Monday, September 18, 2006

the exam was sat

Previously, there's been some discussion on this site of the BrE use of sit and stand in the passive, as in:
It was only four months ago that I was sat in a pub at lunch time with my head in my hands. —Nichola at Looking Glass Society
She called back to me, from where she was stood up at the front of the queue, she said, 'Where was it that Morrissey lost his bag?'The Wrong Boy by Willy Russell
To Americans, this passive use of the verbs sit and stand sounds strange. Interestingly, you don't get the same passive usage for lie so much, with either the (usually intransitive form) lain or the (usually—or at least prescriptively—transitive) form laid. Better Half (who's ok with passive sat) says he wouldn't say this at all--but some (like Rebecca in the comments!) would. Here are some web examples:
Anoron sat in a plush chair within Legolas' room. He was lain on the bed; sheets slewn about him, his bare beautiful body showing as he lay on his side fast asleep. —from what appears to be Middle Earth slash fiction by Anorista
His nose was bleeding and he was laid on the bed face down. —The Daily Mail

Today I was struck by another use of passive sat in the documentation for an examination board, which said something like:
The exam was sat on the 29th.
In AmE, one takes exams rather than sitting exams, as they do in BrE. Since sit in this instance is transitive, with exam as its direct object, it's perfectly grammatical in the passive in BrE.

Students sit exams or write them in BrE, and examiners set exam papers. But in my first teaching job outside the US, I frequently said I have to go write my exams, confusing my colleagues who thought I already had the requisite degrees. I now set papers with the best of 'em. Unfortunately, this means that I have to (BrE) mark/(AmE) grade them too.

Outside the US, I also had to learn to invigilate exams. The first time I heard this term, I said to my South African colleague "Oooh, that sound painful." He said, "Well what do you call it then?" "Proctoring", I said. You can imagine his response.

16 comments:

Rebecca said...

Newport Pagnell. *Smiths fan*

I think I assumed 'sit an exam' was from ye olde worlde of Oxbridge and you know, the dumb things they do there. It always annoyed me when people ask what I 'read' at university because my honest answer is 'Heat magazine'. Ha ha ha.

I WOULD say 'I was laid on the bed', though, for definites. Is it wrong? May be a Northern thing :)

lynneguist said...

Oh, I'm getting sloppy. I meant to google this before posting, but instead just took BH's word for it (and my experience) at face value regarding lie/lay in the passive. I've now done the googling and gone back and improved the post. Thanks much, Rebecca.

While I definitely associate read with Oxbridgy talk, sit exams is used across universities, and for A-levels and GCSEs, etc. It may have started there (a lot of university things did), but it's spread widely now.

Another thing that's different in UK universities (versus US ones) is that you can resit exams. (We also use noun versions of these, as in Did that student take a sit or a resit?) I've never worked or studied at an American university where one gets the chance to re-take a failed exam. If you fail, you fail, and you have to take the course over. But UK university degree program(me)s are much more rigid in their structure, so you can't just re-take a second year course in your third year if you failed it (as Americans would have to do), so the options are resit the exam or (if you've already failed a resit) re-take the entire year's worth of courses. I find this aspect of the system very frustrating...

Howard said...

To me, "I was sat" carries more meaning than "I sat" or "I was sitting" - it could mean for example, that a waiter had shown you to a table, or that circumstances caused you to be sitting (quite often with the implication that the actual circumstances aren't relevant to the story). Sometimes there is an implication that the person telling the story isn't entirely happy with the circumstances, e.g., "I was stood in the immigration queue for hours!" = "They forced us to wait for hours in the immigration queue".

"I was stood at the corner when suddenly ..." could imply "It so happened that I was standing at the corner when ..." - with perhaps an idea that what happened next was beyond your immediate control.

Well, that's my take on those idioms, anyway!

lynneguist said...

I have the same sense of the passive ones (I think I said so back at the having a Chinese discussion, but not all of the examples one finds agree with that--which isn't really surprising--connotations are slippery things. But that's definitely the connotation I get.

John Cowan said...

You can definitely retake an exam in AmE if you missed it through no fault of your own, as opposed to simply flunking (AmE) it.

Canadian said...

We had invigilators at my Canadian university.

Solo said...

This is slightly OT and long after the fact but, I always say 'read' to describe what is being studied at university. I thought it was the proper term. If I ask someone what they're reading and they don't understand the question, then they shouldn't have been let in in my opinion.

Incidentally Lynneguist, I've never heard anyone say 'write an exam' when they're going to be taking it. If I'd heard you say that I would have taken it to mean you were composing the exam paper.

lynneguist said...

Perhaps your generation is getting away from this usage, but I can report that before I learned to say "set an exam". Here is an exampe from an Essex University help page, confusingly titled 'Writing exam questions':

"There is more than one way to write an exam but here are a few tips which may be helpful and are based on a typical three-hour exam in which you have to answer three essay questions. I stress that these are suggestions and not prescriptions. Many people write good exams their own way and these suggestions will not be helpful to everyone."

Searching the web, the 'write an exam' usage seems common in Canada as well as the UK.

Boris said...

I'm not sure whether this has already been covered, but is "mark" for "grade" really a Britishism? I see nothing wrong with this usage (northeast US), though I'm a bit more happy with marking papers than with marking exams.

lynneguist said...

You can say 'mark' in AmE, but it's the norm to say 'grade'. When I worked in the US, I graded papers and students complained about their grades. In the UK, I mark papers and students complain about their marks.

Also, in the UK, I've found that it doesn't work as well to say that one gets X number of 'points' for a question on an exam, which is what I would have said in AmE. Here, one would say 'you get 10 marks for part one and 5 marks for part two' (etc.).

Anonymous said...

Whenever someone says "I was sat [somewhere]", I hear in my mind my late mother saying "Sitting!"

Anonymous said...

Studying in the U.S. between 2005 and 2009, I noticed that people almost always used 'lay' in places I would use 'lie'. As in, "Are you laying down" or "Let's lay down". This grated on my ears, and sounds wrong. Is it standard, or were most undergrads just wrong?

lynneguist said...

Intransitive 'lay' is not considered to be standard, but it is widespread. It's also not just American--I've heard my English husband using it.

vp said...

@Anonymous:

My wife (born in Texas) will tell our two-year-old daughter to "lay down". I (born in England) will tell her to "lie down".

On the other hand, I often hear English people using "lie" where standard English would have "lay": for example

*Lie that blanket on the ground.

I even catch myself doing that sometimes.

I think there are probably very few people who consistently use all forms of "lie" and "lay" according to the rulebook.

For example, without looking it up, do you know the past tense and past participles of "lie" and "lay"?

(the past tense of "lie" is "lay", and the past participle is "lain": the past tense and past participle of lay" is "laid")

Richard Gadsden said...

If I said "I was laid on the bed" (as opposed to "I was lying on/in the bed" or "I was lain on the bed" then it would definitely mean that I was, well, getting laid on the bed.

AP said...

So long after the fact--oh well!

I teach American lit/writing at a university in Florida, US, where I grade papers and students complain about those grades. Since I teach "process writing," where students submit multiple drafts before a final version which will be graded, I often find myself in the position of needing to give them feedback which does not contain a letter or number evaluation--just improvement suggestions. In that case, I usually say I have to "respond to" student papers--but I have heard and said myself that I have to "mark" or "mark up" student papers, as an editor would insert marks in a document. In this case, "mark up" is used to specifically say that I am not grading them or marking them in the BrE sense. Students have also used this term when they bring me a draft in my office hours: "Mark it up, please." An interesting switcheroo.