The Present Participle and Continuous Tenses

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The present participle, together with a the verb to be, is used to create continuous tenses.

Although a form of the verb, the present participle cannot be used as the main verb of a sentence. Trying to use it that way results in a sentence fragment: Playing in the lake.

To function as a verb, the present participle must be used with a helping verb: The children are playing in the lake.

Continuous tenses, also called progressive tenses, are used to describe a continuing action. The present, past, and future continuous tenses are formed with the present, past, or future of the verb to be and the present participle, i.e., the form of the verb that ends in -ing:

I am running for my life.
We were sitting in the hotel lobby.
This time next week, we will be celebrating your birthday.

In the comments to a post I wrote on the uses of sit and set, a reader brought my attention to an odd usage current in Britain. He provided this example: “The boy was sat on a rock by the harbour when the ship docked.”

The meaning of the sentence calls for a continuous tense: “The boy was sitting on a rock by the harbour when the ship docked.” The action of sitting was going on at the time the ship docked.

A post at the Oxford Dictionaries blog indicates that, while the usage may be popular among many speakers of British English, it’s not considered standard usage:

I’ve noticed several instances of […] ‘She’s sat at the table eating breakfast’ or ‘we were stood at the bar waiting to be served’.  Aarrgghh!!!  This construction is still regarded as non-standard.–OxfordWords blog

“Was sat” for “was sitting” seems to be a dialect form that has crept into the British mainstream. It is to be hoped (OK, I hope) that it won’t catch on with U.S. speakers.

According to the OED blogger, the aberration is limited to the verbs sit and stand:

It is 2pm and I am sat in my parents’ living room, talking to one of the cats.

We were stood at the bar waiting to be served.

If the action is continuous and uncompleted, you need an -ing verb:

It is 2pm and I am sitting in my parents’ living room, talking to one of the cats.

We were standing at the bar waiting to be served.

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10 thoughts on “The Present Participle and Continuous Tenses”

  1. Sadly, ‘sat’ and ‘stood’ seem to have become a standard here – the UK – over the the last few years. When I think of the hours we spent in sentence analysis in Grammar School and the wide use of R.P. it makes me feel very nostalgic for those days.

    Whenever I hear someone say something like, ‘I was stood in the rain.’ I can’t help thinking that a third party has been particularly unpleasant to do such a thing as to stand someone in such awful conditions!

    Language, however, is always ‘on the move’ but careful speakers have a responsibility to keep its long and hard-won history as pure as possible – and please don’t get me started on ‘could of’, ‘would of’ and ‘should of’, which can even be heard on national television nowadays!

    Thanks, as always, for a fascinating web-site and I hope you will have a Happy Christmas and a New Year filled with good things.


  2. Very good. And ‘opsimath’ took the words out of my fingers.

    This brings to mind a question: When one uses ‘to be’ as a helping verb, does that render the verb passive? “We were arm-wrestling for the TV remote as our wives walked in” certainly implies a lot of action, yet it also describes the state of the participants at a point in time. Its verb seems to have both active and passive characteristics.

    (A writer might cure this conflict by writing, “As we arm-wrestled for the TV remote, our wives walked in” if one can accept the shift of focus from our arm-wrestling to our wives walking.)

  3. Mr. Wheeler, the use of the verb “to be” as an auxiliary verb does NOT render the sentence into a passive construction. I will give you some examples:
    1. (Said over a cellular telephone) “I am walking to school in a snowstorm.”
    This sentence is in the present progressive tense.
    2. “I was strolling on the Moon one day, in the merry, merry month of May – DECEMBER!” This sentence is in the past progressive tense, and it was said by two astronauts of the Apollo Program who really were on the Moon.
    3. I will be driving across Canada someday, from east to west, if I live long enough. This sentence is in the future progressive tense.

    Forgive me if I have used the word “tense” instead of “mood” at some point. My mother the English teacher always said “the progressive mood”, and so did most of my English teachers in school. However, Mother was always my first and formost authority on English.
    The “progressive mood” fits in well with the “indicative mood”, “imperative mood”, “interrogatory mood”, and “subjunctive mood”.
    Mother had her master’s degree in education, and many years of teaching experience in junior high schools in the United States.

  4. Maeve needs to proofread carefully for spelling, and perhaps to use a spell-checker, too. In her text was “it’s not considered standarad usage.” Naturally, “standarad” should be “standard”.

    Somehow, “standarad” reminds me of nuclear radiation because the “rad” is a unit of exposure to radiation, for example 100 rads.

  5. The problem with these constructions – forms of to be – is it encourages passive voice, which publishers and writers strive to eliminate from fiction writing.

  6. This appears quite similar to the usage of “headed” instead of “heading”, which has become very common:
    1) “I was headed into town.”
    2) “The team were headed for victory.”

  7. I am Brazilian, so my native language is Portuguese. This sentence “It is 2pm and I am sat in my parents’ living room…” is completely grammatical in Portuguese- and I believe in all Romance languages. That is so because we don’t have “sit” and “sit down”, but only a verb that refers to “sitting down”. So, in Portuguese, first you “sit” [sit down] and, once you’ve done that, you are “sat”, just like when you first “break” something and, once you’ve done that, it is “broken”.

    I wonder whether it could be an influence from immigrants, just like the American “meet with” is supposed to be.

  8. That’s too bad. Pretty soon, within a few years we’ll all be speaking newspeak. That’s doubleplusungood. The difference might be that it won’t be sanctioned by any kind of all encompassing totalitarian government.

  9. I really hate the use of sat instead of sitting. I think the construction ‘I was sat …’ is particularly confined to England. In Ireland it is definitely not very common and would be considered bad grammar.

  10. Is the use of …”was sat”… true if the point was to emphasise that the boy was sitting there and not somewhere else?

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