Ask Language Log: "Span"?

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Victoria Ward, "Rowan Atkinson's McLaren car repair costs insurers almost £1 million", The Telegraph 2/7/2013:

The actor and comedian span off the road and crashed the high-powered vehicle into a tree in August 2011, suffering a fractured shoulder blade in the process.

J.B. asks:

"Span"? I've never seen or heard this before in my life.  Is this a Britishism or just an error? It should be "spun," right?

According to Wikipedia,

John Ball (c. 1338 – 15 July 1381) was an English Lollard priest who took a prominent part in the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. In that year, Ball gave a sermon in which he asked the rhetorical question, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?".

It being 1381 and all, what he actually said was somewhat different. The OED's inventory of spin forms:

But the version with "span" as the preterite of "spin" is what everyone remembers.

I'm personally skeptical about using "span" for what an out-of-control automobile does. "When Adam delved and Rowan Atkinson span out of control"? COCA has 78 instance of "spun out of control", and none of "span out of control". But apparently things are a bit different in the U.K. — the BNC has five instances of "spun out of control" and two of "span out of control".

Obligatory screenshot:


  1. Stan said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 10:50 am

    When I read it first my head spon a little.

  2. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 10:59 am

    A student hailing from Pendle used "span" a few weeks ago. Also interesting is that the original John Ball sermon may have used "when Adam dalf", not "delved", an example of strong-to-weak shift, while "span/spun" is an example of shifting between strong classes.

  3. Zythophile said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    As a Briton, I'd be happy with "the car span off the road", but I'd have to say "the company spun off its oil assets into a separate operation".

  4. Bruce Stephens said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 11:03 am

    Maybe it's a UK/US thing, because it seems fine to me. A quick google news search (in the UK) produces a few similar recent usages (mixed with other kinds of span, of course). (And now I'm thinking "span, span, span, span, …, wonderful span".)

  5. phanmo said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 11:14 am

    "Span" sounds fine to me as a Canadian.
    "What happened to your car?" "It span off the road."
    "Why did you have a rental car last Tuesday?" "Well, my car had spun off the road and I couldn't get it out of the ditch"

  6. David L said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

    As an ex-pat Brit, I have to say "span" sounds very weird to me. Is it a recent development (i.e. within the last 25 years or so)?

  7. PeterW said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:05 pm

    Sounds odd to me as an American. Even if the form is nonstandard or preserved on some dialects (which is quite possible, given that ME apparently had "spann" as a preterite, as does modern German, for "spinnen"), it doesn't seem standard enough for a newspaper.

    But perhaps it snuck into standard English when no one was looking. :-)

  8. Martin said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:31 pm

    I'm British, I've used spin, span, spun all my life (a lot more than 25 years!).

    I'd say this is alive and well and completely standard in the UK, but a bit of Googling suggests there are other Brits who claim never to have heard it…

  9. Alan Palmer said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:32 pm

    As a Brit, it seems fine to me. The more strong verbs the better the language, I feel. :)

  10. Jonathon Owen said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 12:42 pm

    I've heard "span" in speech before in the US, so it's not just a British thing. It seems more like an occasional nonstandard (but not necessarily regional) variant.

  11. Geraint Jennings said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

    Wordsworth, "The Prelude": "The year span round/with giddy motion" – and other examples from writers respected or otherwise easily findable.

  12. Giles said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

    I'm a Brit (south-east, home counties) and "my car span off the road" and "my car had spun off the road" sound right to me. "My car spun off the road" sounds wrong unless I imagine it in an American accent or generic "rural" one, which might mean it's alive and well in the UK but only in dialects I don't have much exposure to. "My car had span off the road" just sounds like a mistake.

  13. Adrian said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 1:42 pm

    "The car span off the road" is part of my (Cheshire, England) dialect. Even though it's many years since I left the area, "spun" still sounds like a mistake to me in this context. I think J K Rowling uses it in the Harry Potter books too. It's one of those things I say like "I shan't" and "I mustn't have looked properly" that make my wife give me a strange look.

