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Marc Lacey, "As Arizona Fire Rages, Officials Seek Its Cause", NYT 6/11/2011:

Deep within the burn zone, while trying to extinguish the more than 600-square mile Wallow Fire, firefighters have taken care not to trod on two small areas in the Bear Wallow Wilderness where smoke and flames were first spotted a mile or more apart on May 29. Those two fires quickly merged into one big, unruly, runaway blaze that eludes containment nearly two weeks later. (emphasis added)

In standard formal English, I believe, that should be "to tread on"; "trod" is the past tense form, with the past participle being "trodden" or "trod". (The editors of the New York Times agree with me, apparently, since the online article has now been changed to read "tread on" — so here is a screen shot of the original.)

People have been confused about this for more than 600 years — the current standard tread, trod, trodden is the result of people Doing It Wrong in the 14th century. The OED explains that trodden (as robustly preserved in downtrodden) is from

Late Middle English troden, taking the place of Old English and Middle English treden, past participle of tread n.; imitating such past participles as holpen, stolen, < help, steal.

and notes that

In the 14th cent. (in Hampole a1340), either under Norse influence, or by assimilation to verbs of Class IV (brecan, bræc, brocen), the past participle troden (later trodden, trode, trod) began to be substituted for the original treden, although the latter in its shortened form tred(e, tread survived with some to the 17th cent., and is still in dialect use. In the end of the 14th cent. troden is found in the plural of the past tense, and from the 16th cent. trode, trod also in the singular. Ormin has a weak past participle trededd for treden, and a weak past tense tredide, tredde appears in the later Wyclifite version.

The OED also recognizes an adjective trod, analyzed as a shortened form of "trodden", as in Milton's "Then to the well-trod stage anon". There is also a transitive verb trod,  marked as "Obs. or dial.", with the gloss "To follow the footprints or track of; to track, trace".

So, as I said, people have been confused for a long time about how to conjugate tread.  Adopting the preterite (or shortened past participle) form trod as the base form is not something that I recall seeing in well-edited writing in the past. However, a quick check in the invaluable MWDEU reveals that this is an instance of the recency illusion:

[T]rod also has a long history of use as a verb in its own right. […] The intransitive sense, which might also be defined simply as "tread," is […] not recorded until 1909. It occurs chiefly in dialectal American speech, but it also occasionally finds its way onto the printed page:

… they were almost trodding on your correspondent's toes — Springfield (Mass.) Daily News, 15 Nov. 1961

… visitors have been coming in creasing numbers to trod down Main Street –Elizabeth van Steenwyk, Ford Times, November 1967

A related transitive trod also sometimes appears in print. Like the intransitive trod, it is used both literally and figuratively:

The eccentric is forced, therefore, to trod a lonely way  — Martin Gardner, In the Name of Science, 1952

… we saw one horse with wagon … trodding the cobbled road –John A. Murray, Grace Log, Winter 1967-1968

And in 1926, the American Dialect Society was on the case (Josephine M. Burnham, "Some Observations on Middle Western Speech", Dialect Notes):

Related uses continue and perhaps increase in print:

For days, residents have been trodding along muddy roads in the region, abandoning their homes with little more than spare clothing stuffed into plastic bags. (Edward Wong, New York Times 7/19/2010)

Suri Cruise demonstrated her non-stop commitment to glamour by wearing high heels to a Malibu beach party on Memorial Day, trodding haphazardly through the sand with mother Katie Holmes. (Maureen O'Connor, Defamer 6/1/2011)

And the extent to which the prime minister and Mr. Flaherty are now able to trod the Earth like bulls, not beavers, reflects the resilience of a system they have both inherited and competently administered. (Alec Bruce, Times & Transcript, 5/31/2011)

I was the wing / in heaven blue / yet to trod / in heavy shoes (Patti Smith, "wing")

And also in speech, as in this passage from a recent Rush Limbaugh show:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

If Newt can provoke attack from the conservative Republican contenders
and even from the rank-and-file voters
by trodding on their sacred cows, which is what he did,
there’s no denying- he trod on some sacred cows as defined by this campaign.
If- so be it if he does that. It gives him visibility, who's talking about it,
In some people’s eye, it makes him reasonable.
With this crowd
uh that I’m talking about, it's a resume enhancement to be criticized by me.

