Mark Liberman at the Log posts a message from a correspondent who quotes a news story that says “The actor and comedian span off the road and crashed the high-powered vehicle into a tree” and asks “‘Span’? I’ve never seen or heard this before in my life. Is this a Britishism or just an error? It should be ‘spun,’ right?” That would have been my reaction as well (though I’m aware that “span” is the older form, as in “When Adam delved and Eve span”), but apparently a lot of people in the UK think it’s perfectly normal. Frequent LH commenter Zythophile said “As a Briton, I’d be happy with ‘the car span off the road’, but I’d have to say ‘the company spun off its oil assets into a separate operation’.” Commenter Martin wrote “I’m British, I’ve used spin, span, spun all my life (a lot more than 25 years!).[…] but a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it…” So I turn to the Varied Reader: do you use “span” as the past tense, and if so, do you use it always and everywhere or make a distinction like Zythophile’s?


  1. Marc Leavitt says

    Where I live (New Jersey) in the northeastern United States, we use it very occasionally in the venacular(his car span out of control), but most people use “spun.”

  2. Marc Leavitt says

    Pardon the typo: “vernacular.”

  3. I wouldn’t make the ‘spun off’ distinction, myself. Nothing wrong with span, though. I’d say it’s ‘spin, span, had spun’. I think ‘the car spun off the road’ sounds funny. It would have to be ‘the car was spun …’ for me to say it.
    Of course half an hour from now I might feel differently.

  4. I can’t remember ever hearing it (and I’m British).

  5. Paul Clapham says

    “Span” sounds right to me in theory as the past tense of “spin”, but in real life I would go to considerable lengths to avoid using it as such.

  6. Span sounds find to me (British) and is common enough in reporting Formula 1 races, eg in the Guardian.

  7. Always and everywhere. (I’m British)

  8. It would sound much more natural to me as “his car done span off the road.” “Span,” by itself, just don’t sound right.

  9. Informal variant, sure. I wouldn’t use it in my application to Harvard.

  10. “a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it”: but are they the Sort of People who would say “the boat sunk”?
    I’d say that “span out of control” is good Brenglish.

  11. I wouldn’t blink at either “span” or “spun”; I think I’d tend to use “span” myself but couldn’t swear to it. If I think about it too much they both start to look wrong. (Zythophile’s distinction sounds plausible.)

  12. D Sky Onosson says

    My two pre-teen Canadian children both confirm, the right answer would be “spinned”, and they seemed more confused by “span” than “spun”.

  13. To me, “spun” for both simple past and past participle is what I’ve heard and said all my life. I did not catch on to the fact that “span” is the older simple past form until I encountered it in British writing (maybe for the first time in Sayers’s “Gaudy Night”). “Spinned” sounds like a child’s wrong guess. The word “homespun” may help to keep the word “spun” alive.

  14. David Eddyshaw says

    I (Brit) always say “spun” – I think; introspection is not always a safe guide in these matters.
    Nevertheless “span” sounds perfectly OK to me, and I wouldn’t have found anything odd about the original quote.
    However, thinking about it, I wouldn’t accept “span” in the spin-doctor sense.
    So I’d accept
    Eve span.
    Charlotte span a web.
    The car span round.
    but not
    *Alastair Campbell span for Tony Blair.
    Possibly this is because it would summon up a pleasing picture of literal spinning which seems inappropriate in context.

  15. David Eddyshaw says

    Agree with Zythophile about the unnaturalness of
    *span off (its assets)
    I suppose (for me) “span” is basically OK only for the core intransitive sense of “rotated” and for the olde worlde craft, where an olde worlde preterite maybe fits by association.

  16. I spun the plates on the end of a pole where they span for a while before dropping off.
    I use both and think there must be a rule but I couldn’t tell you what it was (since I’m not a linguist just a language user). The variants each sound separately right in different contexts.
    Brit Eng

  17. Actually, forget Alastair Campbell. more spinned against than spinning on its own seems to be quite popular in Britain, getting 12,700 hits.

  18. Having just searched the latest draft of my currently completed novel (he said grandly) I find four spun and one span.
    1) He spun Ash round and pushed him towards the corridor.
    2) He was giving a quick summary of how his career in language had led to computing which had spun off into an interest in code breaking and espionage
    3) He spun back to the man, pointed the gun and fired
    4)The dog had landed on its feet. It span round, disorientated, then locked eyes with Ash and sprang back at him.
    The only conclusion I can draw is that there might be too much energetic spinning around going on in general.

  19. As an Aussie living for many years in the UK, I’ve never heard anyone say “span off the road” nor would I think of using it. In the Formula 1 example, I reported on F1 for many years and never had occasion to write “span off”, nor knew of anyone else who used it. That “Dodgy” (Tony Dodgins) did, doesn’t surprise me ! (Sorry Dodgy…)

  20. The Log People weren’t the first to discuss this question. Here is a Span-ish English site has lots and lots of examples of span as a past tense in English. They agree that it’s English English and not USA English, and one Irishman doesn’t like it much either.

