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I'm occasionaly came across the phrases:

  • "sitting still";
  • "standing still";
  • "lying still";
  • etc.

For most cases the usage is clear (humans for example). But sometimes it is not clear what verb to use with "still":

  • for an spherical objects - I have no idea;
  • birds - I think they are "standing";
  • fish - again, no idea;
  • and so on.

Is there any advice on how to choose an appropriate answer?

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2 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Sit, stand, and lie are verbs that all refer to the prototypic human body. They represent three basic body orientations: respectively, vertical, folded, and horizontal.

These verbs have a number of common peculiarities:

  • they are all very, very common
  • they are all intransitive
  • they all describe a state, but allow the progressive - He's just standing/sitting/lying there.
  • they are all irregular - sit, sat, sat; stand, stood, stood; lie, lay, lain
  • they all have irregular inchoative/causative related verbs: set; stand; lay
    (parenthetically, this is where the sit/set and lie/lay problems come from)

Combined with an attributive predicate A that can describe the human body, any of these verbs can mean 'sit/stand/lie in a(n) A manner'. So sit still, stand rigid, lie limp, etc.

As far as other animals are concerned, if you can metaphorize a human body on them, they can sit, stand, or lie. But not necessarily with the same body parts -- when a dog or cat is standing still, it's likely using four legs, not two; but when it's standing up it may well be using only two.

It depends, in other words, on your metaphorical image. And metaphors are always literally incorrect, since they violate the Law of Contradiction.

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To specifically address the "fish" question, the most idiomatic English expression is that they are standing still, despite the fact that they have no legs at all. The same applies to most inanimate objects. –  JSBձոգչ Dec 16 '12 at 17:31
    
Standing still is in opposition to any movement verb, since to be still means not to move. So fish and worms and even amoeba can stand still. Indeed, the phonosemantics of ST- reinforces this. –  John Lawler Dec 16 '12 at 18:02
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Inanimate objects can be said to lie still (not lay, at least in British English): "Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;/ And all that mighty heart is lying still!" Wordsworth, Upon Westminster Bridge , among many other examples.

Birds, as I understand it, have insufficient joints to do anything but stand (unless they are stationary while flying, which is hovering).

What fish do is a good question. Lying still, like inanimate objects, is probably what I would use, but I don't know any canonical answer.

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As noted in a finstofeet.com article under heading What about the bird foot?, it is true that “the various bones of the lower tarsus and the metatarsus are fused into a single skeletal unit called the “Tarsometatarsus” [and] The tibia and the upper tarsal bones are fused to form the “Tibiotarsus””, but nevertheless, birds can crouch and they can sit (as on a nest) as well as stand –  jwpat7 Dec 15 '12 at 22:12
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