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

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1 thought 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.

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