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Crying over spilt milk, or is it spilled?
May 9, 2012 9:44 AM   Subscribe

Do we cry over spilt milk or spilled milk? My spell checker says the latter but I remember the former.

Back in my younger days, my friends and I dove into the water. Yesterday, the kids would have dived into the pool. As a child, I spilt my juice on the table. Last night, my fiance spilled his soda on the floor. In my schooldays, my twin would have spelt something wrong. A few days ago, my grandson would have spelled a word wrong. At my school, busses lined up in front of the school. Today buses line up in front of the school.

I think you see where I'm going with this. Now I'm all for language changing, but it's as if I turned around and someone switched the rules on me when I wasn't looking. So my question is twofold: can you think of any other words that have changed like dove:dived, spilt:spilled, spelt:spelled, busses:buses?

Also, I always thought that written language change was a slow process, but I'm only 45 and that doesn't seem time enough for such changes to take place. Is it the computer age that brought about such rapid change? I'm curious.
posted by patheral to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
Those are all UK/US differences.
posted by empath at 9:48 AM on May 9, 2012 [6 favorites]


Huh. I always thought the spilt/spilled spelt/spelled thing was a regional (uk/us) difference?
posted by elizardbits at 9:49 AM on May 9, 2012


Looks like the change (at least in common practice) happened around 1900, and around 1950 in British English. I would imagine that traditional idioms would retain the older form of the word.
posted by supercres at 9:49 AM on May 9, 2012




Well, not spelling, but BEFORE the Clarence Thomas / Anita Hill controversy, I seem to recall "harassment" was pronounced "hah RASS meant." During media coverage, it seemed to change to "hare ess meant." It was a curious change.
posted by HeyAllie at 9:50 AM on May 9, 2012


Weird, because I'm from the US, and I've always used spilt, spelt, dove, etc.
posted by patheral at 9:50 AM on May 9, 2012


It was a curious change.

Same with Uranus. I'd say it was the Beavis and Butthead effect.
posted by empath at 9:52 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


And for the phrase itself: American English ("spilled milk" is now more common), British English ("spilt milk" still more common).
posted by supercres at 9:54 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


I'm 42, American, and would never, ever have used "spilt" or "spelt," at least not outside of cliched stock phrases.

Have you always lived in your current metro area? Because I wonder if you're picking up more a difference in place than in time. If you're from Appalachia, say, you might have grown up using some of the localisms, which tend to be archaic. But where you are now, so heavily influenced by more recent Anglophone migrants from everywhere, I'd expect a more broadly national standard-English with localisms from Spanish.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:11 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


Something I keep seeing online is people using "pet" as the past tense for "pet", as in petting an animal. Petted is still in the dictionary so I don't think it's official but it seems to be pretty common.

I'm baffled as to why petted sounds wrong to some people. Saying "the cat wants to be pet" sounds way stranger to me that "the cat wants to be petted." You wouldn't say "the cat wants to be brush", after all.*

But I'm old and crotchety so what do I know.

*Maybe not the best example... but I have heard that some cats do want to be brushed. Certainly not mine, but they're assholes so whatever.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:11 AM on May 9, 2012


What gets me is

He lighted his cigarette.

Lit, dammit! Why would anyone say lighted, it's just wrong.

Always use the irregular form, if the verb has one -- that's my rule, but I have a feeling all the stuff in this thread is regional.
posted by Rash at 10:17 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


American, and if you're looking for another example: dreamt is one I find myself using.
posted by sbutler at 10:19 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


Have you always lived in your current metro area? Because I wonder if you're picking up more a difference in place than in time. If you're from Appalachia, say, you might have grown up using some of the localisms, which tend to be archaic. But where you are now, so heavily influenced by more recent Anglophone migrants from everywhere, I'd expect a more broadly national standard-English with localisms from Spanish.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 PM on May 9 [mark as best answer] [+] [!]


Actually, I grew up a Navy brat, but mostly on the West coast. I guess it's because I learned to read early and read mostly British stories -- The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, The Jungle Book, etc... It took me forever to spell "color" without a "u" in school. I remember getting it wrong in spelling tests.
posted by patheral at 10:21 AM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


My college dorm (in 1996 to 2000) had this week-long knock-down, drag-out argument over whether it was "spelled" or "spelt." These were mostly white, upper-middle-class suburban kids from all over the U.S. So "spelt" is still hanging around out there and not just as an artifact of reading British books.