  21. David Eddyshaw says

    Seems like you only use “span” for the intransitive verb, which was part of what I was thinking of for my own usage.
    However, your example also makes me realise that I was wrong, as I don’t have any problem with
    I span the plates.
    I think it must be that “span” for me only sounds right for the literal “rotate” sense, regardless of transitivity, and for the arts-and-crafts-and-spiders activity …

  22. I’m in the ‘never heard it, never used it’ class. When I read the LL post, it struck me as a deliberate archaism.

  23. David Eddyshaw says

    Pursuing my guess about the Zythophile phenomenon, I’m trying to think of any parallels where older morphology is found with a word in its core senses and more innovative morphology with the secondary, derived usages, metaphorical senses, etc.
    If it weren’t late on Sunday evening I’m sure I could think of lots …
    Zythophile might just have the transitive vs intransitive thing that PK seems to, though.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    “Mouses”, I suppose; not a brilliant example, admittedly, given that mostly those things attached to computers are called “mice” too. On the other hand, it’s positively ungrammatical to call the furry ones mouses, whereas calling the computer accessories mouses just sounds like you haven’t heard of Facebook.

  25. “just sounds like you haven’t heard of Facebook”: no, no; as though you haven’t heard of Facebook.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    We hip and happening youngsters who have heard of Facebook laugh at your zombie rules.

  27. Australian (but not living there), and I can’t say I’ve seen or heard ‘span’.
    Oh, and Happy New Year! (Yesterday was Lunar New Year’s Day in China; today is Lunar New Year’s Day in Mongolia.)

  28. Okay, having thunk about this… :p
    Spin/span/spun seems similar to swim/swam/swum and sink/sank/sunk. For sink/sank/sunk, sank seems more common for an active subject: the ship sank, while sunk seems more common for a passive subject: the ship was sunk, and either seems suitable for an object: they sank/sunk the ship. For swim/swam/swum, there’s little use for swum. For spin/span/spun, ‘the care span out of control’ seems more consistent with the pattern, but ‘the car spun out of control’ might emphasize the ‘out of control.’
    Then again, ‘I spun around’ doesn’t fit the sink/sank/sunk pattern.

  29. “He spun around” is unremarkable to me, but with effort I can hear how odd it would sound to someone who says “he span around”.
    Then I think of “he swung around” and wonder if anyone says “swang”.
    @David Eddyshaw: and yet there is the 1935 Dorothy L. Sayers sentence, in which “… the road span away behind her …” or sume such.

  30. some

  31. Eric Oliver says

    I think I would say span (in casual conversation) and write spun… The same way I would say thinkin’ but write thinking. Of course in formal conversation I would say spun and thinking. (Eastern/Northern Canadian)

  32. Of course.
    And what the hell is a formal conversation?

  33. I really don’t understand what the fuss is all about:
    “Well, there’s egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and span; egg bacon and span; egg bacon sausage and span; span bacon sausage and span; span egg span span bacon and span; span sausage span span bacon span tomato and span.”
    Entirely unremarkable.

  34. span span span span span span span span

  35. Formal conversation: the kind you have with your boss when he’s telling you you’re being let go.

  36. I remember reading the quote about Adam and Eve and the gentleman, long ago, and understanding span as the past tense of the verb to spin, but I didn’t remember the form when I saw it again on LLog and here. If pressed for a preterite form I might have tried spun.
    I don’t think I would say “the car span/spun off the road”: if I had to describe such a situation I would be more likely to say “the wheels started to spin” or “the car went spinning off the road”, not in order to avoid the preterite but because it seems to me that I have heard such phrases much more often than the plain word.
    As for the literal meaning, I learned to spin wool a long time ago but don’t remember learning the preterite form.

  37. Formal conversation: the kind you have with your boss when he’s telling you you’re being let go.
    I can’t think of a better occasion to let fly with some informalities than that. Most of us have no need for informal and formal conversation; not unless we’re lawyers, politicians, actors or policemen. I certainly speak equally informally to everyone. Speech isn’t like written language.
    Eric Oliver: I’m sorry I was rude!

  38. Wally: Well, your boss is certainly being very careful what he says to you, at least in the U.S., because he doesn’t want to be hit by a wrongful-termination lawsuit. It behooves you to be just as careful.

  39. Wally: Well, your boss is certainly being very careful what he says to you, at least in the U.S., because he doesn’t want to be hit by a wrongful-termination lawsuit. It behooves you to be just as careful.

  40. Trond Engen says

    It may be me, and it may be Norway, or it may be my business ot the smalltown world I live in. But in my own experience as an engineer maintaining clients and as a client of accountants and lawyers, the only use I can see of a formal register would be as something to let go of immediately to highlight that our professional relationship will be both sincere and down to earth. Not that I care to pretend formal at first, but I sense that some do.

  41. Yes, exactly. I suppose we’re going out of our way to avoid it.

  42. Trond Engen says

    There’s no such thing as formal underwear.

  43. Trond Engen says

    The only use I can see of formal underwear would be as something etc.

  44. J.W. Brewer says

    One oddity about the old “When Adam dalf and Eve span” context is that in my very post-Medieval dialect I typically pronounce “gentleman” with a reduced vowel in the final syllable. In other words, it rhymes better with “spun” than “span.” Unless, of course, “span” was prononced like “spun” . . . By way of parallel, “Englishman” rhymes with “fee, fi, fo, fum,” not “fam.”

  45. No, span was /span/, neither /spæn/ nor /spʌn/.

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