“(David Miliband’s wife) did not accompany him to a private room to hear the news first, but was sat immediately behind him in the main hall when the result was flashed to the rest of the delegates.”
It’s wrong because “sat” should be either “sitting” or “seated” – and, frighteningly, it was published in the Daily Mail on Tuesday.
The reason it’s grammatically incorrect is that “she was sat” confuses the past imperfect verb structure with past participle use.
If you’re not convinced, consider a different example: you would never say “she was ate a bar of chocolate” or “she was drank a glass of wine”, now would you?
That fact national journalists have succumbed to this grammatical horror demonstrates how widespread its usage has become: it appears on social networking sites almost daily and I’ve heard teachers say it; yet to me it’s the linguistic equivalent of someone dragging their fingers nails down a blackboard. Ouch!
Birmingham writer and poet Sibyl Ruth tells me that, according to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, substituting the participle “sitting” for “sat” is an English regionalism, used widely in the north and west of England. It is, however, purely a dialect variation and ought to be avoided in formal writing.
Of course, lots of people are of the opinion that if dodgy grammar doesn’t compromise the meaning of what’s being said, it doesn’t matter very much. I know I’m a pedant, but I beg to differ.
Someone else who thinks sloppy English matters is the actress Emma Thompson. She told the Radio Times: “We have to reinvest, I think, in the idea of articulacy as a form of personal human freedom and power.
“I went to give a talk at my old school and the girls were all doing their ‘likes’ and ‘innits?’ and ‘it ain’ts’, which drives me insane. I told them, ‘just don’t do it. Because it makes you sound stupid and you’re not stupid’.”
The actress argued that while it had long been common for teenagers to have their own style and way of speaking among their friends, some were now using it regardless of whether it was appropriate for the situation.
Her comments are backed up by research published earlier this year that reveals some teenagers are becoming unemployable because, despite often understanding thousands of words, they limit themselves to a working vocabulary of only 800. And most of those are made-up words or “teen speak”.
While there’s nothing wrong, in their place, with a bit of colloquialism and made-up words (William Golding invented his own, after all), Emma Thompson is right when she says that by not having the ability or nous to use correct English in formal situations, even the brightest young people run the risk of appearing thick.
My fear is that if things carry on as they are – with those who should know better, such as teachers and journalists, using incorrect parlance – then the day will come when people are turned down for jobs because they can string a proper sentence together!