Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Some like it spat

Over at Language Log, Mark Liberman has a nice analysis of the nouning of "spat upon," as reported in today's New York Times story,  "When Passengers Spit, Bus Drivers Take Months Off." When a city bus driver is spat on (or at) by a passenger, apparently the incident is now routinely called "a spat upon."

But the headline on page one of the print edition was not the same as the one Mark saw on the Web. My paper had "Spit Upon, Some Bus Drivers Go on Paid Leave for Months." That use of spit reflects Times style -- the verb is supposed to be spit in present, past, and past participial uses, spit-spit-spit. But in this case, that creates an inconsistency: The story is about an assault that officials refer to as "a spat upon," and editors can hardly change that to conform to NYT style.

I don't know whether the online hed was changed in order to eliminate the style disparity; the writer's own use of the dispreferred past tense -- "More than 80 drivers reported being spat upon" -- remains in the text of the Web version. But editing it would have been a sensible decision, since both versions are OK. In fact, Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern American Usage, lists spit-spat-spat, spit-spat-spit, and spit-spit-spit as possible conjugations of the verb.

He prefers spat for past tense and participle, as I do, though I don't share his impression that spit is "dialectal." (I learned spat in my Ohio youth, but I've heard past-tense spit all over.) And the OED has examples of past-tense forms like spytted and spytte long before spat, which has been circulating for a mere 500 years.

After so long a standoff, I suppose there's no hope for a quick resolution of the spit-spat conflict. But it's nice to see spat holding its ground in New York. Maybe the Times will be moved to reconsider its style choice. 

14 comments:

John Cowan said...

Add one more to the short list of wrong-way conversions from weak inflection to strong inflection: the best known are dive, shine, ring, wear, twig.

Mike said...

so "spitted" is not right? Good to know!

Jan said...

Right, John -- I grew up in a "dove" region and rarely heard "dived" before adulthood. And don't forget "snuck," which is spreading fast.

But "twig"? We barely know "twigged" in these parts, and I haven't heard "twag" at all -- or is it "twug"?

arnie said...

This seems to be yet another example of the difference in usage between the USA and the rest of the English-speaking world.

We in the UK will use 'spat' pretty well always for uses in the past tenses.

The Ridger, FCD said...

"Spit" is perfectly suited to become one of the English verbs that don't inflect for tense - they're almost all single-syllables ending in T (e.g. put, let, quit, shed), and they've been increasing in number. "Spit" is likely to join them.

John Cowan said...

Twug it is, and no, I don't use it either, but I've heard about it from an English friend who's a linguist.

ros said...

@John I've never heard a past tense other than 'twigged' and I would always say 'dived', too. But then I speak the Queen's English. And she doesn't spit. Ever. ;)

kmwierz said...

I prefer spit just because "spat" sounds funny to me. Then again, it isn't a word I use often.

Faldone said...

This is twig in what sense? Verbix has tweogan, meaning 'to doubt', but it's weak.

John Cowan said...

Faldone: twig 'understand, catch on'.

Anonymous said...

How is this a case of a weak-to-strong conversion?

spit-spat-spat is not a weak conjugation and spit-spit-spit isn't either...

Faldone said...

Weak is not the same as regular. Teach was a weak verb in OE. Verbs with the stem ending in -t often lost the -d- past marker to assimilation. This would be the case with spit. Spit, spat, spat is the strong version that the weak spit, spit, spit converted to.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for helping me win an argument with my hubbs. I told him both were right when he corrected my spit with spat.

Alun said...

Spat is a perfectly normal past use for the verb "to spit".
You're just being parochial.