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Spilled vs. spilt

Spilt was once the standard past tense and past participle form of the verb spill, but in modern English the word has mostly given way to spilled in all its uses. The old form does survive, though, especially outside North America, where spilt appears about a third as often as spilled. Where spilt survives, there is no consistent rule governing when to use it and when to use spilled. They are interchangeable.

Ngrams

This ngram graphs the use of spilled and spilt in English-language texts published from 1800 to 2000. It shows the switch from spilt to spilled occurring around 1900.

But when we narrow the focus to British English, the switch occurs later:


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Examples

North America

Most of 10 tons of spilled corn will be left beside US 87 [Houston Chronicle]

The Fisher River has spilled its banks so many times in recent years, fighting floods has become routine. [Winnipeg Free Press]

It spilled over seven pages and veered into such topics as when the state should hold its presidential primary. [Los Angeles Times]

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Comments

  1. HENGIST_AND_HORSA says:

    I was born in 1954 but I prefer ‘spilt’. For example, “There’s no use in crying over spilt milk” is deeply ingrained I would never dream of saying “spilled”. I sometimes wonder whether this scrapping of good strong verb endings is the result of immigrants having an impact on the language. If so, the impact was felt first in the U.S. and later in Britain. I shall hold out as long as I can here in Spain.

    • Call_a_bigot_a_bigot says:

      Ok, where to start with this mind-boggling display of ignorance? Firstly, immigrants are the life-blood of language change. The migration of people across different cultures and languages is the main reason that language changes, evolves and survives. It’s the entire way that it works so complaining that one archaic word has fallen out of usage is just ignorant. Secondly, your idiotic xenophobia is wildly unnecessary and also hypocritical. Being as you speak so passionately in defence of the English language, I can only assume that you are not native to Spain. Therefore, you are an immigrant yourself, you thunderingly stupid assclown. Next time, before you post one of your unfounded and borderline racist opinions on the internet, have a quick look down to make sure you haven’t voided your own bowels all over the floor as I sincerely doubt you have the wit or intelligence to prevent yourself from doing so out of pure stupidity.

      • Chemical_cake says:

        Don’t be silly. You’ve read into this comment a bit much, I think – the commenter has noted their preferred usage, and postulated a reason for its slow demise. They don’t suggest that immigrants are bad, or even that language change is bad, just that they will continue to use their preferred ending.

        Get off your high horse.

        • Grammarist says:

          We shouldn’t have let the comment from “Call_a_bigot_a_bigot” pass through moderation. We don’t like that sort of flamewar rhetoric on this site. But since you took the time to respond, we’ll just edit the text out instead of deleting the comment.

  2. Allie280 says:

    Spilled is a verb. Spilt is an adjective.

  3. M and E debate says:

    I just had a debate with my girlfriend if ‘spilt’ was a word. Thanks to your website, I now claim the title ‘Grammer King’ in our relationship.

  4. Ummm…. actually most Canadian usage I’ve heard is spilt instead of spilled.

  5. reardensteel says:

    Spilt: to expel a great portion of saliva with a numb tongue.

  6. Ben Burger says:

    I’ve usually used spilt verbally but spilled when writting, I’m a 20 year old Canadian.

  7. I was having this conversation with my wife and wondered whether “spilt” might be the adjective “Spilt milk” while “spilled” would be the past participle if the verb “I spilled some milk”
    Made perfect sense to me but I guess I’m wrong.

    • geekahedron says:

      “I spilled some milk” would be an example of simple past tense, not a participle. “I had spilled some milk,” indicating a completed action, is the participle form. Generally speaking, the participle is also the form used in the passive voice and as an adjective, so if you use “spilt” as an adjective you probably also would use it as the participle: “I had spilt some milk” or “the milk was spilt,” but “I spilled the milk” and “the milk spilled.”

      That doesn’t necessarily disagree with your usage, only with what you were calling the participle.

  8. you are all gay

  9. “Spilt” and many other verb forms ending in “t” are the preterite form – the completed past action form – of the verb. We see the last vestiges of it now falling out of favor. The difference would be, “I spilled the milk” implying that the action might still be occuring, whereas “I spilt the milk” would signify that it was in the past and is already over and done with.
    “I kneeled as his bedside,” is something you would say as part of a continuing story, “…and spoke softly and reassuringly to him.” The listener is envisioning the story as a continuous scene. Whereas, “I knelt at his bedside, and spoke softly and reassuringly to him,” conveys the idea that while that action was done, it was of a fixed duration that has long since passed. There is far more a sense of finality with knelt than with kneeled.

    • I think your explanation is the best that I have found, and also aptly conveys my own thinking on this matter. I’ve since forgotten the definition of the “preterite form”, but you’ve helped me remember it. So therefore, the pertinent question is; is the action “still occurring”, or has it been completed at some point in the further distant past rather than the immediate past. Excellent post. Thanks!

    • Ana Bibazon says:

      There is talk about past participles in J.M. Coetzee’s novella, “Disgrace”. Something about how the toast isn’t burned, it’s burnt.

  10. thomas the monkey says:

    SWAG IS FOR BAD GUYS

  11. senex_bombulum says:

    I prefer spilt to spilled. I am in my 60s and was born and raised in the New York City area.

  12. I’m from the US and I’m 28 and I prefer spilt over spilled for past tense. ‘I just spilled something’ vs ‘last night I spilt my beer’.

  13. tauri :) says:

    The way it makes sense to me is using spilt as an adjective: “Don’t cry over spilt milk” and spilled as the past tense verb: “I spilled some milk.”

  14. teacher extraordinaire says:

    Born in 1959 and have NEVER used the word “spilt”. We spill and have spilled things. Spilt went out with “thou”.

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