Don’t Cry Over Spilled or Spilt Milk?: Nuanced Semanto-Pragmatic Differences Between -ed and -t in English

  •  Tris Faulkner    


Modern English has a small set of verbs that show variability between the inflections -ed and ­-t as preterite and past participle morphemes (Peters et al., 2022; Quirk, 1970). Examples include: burn, spoil, spill, learn, dream, spell, smell, kneel, dwell, leap, and lean (Peters et al., 2022; Quirk, 1970). While -ed is thought to be the more prevalent form in U.S. Englishes, -t is more widespread in U.K. dialects of English (as related to both preterite and perfect forms) (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2023; HarperCollins, 2023). However, in spite of this difference being regularly deemed dialectal (Cambridge English Dictionary, 2023; HarperCollins, 2023), according to some scholars (e.g., Peters et al., 2022; Quirk, 1970), choice between one form or the other may carry semantic consequences. For instance, whereas -ed in participial contexts may be understood as representing imperfective actions, -t might be associated with perfectivity (Quirk, 1970). With this in mind, the present paper had as its objective to further explore the meaning differences that may come about with the use of either inflection. In the sections to come, I add to the aforementioned discussion by pointing out that, in adjectival environments, the aspectual differences between the two can be analogized as the PLIANT and INTERRUPTIBLE (-ed) vs. the NON-COMPLIANT and TERMINAL (-t). I explain that, while -ed tends to be interpreted as being tied to modifiable or malleable events, -t is read as signaling those which are fixed or unyielding. The findings to be discussed are significant for several reasons: 1) they shed light on the contexts in which each inflected form may be preferred; 2) very few academic works acknowledge any differences, other than regional preference; and 3) to my knowledge, no previous scholarly article has focused on their uses in exclusively, adjectival environments.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
  • ISSN(Print): 1923-869X
  • ISSN(Online): 1923-8703
  • Started: 2011
  • Frequency: bimonthly

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