Recourse to the library was required to settle the debate, where we learned that "spelled" was preferred but "spelt" was allowed, so nobody was happy.

There were seriously like 50 people bickering about this. They could settle their differences about soda and pop, but not about spelled and spelt.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:30 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


nthing US/UK: my UK regionalisms include "tret" (though spelt "treat") and "et" for "treated" and "ate".

Anecdotally, I think the distinctions are blurring because of spellcheckers and the merged spaces of the internet. Verb endings are more robust, but there's a lot of grey (or gray) around spellings where the writer might be uncertain about the appropriate local variant: e.g. focus[s]ing, fulfil[l], etc.

I'm only 45 and that doesn't seem time enough for such changes to take place.

Saussure's old distinction between langue and parole has some value here, in part because online usage tests that distinction to some degree. Online communications aren't exactly parole (they're more filtered than pure speech acts) but they're preserved and accumulate to modify the linguistic superstructure in a way that wasn't possible in previous generations.

That's not simply a "computer" thing: it's a matter of broadening the linguistic pool, and you get similar accelerations during times of growing literacy and urbanisation.

Saying "the cat wants to be pet" sounds way stranger to me that "the cat wants to be petted."

Or "the cat wants petted", a regional form that's been discussed here before.
posted by holgate at 10:31 AM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


A quick supplement: one thing that marks out online communication from earlier linguistic environments is the amount of ambiguity over to whom one is speaking/writing, which in turn affects the register. It's neither an environment where you can feel comfortable standing your own linguistic ground, nor one where you can adapt to a set of obvious norms.
posted by holgate at 10:37 AM on May 9, 2012


I'm American, and I hadn't heard of "spilt milk" until I saw this post. It's always "spilled milk." I'm not surprised that the British would write it "spilt," but I'm surprised that an American would be surprised by "spilled." (I realize that some verbs are irregular, like "dive" and "light," but that doesn't mean that "spill" is irregular.)
posted by John Cohen at 10:39 AM on May 9, 2012


I understand where you're coming from. For me, awakened sounds much better than awoke, for example. I think the literature you read and were exposed to as a child has something to do with this, as well as how you were brought up generally.

My parents, neither of whom are college graduates but either of whom could kick half of Metafilter's collective ass at Jeopardy, have always been fastidious about language and grammar, and I grew up in that atmosphere.

We didn't do the "baby talk" thing; they read Poe aloud to me rather than reciting nursery rhymes (I had Annabel Lee memorized in first grade). I remember once being horribly embarrassed when, in kindergarten, I asked to use "the facilities" and my teacher reacted as if I'd said something shocking. She was actually just surprised, I guess, that I didn't say "pee pee" or the like. All I know is she made me repeat myself to the other instructors when I just really needed to go to the bathroom!

As a result of my parents' influence, I'm a bit of a grammar Nazi. Fortunately, so is my husband. Our children followed our lead. And although we did choose to read children's books to them, we also exposed them to classical mythology and poetry, too, and I think their vocabulary reflects those choices, just as mine did. I'm secretly quite pleased they don't even text in less than full sentences.

To answer your question fully: you aren't supposed to cry over spilt or spilled milk, of course! Crying changes nothing.

"The moving finger writes, and having writ, moves on."--Omar Khayyam

Or, in popular vernacular: It is what it is. ;)
posted by misha at 11:39 AM on May 9, 2012


Lit, dammit! Why would anyone say lighted, it's just wrong.

"Lighted" is perfectly cromulent.
posted by stopgap at 12:34 PM on May 9, 2012


For others like me who don't know what cromulent means... found it in the "Unword Dictionary." Very interesting, and relevant to the subject.

cromulent : (crôm-yü-lənt)

1. (adj.) Being well-formed; legitimate; of a word, especially a neologism, that is not previously attested in the language but obeys its rules of word-formation.

