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Author Topic: Dealing with annoying English grammar errors (9th in a series of 14)  (Read 79 times)
Joe Carillo
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« on: December 05, 2017, 01:13:33 AM »

This is the ninth in a series of 14 essays on what I consider as the most annoying English grammar errors. It is running consecutively here in the Forum from November 7, 2017 every Tuesday and Friday until December 22.

5 - The problematic verb-pair “sit” and “seat”

Before moving on to the sixth type of grammar error that I find most annoying, let’s first wind up our discussions of verbs that are often misused because it’s difficult to figure out whether they are being used intransitively or transitively. We took up the verb-pair “lie” and “lay” in last week’s column as two such problematic verbs; this time we will analyze the similarly problematic verb-pair “sit” and “seat.”


“Sit” is, of course, the intransitive verb that means to rest on one’s buttocks or to occupy a place in a particular organization, and “seat” is the transitive verb that means to put someone or something in a sitting position or to provide seats for some people. (Of course, “sit” can also work transitively, but we won’t take up that particular usage at this time.)

We will remember that in its intransitive sense, “sit” inflects as follows in the various tenses: “sits” for the singular present tense, as in “She sits regally”; “sit” for the plural present tense, as in “They sit comfortably”; “sat” for the past tense, as in “She/They sat gracefully”; and as the past participle “sat” for the perfect tenses, as in “She has sat for hours waiting for us.” Note that none of these “sit” usages has a direct object, only an adverb or adverbial phrase as complement of the verb.

On the other hand, the transitive “seat” inflects as follows: “seats” for the singular present tense, as in “The auditorium seats 2,000 people”; “seat” for the plural present tense, as in “The two executive jets seat a total of 14 passengers”; “seated” for the past tense, as in “The original sofa design seated five adults comfortably”; and as the past participle “seated” for the perfect tenses, as in “We had seated all of the seminar participants by the time the speaker arrived.” In all of the usages of “seat” above, we find a direct object immediately following the verb.

But what about the intransitive use of “seat”? Offhand, it doesn’t seem amenable to being used without a direct object. For example, everything looks perfectly all right when we use the intransitive “sit” in the sentence “She sits ever so nicely” (present tense) and in “She has sat quietly all throughout the day” (present perfect), but something is disturbingly amiss when we use the intransitive “seat” in “She seats ever so gracefully” (present tense) or “She has seated gracefully all throughout the court proceedings” (present perfect).

English actually provides a special fix for such semantically faulty situations: the reflexive pronouns. We will recall that the reflexive pronouns are formed by adding the suffixes “-self” or “-selves” to the personal pronouns. They are “myself” and “ourselves” for the first person; “yourself,” “itself,” and “yourselves” for the second person; and “himself,” “herself,” and “themselves” for the third person.” They function as semantic stand-ins for the non-existent direct object of intransitive verbs, serving as virtual direct objects that redirect the action of the verb to the subject or doer of the action.

See how the reflexive “herself” nicely fixes the faulty semantics of the two intransitive “seat”-using sentences given earlier: “She seats herself ever so nicely.” “She has seated herself gracefully all throughout the court proceedings.”

This power of the reflexive pronouns, in fact, makes it possible sometimes to use the intransitive “seat” instead of the transitive “sit” to yield a sentence with practically the same meaning. Take a look at these two perfectly equivalent past-perfect sentence constructions using the transitive “sit” and the intransitive “seat”: “The guests had sat on the dinner table by the time we arrived.” “The guests had seated themselves on the dinner table by the time we arrived.”

The key to their semantic equivalence is, of course, the use of the reflexive pronoun—a grammar device that enables intransitive verbs to act as if they were transitive ones.

(Next: The problem with wrong pronoun usage)   December 8, 2017

This essay, 9th in a series of 14, first appeared in the column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in the September 22, 2007 issue of The Manila Times. It subsequently formed part of the book The 10 Most Annoying English Grammar Errors, ©2008 by the author, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved.
« Last Edit: December 05, 2017, 08:57:52 AM by Joe Carillo » Logged

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