“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.” Many British readers will be sad to learn the news of the death of Daphne Oxenford, who uttered those famous words every afternoon for a couple of decades in the 50s and 60s as she introduced the BBC radio show Listen With Mother . The Telegraph‘s obituary is here:
Nowadays, are we sat comfortably?
Google the words “was sat”, and you’ll get a lot of information about the standardized test that American high school kids take to get into college. That’s what s, a, and t mean — in that order — to most Americans: the three-letter word (well, the acronym) just makes them feel a bit sick. (It’s a lot like what most middle-aged Brits now feel when they read or hear the words clunk and click …)
Anyway, back to “was sat”. As my schoolfriend Fleur recently asked me: “How do you and your Glossophilia chums feel about ‘was sat’ as against ‘was sitting’? I notice that it is now creeping past editors into published fiction. Personally – it grates, but is it now in common usage and allowable?”
Well, my gut reaction is the same as Fleur’s: it grates on me. But I’ve been living in America for 15 years, and this is not something you ever hear on these shores (unless you’re chatting with a Brit — especially one from up North — on his hols). Whether in the past, present or future, you are/were/will be sitting or you sit/sat/will sit. But you rarely, if ever, are, were or will be sat. Replacing the present or past progressive (sitting) incorrectly with the past simple or past participle (sat) seems to be a regionalism from the North and West of England whose use has become so frequent and widespread that it’s now a standard British colloquialism. “She was sat in front of the TV when her husband arrived home.” But I think this practice still grates on many English ears.
There is arguably one use of “was sat” that is legitimate: when the verb “to sit” (usually followed by “down”) is used transitively — ie. when someone is sitting something or someone else, and it’s used in the passive past tense. “She sat me down to tell me the bad news” can technically be phrased passively as “I was sat down to be given the bad news.” Even in this transitive, passive form the “was sat” sounds awkward; most writers would probably rephrase the sentence, perhaps reverting to the active use of the verb. And “seat/seated” is preferable to “sit/sat” when the transitive verb is needed: “The waiter seated us next to the window”, hence, “We were seated next to the window”.
In Christopher Edge’s book Twelve Minutes to Midnight, he writes: “She felt herself lowered gently down until she was sat slumped against the wall of the cell.” Is Edge using the transitive passive form of sit here, since the suggestion is that someone else is lowering her into a seated position? In that case, wouldn’t the gentle lowering be part of the seating process and therefore not precede her state of being sat, as suggested by the word until? Or is the colloquialism now passing muster — as Fleur suggests — and escaping the modern editor’s red pen?