One correspondent shared last week with us that not only do the BBC say “was ran by”, but a peer says “was sat”. Oh dear!
So what is going on there?
As mentioned last week, strong verbs exist in languages such as English and German, as a set which form their past forms (preterite and past participle) by means of changing their root vowel (most obviously sing-sang-sung; singen-sang-gesungen). These initially fell into seven clearly distinguishable classes, although English in particular has reduced/merged them to such an extent, that this is all but redundant – for example, in the same class as sing-sang-sung there is put-put-put and, here it is, sit-sat-sat.
The last of the three forms is the “past participle”, not in fact a verb form at all but effectively an adjective, which is also used for the “present perfect” tense (actually “aspect”; e.g. I have sung) and the passive (it was sung). That latter, of course, indicates that it was sung by someone/something. Therefore, using sit rather than sing, it makes perfect sense to say or write “I have sat” but none at all to say or write I was sat (with the arguable exception of if you were being forced to sit by someone).
Another aspect of this, tying into last week’s article, is whether or not a verb is “transitive”, i.e. whether it takes (or can take) a direct object. Essentially if a verb is “intransitive” (cannot take a direct object; like sit), then it cannot really have a passive form (because that essentially switches the subject and the direct object – I sing the song versus the song is sung by me).
In a number of cases, the original verb in -i- was intransitive (e.g. sit) but had a “brother” word in -e- meaning essentially the same thing but transitive (as sit has – set). English has by and large lost this division, and does not even maintain it strictly with sit versus set (in English you now “sit yourself down” whereas German “correctly” uses setzen instead of sitzen for this). Also, the “brother” word is usually a regular verb not a strong one (although unlike in German, set in English has effectively become strong).
Herein lies the origin of another common linguistic catastophe of recent decades. German has setzen versus sitzen and also legen versus liegen; English has set versus sit and also (less obvious in modern spelling) lay versus lie. Those spellings only hint at the origin – in Old English these were lecgan and licgan (and in Old German leggen and liggan), as is still fairly obvious in the pronunciation. Here again, the -e- verb has the transitive meaning and is regular, not strong (in this case in both German and English – legen-legte-gelegt and lay-laid-laid are perfectly regular); and again the -i- verb is not (liegen-lag-gelegen and lie-lay-lain). As demonstrated in the previous paragraph, English has been generally poorer at maintaining the distinction between the transitive and intransitive forms and it is proving difficult to maintain this one, with lay taking over in almost all informal speech as the intransitive (*I will lay down and go to sleep) as well as the transitive verb.
Originally, another two verbs in this category were wind and wend; in the end wind took over for all purposes and wend was left notable only for providing its regular past preterite form went to the verb go from about 1300 onwards… which takes us back nearly to the problem identified last week!