And the continuing confusion seems to be unleashing some semantic creativity even when the morphology remains classical:

Karen Heller, "Better to look good than do good", Philadelphia Inquirer 5/29/2011:

Who knew the road to ruin was trod with toe cleavage?


  1. Ø said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 1:48 pm

    "Trod" for "tread" occurs in a line of dialogue in This is Spinal Tap.

  2. Rod Johnson said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    There's some kind of triangulation of toddle, tread/trod and twaddle going on out there. Some people use troddle to mean various mixtures of the three, such as here and here and here

  3. rootlesscosmo said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 2:13 pm

    In usages like "a man who left school at fifteen to trod the hard road alone," where the meaning isn't simply "walk" but "walk with difficulty or with determination" is there some semantic spill-over from "plod"?

    And present-tense "tread" is familiar to many US speakers from "Don't tread on me."

  4. hector said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 2:17 pm

    Could there be a confusion of "trod," and "plod" and "tromp" on the other? "Trod" sounds like a heavier step than "tread," and most of these examples — "trodding like bulls," "trodding through sand," "trodding a muddy road," and "trodding on" various things — imply a heavy stepping motion. "Tread" just doesn't sound right, it's not onomatopoeic enough, in these situations.

    To me, you tread through water, because it isn't your feet that are meeting resistance, but your legs, and you plod through sand, since it's your feet that the sand gives a workout to.

  5. Steve Kass said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 2:33 pm

    Google Books reveals an occurrence of intransitive trod from 1871, earlier than MWDEU’s “not recorded until 1909.”

    [The Awkward Man] delights in pedestrian exercise, and his long strides, tramping the earth he trods on, kicking up pounds of mud if the road be miry, frightens little children out of his way, who see in him the traditional giant with his seven-league boots.

    There’s a 1885 example, too — poetic license, perhaps.

    Embodied thought, aspiring human soul
    Climbing through ages to a higher goal —
    Seeking light and truth beyond the path he trods —
    One God made man, man hath made many gods.

  6. GeorgeW said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

    To me, trod doesn't work in any tense in which there is a light touch like 'trod water' or 'trod lightly' or 'trod a fine line.' Maybe, I am influenced by 'plod.'

  7. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

    But, can't you trod [something] out?

    I think it's fair to say that trod has become distinct from tread (a phenomenon which is not unheard of) in usage and meaning.

    Also, why no mention of Rush pronouncing campaign with two syllables? Surely that's more interesting than how tread "should" be conjugated?

  8. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 3:57 pm

    Err, three syllables. Campaign usually has two.

  9. Vasha said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 4:14 pm

    The instances of "trodding" could well be explained as "trotting" influenced by flapping.

  10. Spell Me Jeff said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 4:16 pm

    "trod out" sounds like an eggcorn for "trot out."

  11. D.O. said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

    Obligatory Google N-grams observation. To trod and trodding are almost equally widespread (with trodding on top), come mostly from the American English, and approximately at 1% of regular (to tread, treading) forms. Nonstandard forms are on the rise (if viewed through a couple of decades window), while standard forms are in constant (though recently retarded) decline.

