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Some time ago there was a rather lively discussion on the language blog, Pain in the English, about these two idiomatic expressions. 

Let's take a look at a couple of examples from Google Books:

He was sat there with his arms over the back of the sofa looking really upset so I thought there was something ...
Under the Rotunda - Danny Bernardi

In an instant, Dave knew that he was stood on a road and that there was a vehicle coming..


The Company - James McCann

And here's one with both

We saw him later on chatting to another bunch of bemused holidaymakers, only they were sat down and he was stood in front of them, in his Speedos ...
Thai Tales - Justin Dunn


In Standard English we'd normally use past continuous here - he was sitting, he was standing, but in certain regions of England, especially in the North, these expressions are quite common. These expressions are for the moment 'non-standard', that's to say, considered as dialect, but I think that is changing.


I, perhaps shouldn't stress that this is very much a phenomenon of British English; I haven't heard these expressions being used by Americans.

And what's more, they seem to be emerging from being purely dialect expressions to being used in what RW Burchfield (Editor of Oxford dictionary), writing in the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern English, describes as being on the fringes of Standard English.


I certainly know educated northerners who use these expressions, but who otherwise speak standard English. But increasingly, I'm also hearing this expression used by non-northerners.

According to Burchfield, the Oxford English Dictionary refers to he was sat as "NOW dial" (dialect), suggesting that at one time it was, in fact, Standard English, but is now limited to dialect use. 

I can find very little informed comment on the Internet about this, so I have to largely rely on Burchfield, and as Burchfield points out, it seems to have more recently coming out of the dialect closet.


One problem is that these expressions don't seem to appear in any online dictionaries. Most of the references to them on the Internet are on forums, which are never a reliable guide to what's grammatically acceptable.


Indeed, some people get very angry at this usage, and the debate at Pain in the English included a couple of grammatical arguments to prove that this usage was not correct. Very often commenters on forums provide us with rather condescending lessons in the formation of the past continuous, to prove their point. 


But I think they're missing the point: these are idiomatic expressions. I also think they were barking up the wrong grammatical tree, but we'll see about that later.
In the Telegraph, a certain Peter Mullen, in a diatribe against modern teaching, complained that a whole generation of teachers know no grammar, saying:
They say, “I was sat” when they mean “I was sitting.” They say, “I was stood” when they intend – insofar as such thickos are capable of intending anything – “I was standing.”

But fortunately, the Telegraph also has Tom Chivers, one of the best journalists commentating on the English language, who gave a balancing view. This opens up the fascinating subject as to what the relationship between Standard English and its non-standard variants should be, and as to their relative status. This is especially important in British schools, where it has been estimated that less than fifteen percent of children arriving at school have Standard English as their mother tongue, but that's a subject for another post, perhaps.

My own bet is that within twenty years these expressions will be seen as perfectly standard, if informal and idiomatic, British English.

Am I suggesting that learners should use these expressions?

Of course not, but not because it's some terrible crime, but because firstly, for you, it wouldn't be natural language unless you've had a teacher from Northern England who has really influenced the way you speak.
And sadly, as it is not universally accepted, some people will judge you negatively for using it, although personally, I think these people are getting fewer and fewer.



But I have to say that personally, I find them rather attractive and, like a lot of idiomatic English, an enrichment of the language.
The main thing is that when you hear a native speaker say it, don't think they are making an error or are grammatically ignorant: this is a perfectly natural British English expression, albeit one that is not accepted in all quarters.

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