  14. Nelson said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 1:43 pm

    'while "span/spun" is an example of shifting between strong classes'

    Daniel, there's no shifting (at least not from the perspective of the traditional Germanic strong verb classes): it's a perfectly good class 3 strong verb, with a regular OE inflection of infinitive spinnan, 3sg preterite span(n), 3pl preterite spunnon, past participle gespunnen. People who say spin, span, spun are continuing this inflection closely, though with the usual extension of the past singular form into the plural. People who just say spun have made a slightly more innovative analogy, levelling the participle stem (or, if early enough, the plural stem) into the singular, creating fewer stem forms over all.

    The elimination of span (the more archaic form) should be a pretty easy, repeatable analogy, so I wouldn't be surprised if this fails to map very well as a dialect feature. It could have arisen independently quite a few times in different places. Maybe the analogy of the type sing, sang, sung could even provide a model for re-creating span in a linguistic system that had an invariant preterite spun, which could confuse the situation even more.

  15. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 1:44 pm

    SAE here, I've heard it and saying it doesn't sound weird to me either. Not sure if I actually have said it myself though.

  16. Dave K said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 2:02 pm

    John Ball also would have pronounced the final e in "Eve" , right? Otherwise the line doesn't scan.

  17. Alec said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 2:15 pm

    In that year, Ball gave a sermon in which he asked the rhetorical question, "When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?"

    Fans of "1066 and All That" know that the answer to this question, of course, was "Adam", but the Church had hidden this dangerous knowledge from the people.

  18. h said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 2:26 pm

    What about "shat"?

  19. Doreen said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 3:13 pm

    … "had shut"?

  20. Ø said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

    From Dorothry L. Sayers' "Gaudy Night" (1935):

    "The hot road span away behind her …"

  21. Ø said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 3:26 pm



  22. Ella said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

    'Span' is completely ordinary for me, too. BrE speaker living in Canada.

  23. Sarah B said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 3:49 pm

    I'm British, currently living in southern England, with plenty of exposure to Scots and Geordie.

    Every time I hear or see someone say something like 'he spun off the road' I cringe inside and want to correct them.

    I spin, I span, I had spun. Utterly standard.

  24. Mr Punch said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

    I don't believe I've ever noticed a fellow American use "span" in this sense (I'm 66); I've always thought of it as a Briticism like "shew."

  25. Aaron Toivo said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    As an American I can't say I can recall ever hearing 'span', but it's funny how easily these strong verb patterns assert themselves, especially i/a/u: by the time I got to the end of the above post, it felt completely natural and preterite "spun" now seems vaguely strange somehow. But I'm sure it will pass.

  26. Paul Cowan said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

    Australian English speaker here, throwing in another data point.

    "I spin / I span / I have spun" for me, exactly analogous to swim/swam/swum or ring/rang/rung.

    "I spun the top" sounds as ungrammatical for me as (I assume) "I swum here today" sounds to everyone else.

  27. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 5:38 pm

    A google search ( shows a considerable number of papers in the UK using 'span' for the Atkinson story. A search specifically for 'span off the road' suggests this is quite a widespread usage. My favourite link, though was this, from the Daily Mail, which uses both 'span' and 'spun' in the same report:

    "Tyler Campbell fell asleep at the wheel on Saturday night and span off the road, sparking a three-day manhunt for the 19-year-old."

    "He woke up at the moment his car struck a tree by the side of the highway just over the state line in Alabama, then spun off the road into a ravine."

  28. Hans Adler said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 5:46 pm

    There is a similar situation in German/Dutch:

    German: spinnen, spann, gesponnen.
    Dutch: spinnen, spon, gesponnen.

    I am from the south of Germany (no contact with Dutch), and sponn doesn't sound wrong to me. The Internet seems to be full of Germans asking in forums whether the Imperfekt of spinnen is spann or sponn.

