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spelt v. spelled, English verbs that are both irregular and regular

Is spelt spelled spelt or spelled? English verbs that are irregular and regular

by | 18 Mar 2016 | English Language

 

Every learner of English needs to learn the irregular verbs. There are several hundreds of them (some say there are over 400, others over 600), but there are about 200 commonly used ones. These 200 irregular verbs only represent a small fraction of all English verbs. However small that fraction may be, it cannot be brushed aside or dismissed since a great part of these verbs happen to be very frequently used verbs.

Is that so? Absolutely! Let’s look at a few of them:

be, have, do, take, say, can, drink, eat, give, sleep, leave, go, write, read, run…

Clearly, there is no way you can have a single conversation without using at least one of these verbs! So, there’s no escape if you are learning English: you will have to learn them! And to do so, you will most of the time refer to a list. That is normal and that is fine. 🙂

However, have you ever compared several lists of irregular verbs and noticed that from time to time, you fall upon a list that provides two different ways of spelling the past forms of a given verb? For instance, incidentally, the verb to spell: you will sometimes find “to spell, spelt, spelt” and some other times “to spell, spelt/spelled, spelt/spelled”. This means that the verb is both regular and irregular. Usually, that’s precisely when you start wondering why and which spelling you should choose and use.

The funny answer to that is the sentence you can read on the picture above (I gleaned the sentence on the web but could not find any author’s name):

Is spelt spelled spelt or spelled?

Spelt is spelled spelt in any nation that isn’t America but in America spelt isn’t spelled spelt, it’s spelled spelled.

Initially, or rather traditionally –hence in British English– to spell is an irregular verb, but both spellings spelt and spelled are widely accepted, except in the United States where it is considered a regular verb, with its past form in -ed. Indeed, Americans will write spelled, spelled. Because of the meaning of the verb, the sentence about how to spell spelt–or spelled– works as a play on words or a tongue twister.

Beware! Spell is not the only verb that can be used both as a regular and an irregular verb. There are other verbs that are “traditionally” regarded as irregular verbs but that also take the regular -ed ending, very likely because of the growing influence of American English. I haven’t found a complete list but here are some of them:

  • learn, learnt, learnt / learned, learned
  • burn, burnt, burnt / burned, burned
  • dwell, dwelt, dwelt / dwelled, dwelled
  • hang, hung, hung / hanged, hanged
  • smell, smelt, smelt / smelled, smelled
  • spill, spilt, spilt / spilled, spilled
  • dream, dreamt, dreamt / dreamed, dreamed
  • kneel, knelt, knelt / kneeled, kneeled
  • spoil, spoilt, spoilt / spoiled, spoiled
  • lean, leant, leant / leaned, leaned
  • leap, leapt, leapt / leaped, leaped

 

Let’s not forget the verb to get, got, got that you will sometimes find listed to get, got, gotten, but only in American English. However, the past participle gotten is not as often used as got, even in American books.

Don’t panic! Such differences are good news actually since they are the sign that the regular form of some irregular verbs is becoming more widely accepted and used.

If we look at how frequently the irregular and the regular -ed forms of these verbs are used in British and American books over the centuries, we can see that the -ed form is being used more and more whilst the irregular forms are becoming less and less used. Thus, the more traditional British use of irregular forms is giving way to the -ed forms, even in British books. Although this trend seems to be quite recent for the forms of the verb to spell which are more and more often spelt (!) spelled, especially since the 1980’s, it is interesting to note that in the United States, the use of the -ed forms started to increase in the decades following the 1828 publication of Noah Webster’s first dictionary of American English.

So, if you were dreaming of a shorter list of irregular verbs to learn, you have to be thankful to Mr Webster whose name has become a synonym of the word dictionary in the United States! 😉

 

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3 Comments

  1. Trev

    This is interesting. But the list that you give includes two different types of verbs: those like leap leapt, which have a vowel change, and those like dwell / dwelt that don’t.
    It can be argued that when there is a vowel change, the verb is indeed irregular. when there is no vowel change, the verb is actually quite regular; the shortened form is just an alternative spelling.
    The question of got/gotten is a bit more complex, as explained on this page on Get and got .

    Reply
    • Yolaine

      Thank you for your interesting comments Trev.
      It is true that some of these verbs can be considered as “regular” when there is no vowel change, at least aurally so.
      When it comes to writing the past form of a verb however, the consensus is that a regular verb ends in -ed.
      I am not sure about teaching the fact that dwelt or leapt are shortened, alternative spellings because then some learners of English may think they can apply such a ‘shortened’ form to other regular verbs; I once had a student write “I workt” and it definitely is not what we want our students to believe is correct! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Trev

    No, of course not.
    But the example of workt is interesting as it shows that the insistance on the -ed form for most verbs comes from a tendancy for grammarians to want to make rules, specially normative rules.
    Workt used to be quite acceptable…. as
    this exhibition announcement shows.
    My guess is that workt will come back again, as the current trend is to revert to short phonetic spellings where they exist.
    .. notably in text messaging.
    But best to not tell that to our students…. or at least, not yet.

    Reply

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