  12. GeorgeW said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

    1. tread, trod, trodden
    2. retread, ?retrod, ?retrodden

  13. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    For me tread is irregular, but very different, and I'm quite certain the usage is very standard in the water polo / swimming world:

    to tread / treaded / have tread / treading

    Trod has the connotation for me of being a bit heavier or arduous, maybe I'm getting influence from trot especially in conjugation, but that to me exclusively almost an equine word. For example, I would say

    to trod / trodded / trodded (trodden?) / trodding


    to trot / trotted / trotted / trotting

    But in my mind, all three are distinct verbs. SAE speaker here.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

    Another Google ngram: treaded water passed trod water in about 1982. In the American corpus, they were roughly equal from about 1966 to 1976, and treaded water now leads by over 4 to 1. Maybe some people (mostly Americans?) now have two regular verbs, with tread reserved for rattlesnake flags and water.

  15. Dw said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 6:24 pm

    To me, the word "trod" brings to mind "Good King Wenceslas".

  16. Steve Morrison said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 8:10 pm

    To me, the word "trod" brings to mind "Good King Wenceslas".

    My own first association is Sweeney Todd.

  17. maidhc said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

    "Who knew the road to ruin was trod with toe cleavage?" seems to me to be influenced by "shod".

    "Shod" comes from "shoe", which isn't pronounced like "toe". "Show" used to be spelled "shew" but still rhymes with "toe" (and "tow"), as does "sew". But "flow" was never spelt "flew", and there's another word "floe". And of course "cow".

    "Sodden" comes from "seethe", although it's not used that way any more.

    Now I'm surprised there's not more confusion.

  18. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 11, 2011 @ 10:22 pm

    Is this development analogous to the replacement of "lie (down)" by "lay (down)" in modern colloquial speech?

  19. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 12:00 am

    In British English (and older English in general) intransitive _tread_ means primarily 'step' as in 'you trod on my foot'. My husband uses it very regularly where I would use the verb _step_ (in the sense of put a foot down while walking, dancing etc.). He uses _step_ too but in a much more restricted way, e,g, in_Step out!_ (which seems to mean something like 'take good long steps').
    I believe that even in British English _tread_ doesn't occur much in the present, probably because the present tense is more restricted in general in English because we have the progressive; and the progressive isn't much used with this verb because of its temporal contour (aktionsart, to be technical). (I haven't checked frequencies in a British corpus; I'm going by my observation of spoken language I've heard over the last 25 years).

    So, I think Americans lexically replaced _tread_ with _step_, and but kept the (I hypothesize) more frequent preterite and sculpted out a new (or mutated) motion verb _to trod_, separate from the fading verb _to tread_. I agree that the new verb is influenced by _plod_ and the other verbs people mentioned above. Reminds me of Yakov Malkiel's papers on the way Latin verbs changed in form and meaning in the various branches of Romance, influenced by similar-sounding verbs which were related (sometimes, actually opposite) in meaning to the one changing.

    I think you can use an activation network of related form-meaning units to model these kinds of effects (diachronically and synchronically). One form gets more entrenched and becomes a unit in its own right, influenced by lexical units close in form and meaning.

  20. Aviatrix said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 2:01 am

    Is there a difference in pronunciation for most Americans between "trotted" and "trodded"?

    I'm Canadian, and I don't think I would say them differently. But I don't say "trodded." I use tread/trod/trodden. "Tread carefully, I broke a glass."

  21. mollymooly said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 2:59 am

    @Rod Johnson

    There's some kind of triangulation of toddle, tread/trod and twaddle going on out there.

    I don't think you meant twaddle "prattle"; have you already blended toddle with waddle?

  22. Pflaumbaum said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 6:03 am

    I've never thought of tread as having any other past tense than trod, but now I think about it he trod water does sound weird.

    @Suzanne Kemmer

    Not sure your impression of your husband's use of tread and step is representative of BrE in general.

    Looking at the BNC, step is about twenty times as frequent as tread, which is about two and a half times as frequent as trod. You're certainly right that tread is often used for standing on something that's not meant to be stood on, as in the famous Yeats line. But step is also perfectly natural there. I suppose step out could mean take a long stride in the context of teaching someone a dance or something… for older speakers it tends to mean 'go for a walk' or 'go on a date'.