  29. BobC said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

    Webster's Third labels span as an archaic form of the past tense of spin.

  30. Ken Brown said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 6:05 pm

    So Webster's Third is wrong :-)

  31. Ø said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 6:09 pm

    I don't think I've ever heard it in the US. I was startled to run across it in the Sayers book years ago.

  32. Levantine said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 6:55 pm

    As a Brit from London, I can't say I'm familiar with 'span', so this post and the comments in response to it came as an interesting and enlightening surprise. But as regards the comment left by Mr Punch, 'shew' is *not* a Britishism! It is merely an archaic form of 'show' in all varieties of English, usually having the same forms as the modern verb (shew, shewed, shewn), though sometimes used (in a way that was considered non-standard) for the preterite ('He shew me the way'). I'm willing to be corrected by other Brits who know better, but I don't believe 'shew' has been a common part of British English for a very long time indeed, and I have certainly never encountered it other than in old or jocular/archaising writing.

  33. Tandem78 said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 7:11 pm

    Anybody consider transitive vs intransitive forms? The usage here is intransitive.

  34. Bobbie said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 7:30 pm

    When I skidded on black ice (which means ice you cannot see on the road), my car spun out of control This was in Virginia in the United States. Span or spun — it was really scary!

  35. Douglas Bagnall said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 7:46 pm

    Sounds OK in NZE.

    Not mentioned in the Telegraph is that the million pound mechanics span the car's nuts and bolts with spanners.

  36. John said,

    February 9, 2013 @ 8:08 pm

    It was spin/span/spun for me, growing up in MA in the 1950s. My town was filled with Irish and Irish-descent; the teaching nuns as well.

  37. David Morris said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 3:59 am

    The more I thank about this, the more my head span.

  38. MsH said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 6:42 am

    BrE, SE, NW and London: This interests me because I think that I might use either. When I try to say it aloud, a clear 'spun' feels wrong, but the sound I'm making could easily be ambiguous between the two. I would probably accept either in writing, and I might well hesitate if writing it. At first glance it seemed to me that spinning wool was a different kind of spinning from spinning off the road, and it might depend on that, but when I try to actually say all the test sentences that come up in the comments, it's not so. It resolves to 'span'.

    I had the same trouble last week when I wanted to say something about my ipod. "Synced" wanted to be 'sunc'. But that's what happens when you leave them in your trouser pocket, then sit on the loo, not what I meant at all.

  39. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 8:55 am

    George Bernard Shaw consistently uses "shew" (of which "shaw" is not the past tense).

  40. Nelson said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 9:05 am

    Ken Brown, Websters Third is correct, at least for a perfectly reasonable definition of 'archaic'. Span is the archaic form, the direct continuation of the Proto-Germanic (singular) preterite (the German and Dutch forms Hans mentioned also continue this). The fact that it's also a current form in many grammars doesn't matter: spun is the innovative form (at least in that use), span the archaic one.

    Of course span doesn't seem to be 'archaic' in the sense of 'sociolinguistically marked as old fashioned', so under that sense Webster's comment would be wrong. But taken at face value, without further context, they're labelling of span is accurate.

  41. dw said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 11:01 am

    It may be of note that the Daily Telegraph has recently become prone to all kinds of errors (orthographic, grammatical, and factual) in its online edition. I suspect that its editorial staff has been drastically thinned.

  42. Brett said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 11:48 am

    As a speaker of standard American English, "span" sounds totally wrong to me. This is in spite of the fact that I've had sufficient exposure to British speech and literature to have come across this usage several times before. However, unlike some British terms, like "spanner" instead of "wrench," it has not come to sound any better to me. At least though, following this discussion, I understand where the word "spanner" comes from!

