Thursday 17 April 2008

On boilt

A correspondent writes to say : 'I discovered that the verb to spoil has preterite and past participle spoiled but that it also has spoilt (not sure whether one is British and the other American). What I want to know is whether boil works the same way.'

I can find no trace of the boilt spelling in standard English. There are no instances in the OED, although there was a great deal of spelling variation in the early centuries of its use. But regional dictionaries show examples, especially in Scotland, Ulster, the Isle of Man, and parts of the USA (especially those influenced by Scots-Irish). A Scots poetic example from 1790: 'Twa pints o' weel-boilt solid sowins' [an oat-meal beverage].

With verbs which have two -ed forms, such as spoiled and spoilt, the situation is interesting and not entirely understood. The -t ending is rare in American English, certainly. In British English, an aspectual distinction is usually involved. The -ed form is used when the duration of an action or the process of acting is being emphasized, and the -t form when something happens once, or takes up very little time, or the focus is on the result of a process rather than on the process itself.

To test this hypothesis, the best way is to compare pairs of examples. In The house burnt down, the implication is that the event took place quite quickly, whereas burned is more likely in The house burned for days. Similarly, I've dreamed all my life of living in Scotland is more likely than I dreamt all my life of living in Scotland. Dreamt tends to be used for single, short, and determinate instances of dreaming, where the dreamer is asleep (I dreamt last night I was in Italy); dreamed tends to be used for a more continuous and indefinable dreaming, where the dreamer is awake (I dreamed of meeting you all week). There is some overlap, though not in contexts where the 'awake' sense is clear, such as day-dreaming, which gives rise to I day-dreamed, not I day-dreamt. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, but it does help to explain the relative frequency of different items. Spilt is much more likely than spilled because the action of spilling is usually short. Learned is much more likely than learnt because the action of learning usually takes some time.


Anonymous said...

Thank you, sir. That was totally new to me. But I have a question: Are native English speakers aware of such subtle differences in meaning? And do I, as a learner of English, have to pay attention to the differnce in meaning when using words like "learnt" and "learned"?

DC said...

Native speakers are rarely consciously aware of points of grammar. That is one of the motivations behind teaching about grammar in schools - to make speakers more aware of the amazing subtleties in their language which they control without even thinking about it. The differences in usage are there, and even if one does not feel the need to acquire them as a foreign learner, you will certainly encounter them, and may sometimes find them expressing an important nuance (e.g. in a stylistic analysis).

Anyway, this is all rather academic, isn't it - for you have learned/learnt the distinction now!

By the way, notice that in my last sentence the difference is unimportant, for either interpretation is equally valid. The amount of time being spent learning is not an issue. Many sentences are like this, allowing both forms. So the issue is not a critical one, a lot of the time - but at least you now know what is going on!

Anonymous said...

Hi. The other day I came across a site whose creator was protesting strongly against to the addition of the "suffix -ed to words they shouldn't just to call it a past tense." Your post is obviously directly relevant to this.

In particular, the writer was criticizing people for writing "hurted" instead of the plain "hurt" for the past tense and past participle. He or she (I don't know the gender of the writer) was going mad about this!

But I felt that maybe the rage was excessive. I have a feeling that although "hurt" is probably the commonest and recommended form of past tense and past participle, "hurted" does occasionally occur even in prose (maybe in older writing, I don't know). I wonder whether you can tell me a bit about "hurt(ed"). Do the transitive and intransitive senses ("I hurt her" vs. "my leg hurt yesterday") perhaps allow variant endings for past tense and pp?

Or should it ALWAYS be: "I hurt her" and NOT "I hurted her" and "my leg hurt yesterday" and NOT "my leg hurted yesterday" ?


DC said...

Hurted was in competition with hurt for several centuries in the Middle Ages. It was Caxton's preferred usage, for example, and the OED gives instances right into the 18th century - including the adjectival the hurted part. The latest citation is from Tennyson, 1885, which is clearly dialectal, and that seems to be the way the form has been used since. Any serious usage I've seen in recent years has always been regional. (There are also occasional jocular uses, and the form also occurs in representations of children's speech, as hurted is a common analogy at around age 4.)