  23. Dakota said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 6:11 am

    "Trodden" also appears in Robert Frost's much-loved The Road Not Taken:

    And both that morning equally lay
    In leaves no step had trodden black.

    @GeorgeW: tread, trod, trodden; retread, retreaded, retreaded.
    But why are retreaded tires always called retreads?…

  24. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:19 am


    Yes, his speech is 'educated northern' so there will be some different patterning. _Step_ vs. _tread_ in British English is going to show some interesting semantic patterning, and it might well interact with variability in the form of the different tenses. I get a lot of British English input besides the husband as I spend 4-6 weeks in Britain every year (not to mention having Radio 4 piped into all our home radios via internet; I sometimes hardly know what country I'm in when I wake up) and I sense that something is going on with the forms of that verb in spoken language in Britain. I suspect looking at the spoken subcorpus of the BNC is going to show morphological variation that is part of an ongoing change and the spoken is probably in advance of the written language. Regional variation is going to factor into it as well. To really look at morphological (and semantic) change we get straight into sociolinguistics, inevitably.
    In American English where the lexeme _tread_ is hardly used, I'll make an educated guess that the form _trod_ comes in more in the written language. If Americans read enough, they see _trod_ and it enters their system (in that form–unconnected from _tread_) as some kind of formal word for 'walk'. Neither form, _tread_ or _trod_, sounds like informal spoken language to my American ear.

  25. Mary Bull said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    And then there are these lines that John Gillespie Magee wrote as he concluded his sonnet "High Flight." written in September, 1941. I first read it in an issue of Reader's Digest a couple of years later.

    "And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
    The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
    Put out my hand, and touched the face of God."

  26. Mary Bull said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    typo above, meant to have a comma not a full stop here: "…'High Flight,' written in 1941 …".

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 9:02 am

    @Vasha: In MYL's citations for trodding, the one from Maureen O'Connor is the only one where I could imagine that it's trotting.

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright: They sure look analogous, but I'll bet lie for lay is much closer to raise for rise and set for sit. (Fall for causative fell is the opposite direction.) I don't know how you'd tell.

  28. Henning Makholm said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

    Related to the 14th-century Norse connection, the modern Danish cognate of "tread" is træde whose past participle trådt sounds just like "trod", except for having a different /r/. (The ring diacritic is originally an o).

  29. Rodger C said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 1:43 pm

    A peever might insist that people who say "trodding" should be encased in cladding.

  30. josephine said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 6:21 pm

    Still I Rise by Maya Angelou:

    You may write me down in history
    With your bitter, twisted lies,
    You may trod me in the very dirt
    But still, like dust, I'll rise.

    — jo

  31. Rod Johnson said,

    June 12, 2011 @ 10:49 pm

    @mollymooly: Did you look at the links I posted? Twaddle is precisely what I meant.

  32. Jim said,

    June 13, 2011 @ 1:53 pm

    "2. retread, ?retrod, ?retrodden"

    That's demoninative, from tire treads. When you retreat something, you are putting new treads on it, not treading back over it again.

  33. Sparky said,

    June 14, 2011 @ 1:06 am

    Wish I had a citation — it was on the radio — but I just recently heard "trode" (troad?) used as the supposed past tense.

  34. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 1:57 pm

    @Jerry Friedman:

    Is the analogical model for "lay" in "I'm laying down" for "I'm lying down" the causative verb "lay" as in "I'm laying the book down" or the past tense form of "lie", which is also "lay"?

  35. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    June 15, 2011 @ 2:00 pm

    Sorry, I guess that was your point. But the question is, if the analogical model is the causative verb, why is "sit" not being replaced by "set", or "rise" by "raise"?

  36. Rodger C said,

    June 18, 2011 @ 12:28 pm

    @Jonathan Gress-Wright: Since when are both of these not happening? I often hear, e.g., "I raised up and then set down again."

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