Spelt or spelled?

Spelled and spelt are both past tense/past participles of the verb “spell,” although North American English prefers “spelled.” British English uses “spelled” or “spelt.”

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What is the difference between spelt and spelled ?

The words spelt and spelled are past participles of the verb spell, so English speakers use either term for the past tense. The primary difference between the two words involves definition, regular vs. irregular verbs, and orthography:

  • Spelt” is the irregular verb form of “spell,” while “spelled” is regular. 
  • Spelt” and “spelled” only occur as past tense and past participle forms when “spell” means ‘to chronologically list letters of a word,’ or ‘to explain’ and ‘understand.’
  • Spelled” is the preferred choice for English in the United States and Canada. 
  • Spelt” is indicative of British English, although “spelled” is still more common. 

Understanding regular verbs vs. irregular verbs

Regular English verbs end with ‘-ed’ for all past tense and past participle forms. For example, we always write the past participle/past tense form of “work” as “worked,” or “walk” as “walked.” Irregular verbs have non-standard endings or separate forms for the past simple tense and past participles.

Irregular verbs with non-standard past tense and past participle forms:

Irregular verbs with separate past tense and participle forms:

Sometimes, a verb is irregular because it doesn’t change for the past tense or past participle at all. For example, the verbs “let” and “quit” never change to “letted” or “quitted.” 

Spelled is regular, spelt is irregular

Spelled” is the regular past tense and past participle form of ‘spell,’ and “spelt” is the irregular form. However, both words still exist in The United Kingdom (UK), New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa. The Guardian and Observer Style Guide, for example, advises the use of “spelled” for the past tense and “spelt” for the past participle (e.g., ‘spelled it out’ vs. ‘is spelt like this’). 

That’s not to say that “spelt” is especially common. Due to the influence of North American English (which never uses “spelt”), “spelled” is the more common past tense and past participle form of ‘to spell’ for English world-wide. 

If we look at Google Books Ngram Viewer, the prevalence of “spelt” was much higher than “spelled” for global English writings between 1600 and the late 19th century. It wasn’t until 1893 that the use of “spelled” began to pick up and dominate as the preferred spelling. 

What’s the deal with “spelt,” anyways?

The word “spelt” is a funky-sounding verb for Canadian and American English because it ends with ‘-t’ instead of ‘-ed.’ But if you live in a region associated with “British English,” English varieties of this sort are common. For example, British English speakers may use “learnt” instead of “learned” or “whilst” instead of “while.” 

Additional examples include: 

  • Misspelt vs. misspelled
  • Spilt vs. spilled
  • Smelt vs. smelled

While British English tends to prefer irregular verb forms, sometimes the opposite occurs for Americanisms. For instance, Americans are more likely to use “dove” instead of “dived” or “snuck” instead of “sneaked.” 

What does spell mean?

English speakers generally use the verb spell to mean ‘to write or speak letters of a word, name, or title in order.’ For example, 

  • “How do you spell your name?” 
  • “Can you spell this word?” 
  • “The letters spell the term ‘orthodontist.’” 

Since the verb spell involves the act of reciting letters, the word’s meaning lends itself to the act of ‘developing an understanding,’ ‘equating to,’ or ‘to be a sign or characteristic of.’ Sentence examples include: 

  • “For the star crossed lovers, family war spelled disaster and heartbreak.” 
  • “Excess drinking and a poor diet can spell mental and physical illness for anyone.” 

Writing tip: According to Lexico, we can use this meaning of spell similarly to ‘bring about,’ ‘bring on,’ ‘cause,’ or ‘lead to.’ 

Phrases of spell

The phrasal verb ‘spell out’ means ‘to make something clear and explicit.’ For example, 

  • “To avoid sounding vague, you’ll have to spell out the concept further.”
  • “Do you understand, or do I need to spell it out for you?” 
  • Spell out the letters of the word for me.” 

Speaking of spelling-out, English speakers also use the phrase ‘spell down’ to describe the act of ‘defeating someone in a spelling bee.’ For example, 

  • “The school’s final spell down ended with a celebratory cheer.”
  • “The 12-year-old student won $200 in a spell down.” 

When to use spelled and spelt?

The words spelled and spelt are past participles of spell, although “spelled” is the regular verb form, and “spelt” is the only irregular verb form. In either case, English speakers use “spelled” and “spelt” for the simple past tense (preterite) and the present, past, and future perfect tenses. For example, 

  • “I spelled/spelt.” (simple past)
  • “You have spelled/spelt.” (present perfect)
  • “We will have spelled/spelt.” (future perfect)
  • “They had spelled/spelt.” (past perfect)
  • “She will have spelled/spelt.” (future perfect)

Other regular tense forms include “spell” or “spells” for the present tense and “spelling” for the present participle and continuous tenses. 

  • I spell” or “He spells.” (present)
  • “You are spelling.” (present continuous)
  • “They will spell.” (future)
  • “We were spelling.” (past continuous)
  • “You will be spelling.” (future continuous)
  • “I have been spelling.” (present perfect continuous)
  • “She had been spelling.” (past perfect continuous)
  • “We will have been spelling.” (future perfect continuous) 

Synonyms of spelled/spelt

Add up to, amount to, denote, embody, epitomize, explain, express, import, intend, mean, represent, signify. 

