A matter of grammar spin

A report on the BBC News website this morning, about Kraft’s unsolicited takeover bid for Cadbury’s, included a sentence containing the use of a verb in a way that jarred my syntax sensibilities.

The verb is ‘spin,’ used by the BBC in the report in the sense of spinning something off, eg, a business:


‘Span off’ when using the verb in this past tense looks most peculiar to me (and note that I’m not a grammar expert so forgive my non-use of technical terms: the correct term could be ‘past pluperfect’ for all I know).

Surely the expression should be ‘spun off’? So the sentence would then read “It spun off its drinks division as a separate business last year.” That looks better. Is it correct verb usage though?

I wondered about this on Twitter earlier. Others did, too. Alex Manchester reckons it should be ‘spun off’ as does Robin Houghton. On the other hand, Wedge thinks it’s a matter of house style.

Not so sure about house style although I see Wedge’s other point (I think) regarding regional variations and continuous past and perfect past.

‘Span’ just doesn’t look right to me. Is it my roots from southern England and, so, this region’s language and grammar-use influence?

What do you think? This is a heck of an itch to have :)

[Update @ 5:10pm UK] Just reading updates to the story on the BBC website – it’s a rapidly-developing business story – I see that someone has had a re-think about that ‘span’ past tense:


Now it says ‘spun.’

Common sense applied.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Alex Manchester

    Not sure on the technical term, but I’m pretty sure in combination and in that context, ‘span off’ is incorrect. Even if technically correct or acceptable (such is the English language), it makes the sentence a little awkward.

    There’s also redundancy in in the first part of the sentence, “As well as…. Cadbury also owns..” and two consecutive sentences beginning with ‘It’, which is bad practice.

    Overall it probably could have benefitted from a polish, but given the relative enormity of the story, maybe there wasn’t time.

    I’m now off to hide in shame at the appalling sentence structure and language used on my own blog. ;-)

  2. Robin Houghton

    In my book, the past tense of the verb ‘to spin’ is ‘spun’ and nothing else.

    They spun, they have spun etc.

    ‘Span’ is the present tense of the verb ‘to span’. Past tense would be ‘spanned’.

    Maybe this is a question for @grammargirl (Mignon Fogarty)…

  3. Robin Houghton

    Oh well, if J K Rowling uses it then it must be right!

    ‘Span’ as the past tense of ‘spin’ is, at best, archaic.

    Even if there is some regional variation, language is in a constant state of flux, so it’s no use referring to centuries-old sayings as evidence of current usage.

    Nothing like a good old argument about grammar to get us all going, eh?

  4. neville

    Terrific comments, everyone, thanks.

    Alistair, that video is brilliant. Oh for the want of a comma!

    Barb, after posting this, I found a conjugation of ‘to spin’ at UsingEnglish.com that included this –

    Past Simple: Span/Spun

    So maybe it does exist as a legitimate use. Yet surely this is archaic use, as you note, Robin. Notwithstanding JK Rowling’s usage. :)

  5. Alex Manchester

    Interesting that there was a whole J.K. Rowling/HP discussion about it.

    Context definitely plays a part here too. We’re very used to reading/hearing about companies ‘spinning off’ business units etc. and that a certain business unit was ‘spun off’. That’s the normal/regular/widely used term for such an event.

    That a company ‘span off their ‘x’ business unit’ is far less common a term, so it seems to make it stand out more.

    Alternatively, ‘the car span out of control/the car span off the road’ seems very familiar in that context.

    Another point for discussion is that, essentially, the very fact that it stands out and is being discussed, with differing opinions, suggests it was the wrong choice of word for a news article, where the reader shouldn’t be distracted by such trivialities?

  6. neville

    Thanks for all your opinions and thoughts, everyone.

    Looks like someone at the BBC thought about it a bit more – the word ‘span’ has been excised from the report and ‘spun’ inserted in its place. I’ve updated the post, with screenshot, to reflect that.

    Also I discussed this and your comments in today’s FIR.

    Itch now scratched. :)

  7. Philip

    “The car span off the road” is correct English usage; “the car spun off the road” sounds like a footballer.

    The problem is turning the compound noun “spin-off” into a verb. It is, as so often, ugly.

    So don’t do it.

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