February 10, 2015

Sit In A Chair Or Sit On A Chair – The History Of An English Expression

The Iron Throne from the Game of Thrones series
No...this post is not at all about the show...
Here's a regular old throne...
As I’m editing my second book (a long, time-consuming process that’s slowly destroying my neck and back), I find myself running often to my favorite dictionaries to make sure I’m using the write expression, or even the right preposition (see my previous post on prepositions here).

Anyway, the expression I’d like to discuss today, is a deceptively easy one: if you were to sit down, would you say “in” a chair, or “on” it?

It turns out it depends.

In most cases, you’d sit “on” a chair. But, if we are talking of a throne-like arm-chair, then you would say sit “in” the chair.

...then you've got Michael Jackson's throne.
For you see, thrones and similarly fancy seats would often be used by rulers to denote their own importance in front of their subjects—they were the ones who could sit down, while everyone else had to stand (it did, might I add, allow for much easier genuflecting before said ruler). So really, sitting “in” a chair, “is a reminiscence of the time when the lord or seigneur sat ‘in his chair.’”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we can say it both ways!

Have a great day :)

History of the Chair – Wiki 


  1. Only marginally on topic. Prepositions are not that bad for me. Articles, on the other hand, kill me. I teach a writing course, and in the intro class I provide the following disclaimer: "Although I write reasonably correctly, I will never know when to use 'a' rather than 'the' or no article." An English literature PhD told me once: "One cannot learn these rules, one has to be immersed in the language from birth."

    On topic: there is a learned word that means the transfer of meaning of a word. but I forgot it. To me "chair" mainly means the head of the department, and "to chair" means to be the slave who does all the horribly difficult and time-consuming things that the department heads do. I have just barely avoided being the chair for the second time, and I am so happy.

    1. Hahaha, I'm not surprised that the word chair has such a chill-worthy connotation for you that trumps even that of a seat! The difference between 'a' and 'the' is whether you're talking about something definite (in which case you say 'the') or general (where 'a' is de rigeur). I watched 'a' show vs. I watched 'the' show Game of Thrones the other night (that's a lie, I haven't seen any episodes!). But I agree with the PhD dude(tte) about the no article before a noun...that comes with use (and people willing to correct you when you make a mistake, as my father did and still does, which is mighty useful!).