As English ages, the language evolves. This evolution sometimes involves the invention of new words, some of which are formally recognized in new editions of dictionaries. In other cases, old words are phased out, or altered to more closely resemble modern conventions.
This second scenario is probably taking place for the words spilled and spilt. They mean the same thing, but the irregular -t conjugation is irregular and less common.
Continue reading this article for a more in-depth discussion on the usage of each of these words, and to find out whether you should choose spilled or spilt.
What is the Difference Between Spilled and Spilt?
In this post, I will compare spilled vs. spilt. I will use each spelling in example sentences, so that you can see each word in its proper context.
I will also outline a helpful memory tool that you can use to remember which of these words to use in which circumstances.
When to Use Spilled
Here are some examples,
- I spilled my coffee all over my brand new shirt.
- The broken drilling equipment spilled millions of gallons of oil into the ocean.
- Gregory spilled his drink on his dancing partner, and she was not amused.
- It is a buoyancy that started between the lines in the ballpark and the basketball arena and has spilled out, largely undiminished, into some of the less scenic corners of the city. –The New York Times
When to Use Spilt
What does spilt mean? Spilt is actually the original past tense form of the verb to spill, but it has, in the last 100 years or so, fallen out use.
In Garner’s Modern English Usage, Bryan Garner estimates that spilled overtook spilt as the standard past tense form in American English in 1900 and in British English in 1956.
The above chart graphs spilt vs. spilled across all English books, American and British and, as you can see, spilled has predominated since the beginning of the 20th century.
Still, some British publications still use spilt in their writing.
- If that wasn’t enough, the Great Storm had just blown down 15m trees in southern England, the Exxon Valdez had spilt 11m gallons of crude oil off Alaska, and the French government had blown up Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior in a New Zealand harbour. –The Guardian
Today, however, spilt is more likely to appear as part of fixed phrases, like spilt milk, over which there is no use crying.
The spelling spilt milk is slightly more common than spilled milk. Either spelling is acceptable in the use of the phrase, which might appear as such,
- “Tut, tut, there’s no sense crying over spilt milk,” scolded grand-mama.
Trick to Remember the Difference
Spilled and spilt are two different spellings of the same word. They carry the same meaning and can be used in the same contexts.
That being said, in today’s English, spilled is much more common. You should choose it most of the time, even in fixed phrases like spilled milk, since it will be less distracting to your reader.
You can use the conventional -ed ending that spilled shares with many other past tense verbs, like tilled, filled and billed, to remember to choose this word for most contexts.
Is it spilled or spilt? Although both spilled and spilled can function as the past tense for the verb spill, modern writers use spilled much more often. Even in fixed phrases like spilt milk, the two variants are roughly equal.
If you are having trouble remembering which version to choose, remember that the common -ed ending is shared between most verbs, including rhymes like willed, skilled, and milled.
- Spilled and spilt mean the same thing
- Spilled is the preferred spelling.