Spelled vs. Spelt

Are you a fan of irony? If so, you might find a bit of amusement in the following scenario:
A public speaker lectures on the importance of good pronunciation. However, throughout his lecture he says “pro-NOUN-ciation.” Despite providing the audience with a good chuckle, such a gaff might seriously jeopardize his credibility and detract from the main points of his lesson. If you use writing to communicate, you must be careful about spelling. You don’t want to damage your reputation or diminish the impact of your words. Let’s avoid the irony today and decide which is the proper spelling of the past tense form of spellspelled or spelt.

An obvious place to start is the dictionary. You will find a few definitions for the verb spell. It can mean “to signify” or “to explain explicitly.” The definition in question is the one that deals with naming, writing, or signing the letters of a word in order. Searching spelled and spelt will yield invaluable information: both of these variants are used as the past tense of the verb to spell. Is this one of those British English versus American English spelling differences?

It’s true; the American English past tense form is spelled. In other varieties of English, both spelled and spelt are common. Let’s look at a few examples from global sources.

New Zealand’s NewsTAlkZB: “It’s been a long, arduous battle to get the name corrected, and as the tribunal said last month, there is only one legitimate name, and that is… [Whanganui] spelt with an H.”

English author Douglas Adams’s The Restaurant at the End of the Universe: “‘I think he probably wants you to play Scrabble with him again,’ said Ford, ‘he’s pointing to the letters. Probably spelt crzjgrdwldiwdc again, I keep on telling him there’s only one g in crzjgrdwldiwdc.’”

Indian author Mahatma Gandhi’s All Men Are Brothers: “The result was that all the boys, except myself, were found to have spelt every word correctly.”

British Statesman Winston S. Churchill: “The maxim “Nothing avails but perfection” may be spelt p-a-r-a-l-y-s-i-s.”

Spelled is ubiquitous in American English.

Therefore, where you live dictates which form you use. But remember, spell has other definitions. When it comes to those, spelled may be the preferred choice throughout the world.

Let’s Go Great Britain with Belfast & Dublin: “The two World Wars spelled the last for the British Empire; the Commonwealth nations of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand took independence, and India and British Africa followed.”

Irony is a useful literary device. But when you write, you may not want to be the source of it. Considering local custom when choosing spelled or spelt can help you to get your point across without unnecessary distraction. In the United States, stick with spelled. Elsewhere, spelt is an acceptable option. Which one is right for you?