The English Pedant – Sitting down and watching on

As much as the most vigilant student of the changing English language might attempt to sidestep developments he or she doesn’t want to embrace, it is highly likely that we are using words and expressions that our predecessors would have frowned upon.

Take the notions of standing up and sitting down, for instance. When we are on our feet but not moving we are simply standing. We’re not in the act of standing up – because that’s what ‘standing up’ is. It’s the movement we make to change from lying or sitting to standing. Once we are up, we’re no longer standing up, but simply standing.

If we reverse the process, the action is sitting down. Once we’ve done that we are merely sitting.

There are variations in the sitting posture, however. How about the idea of telling someone to  sit up? That means they were slouching in their chair and we want them to remain sitting but do so with a straight back.

The people who are often  told to sit up are children and adolescents, whose default position is as relaxed as possible.

Even when we take the up out of the equation, many of us use the wrong part of the verb. How many times have you heard someone say “I was sat in the cinema when my phone rang” or “I was stood in the queue for half an hour, waiting to get in”.

So, Wanye Rooney is not playing today, but watching on from the dugout.

As ever, sport has its own uses for these words. In cricket, when a bowler bowls and the ball lands conveniently for the batsman and rises to a suitable height to be clouted, it is said to sit up or perhaps sit up nicely.

Meanwhile in football, you have attack, midfield and defence. Midfielders may be of the attacking variety, who get forward when possible and try to score goals, or they may be of the defensive persuasion, staying back and helping out the defence. A player whose job is just that is said to sit in front of the defence, and we hear commentators and pundits saying that while the other Manchester United midfielders are controlling the game from midfield or pushing up into attack, Michael Carrick is sitting. Carrick is very much on his feet, in fact. Standing, you might say, but mostly running, and you can’t do that after you’ve sat down.

A new example of the belt-and-braces school of English involves the simple act of watching something, such as a football match.

Once there were those who watched and those who looked on (essentially the same thing, but with perhaps a trace of feeling left out, or ostracized).

Suddenly the football world is full of people watching on. It would be fruitless to ask those who use this expression what they mean, because I strongly suspect they would explain that it means simply watching. They’ve picked up the on bit without realizing.

This is how inside and outside came to be inside of and outside of. We say in front of, so why not those? But what about behind of? Is that next?


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