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Are you sitting comfortably?

The letters page of today’s Times makes for hilarious, comforting, or irritating reading, depending on your point of view. A large selection are public replies to John Humphrys’ query (in the context of his debate with Melvyn Bragg), asking what annoys people when it comes to language.

Most people who have worked either for or with me would probably call me a pedant in this regard, because the sight of a misplaced apostrophe is enough to drive me to apoplexy. But in truth, I am well ensconced in the camp that says language is about making oneself understood, and I therefore recognise that usage is fluid. That is precisely why I rail at people who put an apostrophe in its for the possessive, because it’s a completely different word, and therefore renders a sentence meaningless when mis-used. Anything that requires someone to read something twice is worse than simply an irritation. In contrast, saying ‘for free’ (even in the knowledge that free on its own already means ‘for nothing’) is just modern usage, and if you objected to the ‘are’ after ‘a large selection’ in my second sentence and insist it should be ‘is’, then you’re a bore: the letters are clearly the implied subject.

The letter that stands out for me, on that basis, is the one that draws attention to the sudden ubiquity of the word ‘sat’, as in ‘I was sat there’. It has to be the most irritating expression on the planet, for two reasons: first, that it means something already (just not the thing that people use it to mean); and second, because no other verb is mis-used in the same manner. Worse, if any other verb were, people who object to objections about the use of ‘sat’ would laugh.

Imagine, for example, that someone said, “I was swung on a rope” when they mean “I was swinging”; or “yesterday, I was sung in the shower” for “I was singing”. People would look at them as if they were nuts. “I was run to the shops”; “I was flagged that there was a problem”; “I was fed my baby”… All these things mean something, but clearly something very different from, “I was running to the shops”, “I was flagging that there was a problem”, and “I was feeding my baby”. I am sure no-one would dispute it.

And yet, with sat, new rules apply. “I was sat on a bench in the park” means someone physically put me there, not that I was sitting watching the world go by.

“Oh what pedantry!” I hear you cry… And yet, you were with me a moment ago when we talked about you having been fed your baby, and the exact equivalent applies. The different uses have very different meanings. I am sure you wouldn’t ever say you were dogging, when actually you were dogged…

Doubtless some will argue that the meaning is obvious in one case, but that simply isn’t true. There are plenty of occasions when the real meaning of sat is relevant to convey a specific purpose, but the ability to explain it is increasingly becoming lost. “I was sat next to the Prime Minister at dinner” does not mean, “I was sitting next to the Prime Minister (and I am now going to tell you what happened next)”. It means that there was a table plan, and on reading it, I found that my allocated seat was right alongside the one occupied by the First Lord of the Treasury. It’s a different story altogether, as ten years ago would have been obvious. In ten years’ time, people might be saying “I was helped” to convey that they were helping, and no-one will be sure which they mean.

So that’s my rant of the day. At least “its” and “it’s” are only confusing when written down, such that in everyday speech you don’t need to try to work out what someone means when they effectively say, “the sun has got it is hat on”. But ‘sat’? Well, I hope for your sake that you never find yourself sat on the fence.

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