Origins: This word was originally coined in season 3 episode 13 of The Simpsons TV series back in 1996.

posted by patheral at 12:44 PM on May 9, 2012


I've also been hearing in common usage "hurted" as in: "I hit my thumb with the hammer, and it hurted so bad I had to go to the doctor." I wonder when that will make its way into the dictionary.
posted by patheral at 12:46 PM on May 9, 2012


I'd say it's "spilt" in this particular stock phrase, but "spilled" anywhere else. The old saying is a set phrase that uses an archaic form, just as we would say "wherefore art thou Romeo" in that one context, but "why" anywhere else.
posted by tyllwin at 1:36 PM on May 9, 2012


> Actually, I grew up a Navy brat, but mostly on the West coast. I guess it's because I learned to read early and read mostly British stories -- The Little Princess, The Secret Garden, The Jungle Book, etc... It took me forever to spell "color" without a "u" in school. I remember getting it wrong in spelling tests.

Well, there's your answer. You grew up with UK usages, so you're used to them.

Note to people not answering the question: This is not a pet-peeve chatfilter thread.
posted by languagehat at 2:36 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]


[Hi folks, this is not where we just complain about words we don't like, please stay on topic, thanks.]
posted by jessamyn at 2:42 PM on May 9, 2012


I'm from the Midwest, where some of the irregular past tenses survive in colloquial speech. "Dove" and "lit" are perfectly cromulent to my ear. I do understand that there is a prescriptivist disdain for what are seen as "substandard" or "dialectical" formations, and perhaps they aren't appropriate for formal writing for that reason, but we're talking speech. Spilt and spelt would be far less commonly used, though; nevertheless I would use "spilt milk" in the proverb.

Snuck, by the way, is an irregular past tense that seems to be on the upswing in usage. For some reason the snobs attribute this to deliberate slumming, which makes no sense to me. I think it's mostly a word that appears in the phrase snuck up [on], anyway, and such packages tend to drive usage historically.

Busses/buses is definitely mostly a UK/US thing, although it's one where I strongly prefer the former myself (due to the ambiguous pronunciation, cf. fuses). There are probably at least some style manuals here in the US that use it, so I wouldn't sweat it too much.

I always thought that written language change was a slow process, but I'm only 45 and that doesn't seem time enough for such changes to take place.

I vote for more awareness of the change vs. previous generations rather than an actual change in the rate of change, although allowing for such things as rapid adoption of new technology and more exposure to the multi-variant forms of English (which is now a majority non-native-speaker language). I don't think the rules really change all that quickly, except in that the last generation has seen a rise in descriptivist backlash against the prescriptivist language-dipped-in-amber check on change that used to exist. Some of the rules are less accepted (I think we've gotten to a majority not caring about splitting "to be", for example), but there are also pockets of resistance. These, it seems to me, represent the social aspect of dialect development, the shibboleth: you actually use language to create a distinctiveness for your own social grouping, whether that be geographic, class, or even politics (e.g. the way Republicans always say "Democrat Party").

Again, it's important to realize that there isn't "one" English language, but many Englishes, and what you're seeing is more about your exposure to the "other" English dialects than some sort of aggregate alteration of the universal truths about the language itself.
posted by dhartung at 5:19 PM on May 9, 2012


First, note that dove is the innovative form, not dived. If you said dove in the past and now know younger people who say dived, this is either a regional difference or a coincidence, because it does not reflect the direction of this change. I'll admit this is a slightly weird change though! Generally things become more regular (where dived is regular) rather than less regular.

Also, not to quibble but since you highlighted it as a best answer: in the case of petted vs pet, "The cat wants to be pet" is an example not of the simple past tense but of a past participle. So someone might well say "I pet the cat yesterday" but still reject "The cat wants to be pet." (I don't happen to know the facts of this case, I'm just saying the example sentence that's supposed to sound awful is not an example of the suggested change, at least not as stated).

The technical term for what you're talking about (except in the case of busses which is purely a spelling thing) is 'morphological doublet' -- morphology being the study of how words are formed, and a doublet being a pair of words that have the same etymological origin but ended up with different forms. Morphological doublets are generally unstable, with one form eventually beating out the other. For example, the past tense of walk used to be welk. One thing that can save a morphological doublet, though, is for the two forms to become differentiated so that each is used in a specific context. A nice example here is shined versus shone: the usual story about the standard use of these forms is that shined has settled in as the past tense for the transitive use of shine, while shone is intransitive. Thus, "The sun shone brightly" but "The bootblack shined my shoes".

