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Spit and spat - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Spit and spat
I know and am aware that "spat" is the absolutely proper past tense of "spit," as far as I know, in American English as well as British English. Silly grammar mistakes drive me crazy.

So why-oh-why do I have to make such an effort to overcome using "spit" as the past tense? It was ubiquitous where I grew up--if a bully spat at one in the schoolyard, one could go to the teacher and say, "He spit on me!" and not worry about having any suspicions cast on one's grammar.

I don't know... is it considered proper American grammar? Or is it just an extremely common regionalism that no one bothered to question where I was growing up? I tried looking it up in Google and found a lot of exasperated people pointing out that it's simply wrong usage. The most common, frustrated response was, "If you can understand that the past tense of 'sit' is 'sat,' why can't you master this?" )To which a number of other people responded, "Yes, but if it were a standard rule, then why isn't the past tense of 'hit', 'hat'?") I couldn't tell by the names if it was an American/Brit debate, and American/American debate, or an American/American-with-inferiority-complex debate.

Does anyone know?
27 comments or Leave a comment
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: February 24th, 2005 05:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've wondered about this before - I have definitely read books by American authors where "spit" has been used in the past tense; as a Brit this was an anomaly and I made a mental note of it because I assumed it must be correct in American English. Obviously, the publishers hadn't picked up on it. I can't remember what the offending books were; if I find out what they are I'll refer you to them!
jesspallas From: jesspallas Date: February 24th, 2005 05:46 pm (UTC) (Link)
Terry Brooks, an American fantasy author, uses spit not spat as a past tense of spit. I remember it because I love his books but this grates on me every time I read it! I don't know why, it's just one that annoys me because it sounds wrong to me when you say it. I've always assumed it was the American way to say it. :)
maple_clef From: maple_clef Date: February 24th, 2005 06:13 pm (UTC) (Link)
Aha - Terry Brooks, that was it! Yes, I love his books too :-)
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: February 24th, 2005 05:17 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm not sure. Maybe because "spat" to some people means an arguement?

I've also seen spitted, as in "He spitted on the sidewalk", which has got to be wrong.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: February 24th, 2005 05:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I'm reasonably sure that "spit" and "spat" are both legitimate past-tense forms of "to spit," at least in the US, though it occurs to me that "spat" is the only one I'd use in a dialogue tag.

"Spitted," on the other hand, I know is only legitimate if you mean "impaled."
lannamichaels From: lannamichaels Date: February 24th, 2005 05:29 pm (UTC) (Link)
Wouldn't that be "was spitted"? Or maybe I'm just tired...
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: February 24th, 2005 05:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Depends on which party is on the spit.
sprite6 From: sprite6 Date: February 24th, 2005 07:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
And according to Merriam-Webster (11th edition), you're right. Although dictionaries tend to be descriptive rather than prescriptive, so that if enough people use "spit" rather than "spat," the dictionary will list both even if grammarians get uptight about it. I suspect it's like dived/dove or certain pronunciations - what you use depends on where you grew up.

I do like "spat" better as a verb of utterance, though.
persephone_kore From: persephone_kore Date: February 24th, 2005 07:52 pm (UTC) (Link)
I tried looking for an authoritative grammar reference on irregular verbs, but wasn't sure which ones to trust online. I did get rather more emphasis on them in elementary and middle school than seems* to have been the case for most people, though, and I don't recall "to spit" as one of the ones that got a lot of emphasis as a frequent error. (Unlike "to lie," "to lay," and "to sneak.")

*I'm making this guess based primarily on the number of lie/lay errors I see from otherwise very articulate people, some of whom have told me that this particular verb pair and in some cases grammar itself were never well explained in their English classes.
fiatincantatum From: fiatincantatum Date: February 24th, 2005 05:28 pm (UTC) (Link)
Definitely wrong in that context, but "spitted" is correct when "spit" is a synonym for "impale" if things weren't confusing enough.

I don't know the right words for it, but here's how I might use spit vs. spat in a sentence:

He spit on the sidewalk. (when "spit" means actually expelling something from the mouth)

She spat an insult. (when "spit" means an action that is like that of expelling something from the mouth.)

