span / spun [past tense of "spin"?]


Canadian English/French
I always thought the past tense of "spin" was "spun", with a "u".

However, in my recent re-reading of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (which is a great book that I highly recommend, by the way), I've come across a consistent use of "span" (with an "a") as the past tense of spin. I found this rather jarring, and discovered that apparently "span" is an archaic past tense form of "spin" (according to

Now personally, I've never seen or heard this before, which is not surprising, considering it is supposedly archaic. But the book in question was first published in 1979, and that seems rather recent.

So has anyone else ever seen this? And does anyone use "span" as the past tense of "spin"?
  • JeffJo

    Senior Member
    USA, English
    The only place I'd expect to see it now is in old phrases, e.g.: "when Adam delved and Eve span, who was then a gentleman?" In Hitchhiker's Guide Adams may have used it for effect, to make the language seem a bit odd.


    Senior Member
    English - Australia
    I would tend to use "span" in many situations, although I think I might occasionally use "spun".

    "I span the wheels on the loose gravel"

    I don't see it as quite so archaic as it seems to be in AmE.

    Some pages give span or spun as the simple past version of spin:

    The Cambridge Dictionary says it's a BrE usage, which would explain why I feel comfortable with it and AmE speakers do not:

    John Conrad

    New Member
    English - Australia
    Like LeeT911 I was spun out too when I came across 'span' as the past tense of spin in William Broderick's 'A Whispered Name', Little, Brown, London, 2008. It sounds archaic to me from my side of Oz - Queensland - as opposed to Cycloneviv's side in WA! And I'm 61 having lived in Qld all my whole life-span so far . . .


    New Member
    I would tend to use "span" in many situations, although I think I might occasionally use "spun".

    I'd happily use all of them, in context:

    " I told him not to go too fast or he would spin off at the corner, where I span off yesterday... and now he has spun off too".

    There are a number of English verbs that seem to follow this "rule", sink, sank, sunk, for example, though I haven't been able to verify what the "rule" actually is, but "Oh dear, he's sank" just doesn't sound right!


    Sixties Mod
    English UK Southern Standard English
    Although dictionaries seem to indicate that you can use either, "span" definitely comes across to me as a little archaic, and I'd say "spun" is now the more commonly-used form of the simple past.


    Senior Member
    English (UK then US)
    There is an extensive discussion on the subject of how verbs become "regularized", dependng on how often they are used. Sink and shrink are in the same boat as spin, with more and more people feeling that the -a- version sounds funny/archaic/wrong.


    Member Emeritus
    English - US
    The only span as a verb that I've ever heard (or heard of) means to go across, as a bridge may span a river. The AE dictionaries on my shelf call the use of span as a past tense of spin "archaic". My Chambers 21st Century Dictionary (BE) doesn't mention it at all and simply says the past tense of spin is spun.


    New Member
    British English
    It seems clear to me that asserting that 'span' is simply archaic is incorrect, at least in British English. I would say it's still used by some older English people (I can't speak for the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish), including myself, born 1963 and raised in London. Douglas Adams, born 1952, raised in east London and Brentwood (a little further east). William Brodrick, born 1950 in Bolton, north England. For a simple action in the past i would definitely say 'span'. For an action which suggests continuing action a might use either spun or span without any thought for 'correct' usage e.g. definitely 'I span the wheel'; but 'The wheel span / spun until it lost all momentum.' Pehaps I am more resistant than average to any usage which sounds like non-British English to me. Perhaps some English authors are too?