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.


  1. 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 :)

    1. Yes it is wrong. It used to he Northern it's now more widely inaccurate. I was lying on the bed or I lay on the bed. Unless someone picked you up & put you on the bed.

      Rough rule of thumb only tables and eggs are laid.

  2. 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...

  3. 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!

    1. I stood or I was standing are the only correct versions.

    2. Interesting. So would you say 'was sitting on the beach' but 'was sat at your desk'?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. We had invigilators at my Canadian university.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.).

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

    1. Wish everyone had a voice telling them to stop fouling up the English language. I was stood, sat & laid (last us particularly unfortunate) are all just wrong; as is the interminable instruction to lay down in gym classes.

  12. 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?

  13. 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.

  14. @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")

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

  17. I haven't got much time for 'correct'. Language is interesting. Prejudices about language are interesting in different ways.

    For what it's worth, intransitive 'lay' has been used since at least the 14th century.

  18. The prejudice against was sat and was stood seems to be a south-of England phenomenon.

    For me (brought up in the East Midlands of England) they are distinct in meaning from was sitting and was standing and ever-so-slightly different form sat and stood.

    I was sitting in the from row is a bit of a strange thing to say. To me it suggests that there was a choice between sitting and standing and i chose the former.

    I sat in the front row is, for me, ambiguous. It can mean 'I sat down in the front row'. The other meaning seems to draw a bit too much attention to posture. OK if I mean 'I continued to sit' or 'I sat all the time'.

    I was sat in the front row for me downplays the sitting — much the same effect as 'I was in the front row' or 'I had a front row seat'.

    I was seated in the front row is ambiguous. It can mean 'Somebody allotted me a seat' or it can be an old fashioned (in danger of being pompous) equivalent of I was sat.

    As far as I can tell, speakers from other regions of the English-speaking world (i.e. not the south of England) don't share this Northern English habit. But they're not hostile to it either.

  19. American perspective:

    I see "was sat/stood/etc." and my brain--after taking about five seconds to scream "WRONG!" and typo-correct to either "stood" or "was standing"--plays me an amusing sequence in which giant hands grab the person being "was stood" and manipulating them like a Barbie doll before propping them up against a wall, much like a cardboard cut-out. That's probably just me, though.

    Basically, when I see that particular construction, I /always/ assume that either it's a mistake or the person writing has a weak or erratic grasp of grammar. (The fact that I've only come across this on the Internet, which is notorious for poor writing, certainly didn't help. Now that I know that it's a British thing, I may or may not try to be more lenient in the future.) Aside from it going against all my grammatical instincts, it also just sounds really awkward and interrupts the flow of whatever I was reading, even aside from my brain's imaginings. Like I said above, though, this vehemence is probably just me.

  20. Anonymous

    I've just been reading a new book called A Historical Syntax of English .

    In Old English there were constructions with HAVE or BE and a past particle used as an adjective — as can be seen from the case-number-and-gender endings. These developed into PERFECT 'tenses' with the participle uninflected.

    Up till around 1750, the two Perfects existed side by side in English —BE withe some verbs, HAVE with others. The HAVE began to poach verbs from the BE group. By about 1900, BE Perfects had disappeared from the written standard language.

    Apparently they didn't disappear from the spoken standard language in some regions of England, and possibly elsewhere.

    What's fascinating about these pairs of Perfects is that they exist in other languages both related to and unrelated to English. Over-arching these languages there's a hierarchy of choices.

    change of location arrive.....................................Most likely with BE
    change of state (become)
    continuation of pre-existing state (remain)
    existence of state (be, sit, lie)
    uncontrolled process (tremble, skid sneeze)
    controlled process (motional) (swim run cycle)
    controlled process (nonmotional)(work, play)...Most likely with HAVE

    At the top of the list, I think many people still find is arrived unexceptional. Half-way down, there are a few of us who cling to is sat, at least in the spoken language.

    This hierarchy is of INTRANSITIVE verbs. Transitive verbs (verbs with Objects) have pretty well always formed their Perfects with HAVE.

  21. I read "she was stood up" and couldn't help but think of the (probably very American) meaning where it means "Was asked to a date, but then the other person never showed up (on purpose)." XDD


The book!

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AmE = American English
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OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)