there is a precedent for that basic structure in English (and many other languages).
And if you think about it, there’s a logic to using sat as an adjective, as it’s a passive situation. When we say I was sitting or standing we’re talking about a state, not a dynamic action, so it’s not really so strange to use I was sat or stood instead.
Of course another very persuasive argument in favour of the structure is that lots of people use it, and it’s comprehensible. And whether you like it or not, that’s generally how what we consider correct grammar comes to be so accepted.
Because it’s widely used then, and comprehensible, but still not what you’d find in a grammar book, it’s usually categorised by those in the know as non-standard grammar. Which I like to think of as language that’s fine to use in conversation, but not in an English-language exam.
And in fairness, lots of critics of I was sat argue it’s OK to use in informal conversation, but not in broadcasting. To which I say: why not?
And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way: I’m actually genuinely curious to hear arguments against it, as most don’t usually extend beyond It’s bad grammar or It’s wrong, and I don’t think that’s reason enough to exclude it.
What’s so bad about letting people hear some non-standard grammar? I’m not saying we should say anything goes and have people address a national audience in very specific slang or dialect that only a select few would understand. But if something is comprehensible and logical, like I was sat, what’s the harm in it?
I guess what’s really at the heart of this is the very concept of standard English, which is surprisingly problematic. Which form of English gets to be standard English?
The answer of course, is none, as different countries have different recognised standard forms, though internationally UK Standard English with a Received Pronunciation accent tends to be seen as the standard others deviate from, even if it’s spoken by a relatively small number of people.
But prejudice against accents, dialects and structures that differ from “the Queen’s English” remains surprisingly common, even among people who don’t speak it themselves (for example, a tweet by an Irish journalist complaining about I was sat is what inspired this post). See the number of complaints about “regional” accents on the BBC, even though we all live in a region, so the very concept of a regional accent is nonsensical.
This surprises me, as in many countries we now have access to so much more information than in the past, and as a result are more aware of the lives of other people, and are more sensitive to prejudice. Most of us would never dream of consciously or overtly discriminating against someone because of their social class, level of education, nationality, or race. But it’s still quite acceptable to openly criticise someone who uses language which is influenced by these factors. Not merely acceptable, but quite populist in fact. I could probably post something like Don’t you hate when people say I was sat! or It really annoys me when people say We was!! and get a lot of support. Or at least I could if I were popular.
And that’s partly because such prejudices are still sadly common, even if they’re often unconscious. I think though that in terms of language, there’s some psychology at work as well. I think for English speakers in particular, we often have a slight insecurity about whether or not we’re using the language correctly, as English can be complex, but also contains different forms that are considered correct by different groups. How many people have fretted about the “correct” pronunciation of words like controversy or schedule, for example?
Because of this insecurity therefore, we tend to pounce on people we think are using the language incorrectly, to assert our own perception of correct usage, and perhaps project our own fears that we don’t always get it right.
That’s why I think we need to open our eyes and ears a little more to different forms of English. Language has often been used as a tool by the powerful to control the rest of us. This is most evident in terms of class and colonialism, when the language of the upper classes or the colonisers are coded as the correct form, and anyone who doesn’t conform to their usage is in the wrong. They either adapt to the modes of language use of the powerful, or are excluded. And of course controlling language is also a simple way to control the narrative, and ensure that the powerful get to communicate what they want, and silence other voices.
It might not seem like much, but embracing an accent or dialect, or simply using a past participle instead of a present participle can be a little revolution, and spread power a little more evenly among people.