Is It Spit or Spat?

Twice recently the New York Times has made mistakes with the word “spit.” Or maybe they haven’t made mistakes with “spit.”

A few weeks ago I wrote a post about this headline from the March 23 Times: “Spit on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.” Here’s how I would have written it:

Spat on, Yelled at, Attacked: Chinese in U.S. Fear for Safety.”

Last week’s Times included a sad story about five retired nuns who died of COV-19. In a paragraph about COV-19 tests performed at the convent, I found this sentence:

“Other methods, using a sample of saliva that is spit into a vial, are being introduced in a small number of states but are not widely available yet.”

I would have changed it to this:

“using a sample of saliva that is spat into a vial….”

I checked a couple of dictionaries. One gave the preferred past tense and past participle as…spitted. Really? I’ve never heard anyone say “spitted.”

The other two said that both spit or spat could be used in the past tense.

A grammar website agreed with me that spat is the correct choice for the past tense. It didn’t even mention spitted or spit for the past tense.

What’s a writer to do?

My policy is to stick with whatever sounds right to me. Of course that’s a very subjective approach – but sometimes it’s the only choice we have.

English is always changing, and words are always sliding in and out of our language. Often you have to make your best guess.

I’m sticking with spat.

Young man spits out alcohol in the park


3 thoughts on “Is It Spit or Spat?

  1. Robert Murray

    Hmm. Interesting. English has always been a second language for me though that means I have no first.
    I never liked the word spit. To me, verb or noun, it’s kind of a messy slimy word running with bits of masticated food and bacteria. I don’t like it. So, I always assumed that people used spat much as they would rather say ashphalt instead of asphalt. Thank you. Now I know the difference between past and present. But, don’t hold me to it because I like spat about as much as I like ashphalt. So true that learned elders staunchly protect the language devised by children.

  2. GMC

    Past tense of spit – three possibilities: spit, spat and spitted, all of those.

    I found this page because I was watching a documentary on Modigliani, who “spit up blood”, the narrator said. For some reason, not long awakened this morning, it sounded off. My only thought was that if the past tense of spit is spitted or spat then any phrasal verb would follow the same form. I imagined there was just a lapse with the writer forming the phrasal verb from the basic verb.

    It took me a while and a couple of web pages to remember that the same form as the present tense, spit, can also be used for the past with this verb.

    Your conception of the use of spit in the past was spat, whilst mine was either spat or spitted. (The latter you’d never heard of). We agreed that spit in the past tense didn’t ring well. In my case it was a case of a bad memory and the mind then choosing one or two forms instead, because it has been a long time since hearing the third form, spit.

    I actually find this happens more and more as I age, a surety over the use of language forms until I hunt further. Then it takes some time to recall that I hunted down the various usages as a teen and discussed them with others. Unfortunately many have not been retained by my memory, with my mind possibly deciding they do not sound correct now.

    At least I have been through the mind opening process before, when young. I recall when I do get a sense of being convinced that certain forms don’t sound right, it can be a real challenge to adapt. One can glance dubiously at various dictionary pages, for what they include or for the lack of what is expected to be on those pages.

    Perhaps it happens more to others than would normally be brought up in conversation.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.