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.