Split, sleep, spell, spill, slip

Personal note: I have just started a 10-week part-time course for the CELTA (Certificate of English Language Teacher to Adults) so blog posts might be few and far between during that time.

One of the topics in this week’s chapter of the textbook was ‘Mishaps’, including ‘you slip on some ice’, ‘you spill your drink on someone’ and ‘you oversleep’. ‘Slip’ and ‘spill’ merely change the position of two of the sounds, and ‘slip’ and ‘sleep’ differ only by two very similar vowel sounds. In past tense, they are even more confusing: ‘slipped’, ‘spilled/spilt’ and ‘slept’. Inevitably, someone also said ‘spelled/spelt’ and I later realised that I might also add ‘split’ (as in ‘you split your trousers’) to the list.

These five words demonstrate some of the most confusing aspects of English past simple tense verbs. There are two broad groups of these: the regular ones, which add ‘ed’ on the end of the plain present tense form (with a few spelling rules) (there are more of these) and the irregular ones, which don’t — either they don’t change at all, or change in other ways (there are fewer of these, but they are more common, more important and often very confusing, even to native speakers).

‘Split’ is irregular, and invariable: ‘Every day I split my trousers. Yesterday I split my trousers.’ The regular form ‘splitted’ is very rare. Viewed by itself, it has inexplitably increased in use in the 40 years, but  viewed against ‘split’ it is almost non-existent (bearing in mind that for ‘split’ the Ngram adds together the numbers as the present tense verb, the past tense verbs and the singular noun).

‘Sleep’ is irregular: ‘Every night I sleep alone. Last night I slept alone.’ The regular form ‘sleeped’ exists, but is very, very rare. (By itself, against ‘slept’.)

‘Spell’ and ‘spill’ exist in a twilight zone between the irregular ‘spelt’ and ‘spilt’ and the regular ‘spelled’ and ‘spilled’. ‘Spelt’ was more often used in the 19th century. ‘Spelled’ took over in AmEng around 1850 and around 1970 in BrEng. You don’t have to spend too long on an international discussion forum before some American says to some Brit ‘What the hell is “spelt”? Isn’t that some kind of wheat?’ or ‘You’ve spelled “spelled” wrong’. (It’s kind of perverse that the word ‘spelled/spelt’ has two accepted spellings. Is it spelled right? Is it spelt wrong?) ‘Spilled’ took over earlier (around 1900) in AmEng and slightly later (in the 1950s) in BrEng. ‘Spilt’ survives as an attributive adjective, especially in the proverb ‘No use crying over spilt milk’ (which has always used the spelling ‘spilt’ and continues to be the preferred form, strongly in BrEng and slightly in AmEng). (Even though my own usage, and Australian English in general, is closer to BrEng than AmEng, I have consciously adopted the spellings ‘spelled’, and ‘spilled’ for verbal usages, using ‘spilt’ only as an adjective).

‘Slip’ is regular: ‘Every day I slip on ice. Yesterday I slipped on ice.’ The irregular form ‘slipt’ is very rare. (By itself, against ‘slipped’.)

Many other verbs starting with ‘sl’, ‘sp’, ‘spl’ and ‘spr’ might be considered in the same way: slam, slide, speed, spend, spin, spit, splash, spoil, spot, spread, spring. Less ‘mishapful’ verbs are ‘slow’ and ‘speak’. ‘Speak’ is worth mentioning as the only one on the list which has a past participle form different than its past simple form: ‘Every speak with my wife. Yesterday I spoke with wife. Every day this week I have spoken to my wife.’

[Edit: haha! Just to show prove how easy it is to get these mixed up, my original title was ‘Spilt, sleep, spell, spill, slip’. It should have been, and I have changed it to ‘Split, sleep, spell, spill, slip’.


2 thoughts on “Split, sleep, spell, spill, slip

  1. I would tend to write things as I say them (I know – at what point does this make sense in the English language?) Therefore, if I say ‘spilt’ with an unvoiced ‘t’, I will write it with the unvoiced ‘t’. There are times when the American spelling of something – which may be more regular according to the rules – doesn’t make sense in my/our dialect: for example, ‘swept’. We simply don’t say ‘sweeped’, and therefore, in my opinion, we shouldn’t spell it like that, either.

    For whatever reason, I prefer the older spellings – whether because I read older books when I was young, or because I’ve done German for six years, or because something about Americanisms bother me somehow – and so I use ‘spilt’, ‘spelt’, ‘smelt’, ‘swept’, etc.

    Just as an interesting side-note, ‘smelt’ can be either a past tense (‘I smelt the roses’) or a present tense, albeit a specialist one (‘they smelt the iron ore’).

    As for ‘split’… my first intuition is that it might be a vowel-changing one, and therefore the past tense should be ‘splat’!


  2. The problem with saying ‘I would tend to write things as I say them’ is that often we are unaware of exactly how we say them. As soon as you consciously listen to yourself speaking, or extract the word(s), a degree of artificiality creeps in.
    There may also be differences in pronunciation between a past simple verb, a past participle verb and an adjective derived from a verb: I spilled/spilt the milk, I have spilled/spilt the milk, No use crying over spilled/spilt milk.
    Lots of writers have fun with joke-irregular verbs: subdue – subdid – subdone (it works better with the American ‘y-less’ pronunciation) ‘Nothing could have subdone him the way her violet eyes subdid him’.(Maggie Sullivan, quoted in Steven Pinker ‘Words and Rules’)


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