  43. Milan N. said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 1:07 pm

    To whomever it might be of interest: John Ball's saying is well-known here in Germany. As"Als Adam grub und Eva spann, wo war da der Edelmann" (literally: "When Adam delved and Eva span, *where* was then the *noble*man) it's part of a folk song about the 16th century peasants revolt: "Wir sind des Geyers schwarzer Haufen". I'm in fact surprised to learn it was originally english.

  44. Levantine said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 2:09 pm

    Ralph Hickok, George Bernard Shaw was born in the mid-nineteenth century and died in 1950, and I never said the past tense of 'shew' was 'shaw'. I don't believe your point undermines my assertion that 'shew' (which was found in all varieties of English anyway) is no longer used in standard British English.

  45. Martin B said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 6:33 pm

    As an Australian, originally from Brisbane, it sounds a little odd but not wrong.

  46. Daniel Ezra Johnson said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 6:43 pm

    wasn't "shew" just a different spelling of "show"? i mean i'm sure at some earlier time there was some interesting story behind the difference, but for centuries i believe it was spelled "shew" and pronounced /So:/.

  47. Levantine said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 7:16 pm

    Daniel Ezra Johnson, I thought the same thing, but I checked the OED before writing my first comment, and it seems that 'shew' was originally pronounced the same way as 'shoe'. I suspect (though I have no evidence) that the pronunciation may subsequently have shifted while the archaic spelling remained, so that people who wrote 'shew' may have pronounced it 'show'. After all, many people pronounce 'ate' as 'et', even thought the latter pronunciation originally belonged to the word 'eat' as a past tense of 'to eat' (cf. the two pronunciations of 'read', one for the present and one for the past). Now that the past-tense use of 'eat' has fallen from use, its pronunciation has migrated to the surviving 'ate'. The difference in the case of 'show' and 'shew' (if I am right that those who used 'shew' may have spoken it 'show') is that it is the spelling which represents the pronunciation that has survived.

  48. chamekke said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 8:30 pm

    That's John Ball partly explained, then.

    Now can someone kindly explain what he meant by "Adam delved"? I think "delved" means "dug in the ground" (i.e. Adam grew crops), but I've never been certain…

  49. Xmun said,

    February 10, 2013 @ 11:31 pm

    Indeed. Here's another use of "delve":

    The silly Bird, the Bee, the Horse,
    The Oxe, that tilles and delves,
    They build, bring honey, beare & drawe,
    For others: not themselves.

    A free translation of

    Sic vos non vobis nidificatis aves
    Sic vos non vobis vellera fertis oves
    Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes
    Sic vos non vobis fertis aratra boves

    The Latin is doubtfully attributed to Virgil, the translation conjecturally attributed to Sidney.

    These days we "delve" only in metaphorical senses, but the literal sense of the word is indeed to dig.

  50. Levantine said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    Further to my earlier post, the OED says that 'shew' was pronounced as spelt until about 1700. Frederick Thomas Wood's 1962 book _Current English Usage_ says: 'SHEW. Pronounced the same as show. At one time it was the accepted spelling for the verb, show being reserved for the noun. It is now obsolescent, if not actually obsolete. Use the spelling show for both noun and verb. Bernard Shaw always spelt the verb shew, and notices of the old Southern Railway read "All tickets must be shewn", but British Railways has altered this to "Please show tickets".'

  51. Levantine said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    Further to my earlier post, the OED says that 'shew' was pronounced as spelt until about 1700. Frederick Thomas Wood's 1962 book _Current English Usage_ says: 'SHEW. Pronounced the same as show. At one time it was the accepted spelling for the verb, show being reserved for the noun. It is now obsolescent, if not actually obsolete. Use the spelling show for both noun and verb. Bernard Shaw always spelt the verb shew, and notices of the old Southern Railway read "All tickets must be shewn", but British Railways has altered this to "Please show tickets".'