A note on rates of change. Although it seems intuitively appealing to associate rapid language change with a large, diverse society, and such an association is not necessarily wrong, the exact opposite has recently been suggested -- that change might happen most often and most rapidly in small, stable, tightly-knit communities. It's a very complicated question. Also, it's entirely possible for a change to go to completion within a single generation. The earliest attestation of the "be like" quotative ("So then I was like 'Are you kidding me?' and he was like 'Would I mess with you?'") is in the 1970s. Among the current crop of adolescents in some parts of North America, be like rates are getting close to 100%.

I don't pretend to know why language changes when it does or at the rate it does or why it changes at all (and it's my job to wonder about these questions), but I can pretty much guarantee that the answer is not simply "computers!". If only it were -- I'd be content to drop out of grad school and leave linguistics for some high-paying corporate job, no longer fanatically obsessed by the gorgeous and bizarre complexity of language variation and change.
posted by ootandaboot at 6:37 PM on May 9, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with the OP. I recall hearing about murderers who 'pled' guilty when I was a kid, but now the newsbots all say 'pleaded'.
posted by Rat Spatula at 6:43 PM on May 9, 2012


Also, I always thought that written language change was a slow process, but I'm only 45 and that doesn't seem time enough for such changes to take place. Is it the computer age that brought about such rapid change? I'm curious.

I think it's the Internet, honestly.
We read so much more written text that was not run past an editor than we used to do.

A lot of editors would have changed the verbs to the "proper", irregular form, but these days, there are entire articles online that have never seen an editor and we all suffer for it.

can you think of any other words that have changed like dove:dived, spilt:spilled, spelt:spelled, busses:buses?

The one I notice the most along these lines is "gifted" for "given". As in: "I was gifted a waffle-maker for my birthday".
You see it here on Ask.Metafilter, and it has definitely crept into mainstream usage.
It is apparently grammatically accurate, but when I was a child a few decades ago, it would have been marked incorrect.
posted by madajb at 7:55 PM on May 9, 2012


Lit, dammit! Why would anyone say lighted, it's just wrong.

I was taught the opposite. Past tense of "light" meaning "illumination" is lighted; past tense of "light" meaning "landed" is lit.

I'm 38 and American, east coast mid-Atlantic, and grew up parsing dove, spilt, and spelt as equally if not slightly more valid than dived, spilled, and spelled. (Possibly worth noting that my parents are older than Boomers, though.)

Busses/buses is a UK/English thing.

Also, I say:
HarASSment
UrANus
petted
dreamt
awoke
pled
posted by desuetude at 10:46 PM on May 9, 2012


I forgot about dreamt and pled. I remember the first time I heard "He pleaded guilty" on the news and it sounded so strange to my ears. It still sounds strange to my ears. I've also heard "I petted the cat" rather than "The cat needs to be petted." And while petted is not quite as strange to my ears as pleaded, I would still say pet in both instances.

I don't think it's just a throwback to my reading British literature as a kid. I'm pretty sure there are pockets of people in the US who grew up with these irregular verbs ingrained in them.

I've also seen/heard/used gifted without remorse. But verbing words is something we English speakers do -- for example friending someone on Facebook. It may not be grammatically correct (yet) but it is common usage. FWIW, gifted is accepted by my spellchecker as correct, so there's that.
posted by patheral at 8:13 AM on May 10, 2012


Gifted has a different shade of meaning to my ear. It's more specific, it calls attention to the fact that thing you were given has been deemed a "gift." I've heard this used as a way of expressing deep gratitude, and also I've heard it used as a bit of passive-aggressive criticism, depends on who the gift is important to and why.

By contrast, my coworker bought me a delicious cookie from a fancy bakery the other day. It was a gift, so to speak, but I would just say that she gave me a cookie. Or for a more valuable example, a friend gave me a beautiful, very fine dress that won't ever fit her again. "Gifted" would strike both of us as weirdly stiff in that situation, though.
posted by desuetude at 6:04 PM on May 10, 2012


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