I have no idea if this is correct, but it "feels" more or less right to me.
harriet_wimsey From: harriet_wimsey Date: February 24th, 2005 06:14 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's my general feeling, too. I always just assumed both were correct in some form of American English, because to say "He spat on me" sounds either pretentious or British.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 24th, 2005 06:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, that's how it strikes my ear, too, which is probably why I have such a hard time remembering it. (Not that this excuses the lapse in Shifts, which is what got me going, as that should have had the British syntax.)

I'm glad I'm not just flat-out wrong.
From: magnolia_mama Date: February 24th, 2005 06:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Sometimes it's just a matter of word origins. A rudimentary search tells me that "hit" comes from the OE "hyttan." "Spit," however, evolved from the West Saxon "spaet" into ("ae" is an ash and did, on occasion, morph into an "a" in modern English). The short answer to the very specific question of why spit/spat but not hit/hat is that the vowel change in spit/spat seems to have already been in place by the time both "hit" and "spit" established themselves in Old English.
cleversimon From: cleversimon Date: February 24th, 2005 07:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
"If you can understand that the past tense of 'sit' is 'sat,' why can't you master this?"

I have had this conversation with—pardon my French—'shit' and 'shat'.
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: February 24th, 2005 11:02 pm (UTC) (Link)
I was actually thinking this, though I didn't say it. :)
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: February 24th, 2005 08:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I never heard anyone use 'spit' as the past tense (Ireland and GB).
Are you damnyankees messing up our language again? :-P
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: February 24th, 2005 08:44 pm (UTC) (Link)
Nah, you all keep tweaking. We brought it over in its pure form, and have kept it that way. ;)

:falls over laughing at the concept of "pure English":
sophonax From: sophonax Date: February 25th, 2005 12:01 am (UTC) (Link)
Oh, then you'll love this:

Americans don't speak "real" English!

I really wish that those posters were merely being super-sarcastic, but that doesn't seem to be the case...
thewhiteowl From: thewhiteowl Date: February 26th, 2005 11:02 am (UTC) (Link)
Those bloody Normans, messing up our pure Anglo-Saxon :-P
likeafox From: likeafox Date: February 24th, 2005 09:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
See, the easy way to avoid this problem is to always use a synomnym for spit. I'm particularly fond of "hawking a loogie" myself. ;)
marycontraria From: marycontraria Date: February 24th, 2005 09:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
That's the answer!! Narcissa can hawk a loogie into Dudley's hand to mix with his blood, and it will be perfect. Of course, now I'm questioning the spelling of hawk as I might have spelt it hock, not really knowing which is actually correct as it's all slang anyway... awesome. :)
chocolatepot From: chocolatepot Date: February 24th, 2005 10:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
I would probably (if it ever came up in writing) say that someone spat. Spat words or actually spat on the ground. However, in RL I'm sure that I say both with impunity.
mrs_who From: mrs_who Date: February 24th, 2005 10:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
I've been dealing in rug-rats for so long that I actually had to think whether "spitted" wasn't right. "Daniel spitted on the floor in church!" (No, Daniel is not my child but he did, indeed, spit on the floor in church.)
zephprolixity From: zephprolixity Date: February 24th, 2005 10:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Johnny spat spittle on Sam. Said Sam, I've been spat upon.

Sam spitted Johnny on a spit. Johnny could not speak thereafter, nor spit upon anyone either....
ivylore From: ivylore Date: February 25th, 2005 12:39 am (UTC) (Link)
Spit, spat, shit, shat...

I always equate spat and shat with Brit lit.

ariesx5452 From: ariesx5452 Date: February 25th, 2005 03:37 am (UTC) (Link)

Um nothing related to your post, just wanted to alert you o a change of name on live journal
ruxi From: ruxi Date: February 25th, 2005 08:47 am (UTC) (Link)
A lot of people have said it insofar, but if it's any to you, in my grammar books, "to spit" comes with both forms as past participles, but also with the fair warning that "spat" is irrevocably elegant English. (where by "elegant", pretentious grammar book writers understand either "British" or "old")

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