  52. iching said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 3:13 am

    I think the only time I ever encountered "shew" was in Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations a few years ago. I no longer have a copy but my recollection is that the phrase was something like "the aim of philosophy is to shew the fly out of the bottle". At first I took shew to be "shoo" in both pronunciation and meaning, but later realised it must be an archaic spelling of "show". Kind of like my personal eggcorn I guess.

  53. rwmg said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 4:40 am

    Vindication getting on for half a century later! I still remember with a shudder the time when aged 7 or 8 I was called upon at school to read a passage from the Authorised/King James Bible aloud. When I pronounced 'shew' like 'shoo', I was subjected to mockery on all sides.

    @iching I can't visualise what Wittgenstein meant in either case, whether philosophy shoos or shows the fly out of the bottle.

  54. Rodger C said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 8:07 am

    @rwmg: When a fly gets into a bottle, it's unlikely to find its way out on its own because its mental apparatus can't perceive the opening. Same with fishtraps. Also same with philosophical pseudo-problems.

  55. BMH said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 2:13 pm

    Seems like we are dealing with a paradigm gap here – when speaks lack strong intuitions about the paradigms for low-frequency, irregular forms. The participle of 'stride' (strode? stridden?) or past tense of 'forsake' (forsook? forsaked?) are other good ones. Though 'spin' would seem to be more frequent than those two…

  56. Mark Dowson said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:37 pm

    My linguistic intuition (British Standard – southern – English for 40+ years, only slightly corrupted by 20 years in the USA) baulks at "span" except, perhaps, as an archaic term for spinning wool into yarn. So I'm surprised by informants with a similar background finding it acceptable – although not by its use by 19th century English romantic poets or by Dorothy Sayers (a noted classicist).
    In other contexts it seems (to me) extremely odd. Consider: "Charlotte span a new web yesterday" or "Tony Blair's spin-doctor span a new excuse for supporting Bush".

    Interestingly, the tendency seems to be in the opposite direction. "sink"->"sunk" – acceptable as the past tense US English, but not British English – is increasingly gaining acceptance as the Brit past tense.

    My suspicion is that writer (or sub-editor) responsible for the Rowan Atkinson piece was a pretentious git who felt they were striking a blow for "correct" grammar.

  57. Hans Adler said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 6:46 pm

    I absolutely agree about the paradigm gap. It's funny that German has it at the same time as British English, for the same word, but American English seems to have moved mostly to the new form. I wonder if anyone has ever studied the different speeds of this process in related languages.

  58. rwmg said,

    February 11, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    @Rodger C. Whether shooing or showing the fly out of the bottle, wouldn't you have to be in the bottle with the fly?

  59. John F said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:45 am

    No civil engineers chiming in to note that span is both a noun and a present tense verb itself?

    The arch spans from one side of the vast hall to the other.
    The span was 10 metres.

  60. Kailin said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 12:39 pm

    @John F, that context is the only one in which I have heard "span."

    I spent my first 20 years in southeastern Wisconsin and next 10 in middle TN, and I am familiar only with spin/spun in this context. Possibly "spinned" by someone searching for the right verb form and unsure of "spun," but never "span."

  61. nbm said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:02 pm

    Bobbie, I think (in this context) that you skud on that black ice.

  62. Andrew (yet another one) said,

    February 12, 2013 @ 5:34 pm

    A third Australian data point distinct from the first two – "span" to me sounds firmly nonstandard.

  63. KevinM said,

    February 13, 2013 @ 4:35 pm

    @BMH "Seems like we are dealing with a paradigm gap here"
    Yes, a gap that we may never be able to span.

  64. Chandra said,

    February 15, 2013 @ 1:56 pm

    Speaker of Canadian English, British parentage, lived in the U.S. for a while, and I think I must be over-thinking this. Span? Spun? Spinned? All of them sound wrong. :/

  65. David Walker said,

    February 15, 2013 @ 4:10 pm

    I have used the word "flang" as a humorous variation on "flung" with certain friends. As in, "the quarterback flang the ball a long way".

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