Etymology of spell and spelt

The verb spell originates from Middle English spellen (of Old English ‘spellian’) and Old French espeller (or ‘espelir’). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, both archaic terms derive from the Germanic root spel-,’ which means ‘to say aloud’ or ‘recite.’ 

However, Old French espelir evolved independently of Old English spellian to additionally mean ‘to signify, interpret.’ Over time, English speakers combined both meanings of spell through phrases such as: 

  • “Hear spell” (c. 15th century): to eavesdrop or hear something talked about. 
  • “Spell the wind” (c. 15th century: to talk of something in vain. 
  • “Spell (someone) backward” (c. 17th century): to portray someone in a negative light (from William Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing”).  
  • “Spell out” (the 1580s’): to spell the letters of a word. 
  • “Spell out” (1940): to explain thoroughly. 

Additional meanings of spelled and spelt

The final reason English speakers confuse “spelled” for “spelt” is that either term exists independently without “spelt” as a past participle (regardless of geography). For instance, sometimes, “spell” is a noun and verb, while “spelt” is a noun of its own. 

For the following list of terms, the only appropriate verb forms include:

  • Spelled (past participle)
  • Spelling (present participle)
  • Spells (present tense)

Spell = enchantment

When it comes to the topic of magical spells or enchantment, the verb spell means ‘to put under a spell’ or ‘to bewitch.’ Likewise, the noun spell is synonymous with ‘conjuration’ or ‘incantation,’ which mean: 

  • ‘A word or phrase to conjure magical powers.’ 
  • ‘A state of trance or bewitchment.’ 
  • ‘An attraction, charm, or fascination.’ 

If someone is “under a spell” or “spellbound,” it means they appear to have lost control over their thoughts and actions–– as if they are under someone’s control by magic. In this case, “spell” is also akin to words like ‘charm,’ ‘allure,’ and ‘enticement.’ 

Early Germanic languages initially wrote Old English “spell” as “spel” to mean ‘narration’ (Old Saxon and Old High German). The noun and verb forms didn’t imply the notion of magic until 1579 and 1623, respectively. 

Spell = period of time

Outside the notion of English letters, we can use the word spell as a noun or verb for the concept of time, breaks, or rest. More specifically, the verb ‘to spell’ means: 

  • ‘To relieve someone of their duties or responsibilities to rest.’
  • ‘To take turns with someone on a task or job.’ 

According to Lexico, the noun spell (from Old English spelian) is a 16th-century variant of ‘spele’ for ‘to take the place of.’ However, the term’s meaning and usage have changed over the years to take-on similar meanings: 

  • ‘A continuous shift of work’ (c. 1706). 
  • ‘A period of rest’ (also as ‘spell down’ c. 1845) for Australian English
  • ‘A work break’ (as ‘to give a spell’ c. 1750). 
  • ‘A period of a specific type of weather’ (e.g., ‘dry spell’ c. 1728).  
  • ‘A period of mental or physical ill-being.’ (e.g., ‘dizzy spell, c. 1593). 

Spell = splinter

Finally, the noun spell also means ‘a splinter of wood,’ although this use of “spell” is relatively uncommon. Lexico attributes the noun’s origin to Late Middle English as a variant of speld, which means ‘chip’ or ‘splinter.’ 

Spelt = wheat

Spelt” is an American name for Triticum spelta, a type of hardy wheat cultivated in Europe. The noun use of spelt began in Middle and Old English through Late Latin spelta and shares a relation to spelte, the Dutch word for wheat. 

Test Yourself!

The spelling differences for spelled and spelt largely come down to British English vs. North American English, but there are other factors in between. Challenge your understanding of spelled vs. spelt with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: Spelt is the irregular form of spelled. 
    a. True
    b. False
  2. When it comes to reciting individual letters of a word, ___________ is the past participle of spell.
    a. Spelled
    b. Spelt
    c. Spelling
    d. A and B
  3. Spelt is not the past participle of spell for which topics? 
    a. Magical spells
    b. Wheat 
    c. Work breaks
    d. All of the above
  4. Words like “spelt” represent English spellings for which country? 
    a. Canada
    b. The United States
    c. Great Britain
    d. A and B
  5. Which varieties of English spelling are most similar to “spelled vs. spelt”? (regular form vs. irregular form)? 
    a. Feel, felt
    b. Be, was, were, been
    c. Throw, threw, thrown
    d. Spill, spilled, spilt 

Answers

  1. A
  2. D
  3. D
  4. C
  5. D

Sources

  1. Harper, D. “Spell.” Online Etymology Dictionary, Etymonline, 2020. 
  2. Irregular Verbs: Overview and list.” Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University, 2020. 
  3. Spell.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  4. Spell.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  5. Spell.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. Spelled or spelt? The Guardian and Observer Style Guide, The Guardian, 2020. 
  7. Spelt.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  8. Spelt.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  9. Spelt, spelled.” Google Ngram Viewer, Google Books, 2020.