These two pairs have long troubled me gently, and it came to a head last week when someone impertinently commented on Facebook (where, for reasons you need not worry about, I was talking about ‘commonly misspelt words’) ‘”Misspelt”?! “Misspelled”, please.’
To deal with spell first, here’s the thing. The Guardian style guide specifies spelled for the past tense and spelt for the past participle, The Times prefers spelt in both instances, The Economist says spelled is American English and spelt is British English and healthfood shops tell us spelt is a more primitive form of wheat. Then there’s the OED, which says both are fine but lists spelled first, and Collins, which agrees but lists spelt first.
Is learn any simpler? Nope. Now, my first chief sub told me to spell it learnt, so as not to confuse it with the adjective learned, as in ‘he’s a learned man’. The Guardian style guide, however, says not to write learnt ‘unless you are writing old-fashioned poetry’. The Economist says learnt is British English and learned is American English and The Times prefers learnt in both instances. Collins and the OED agree that either spelling is fine, and both list learned first.
Fowler, in a rare show of tolerance, acknowledges both learned and learnt, spelled and spelt, though he notes that the -t endings are more common in British English, and that learned is more common as the past form.
Right then. That’s as clear as mud. So, what do people actually do? I asked the question on Twitter, and discovered that they do all kinds of things. There was a slight preference for -t endings (most of my followers are British, so that makes sense), a lot of confusion and a few preferences, but none of the usual tubthumping. Basically, we’re all a bit unsure.
Do I have an answer? Not really, beyond that if someone starts throwing ‘?!’ combinations at you on Facebook, you’re well within your rights to tell them to bugger orf.
As a general rule, it seems that -t endings are a trait peculiar to the British, and as such have some connotations of old-fashionedness. If you’re writing for an international audience, you may wish to switch to -ed, but otherwise, as you were. Pick your preference and defend it to the death, or at least until someone comes up with a sensible argument for changing it.
What’s your preference?
This just in from my colleague Kathy:
I found the thing wot I was talking about yesterday: the -t endings that have now fallen away include: curst (as in that fine Brighton band, The Curst Sons), dropt, husht, kist, stopt and whipt. The ones where the -t ending is now the only formation include: crept, dealt, felt, kept, left, meant, slept, swept. And those that have preserved both alternatives include: bereave, burnt, dream, kneel, lean, learn, smell, spell, spill and spoil. Because I know you won’t have been able to sleep.