Springing to the past

Spring has sprung

The grass is riz;

I wonder where the birdies is.

That little ditty, or variations of it, may be the best way for you to remember what the past tense of “spring” is under what circumstances.

“The Tigers finally sprung ahead for a 49-48 double- overtime 4A victory,” one sports story said. But, almost in the next breath, it said “Then, behind a press, the Rangers sprang to life.”

Well, shooting .500 isn’t bad, even in basketball.

The past tense of “spring” will depend on whether it’s a simple past or participial past. Rather than go into all that grammatical gobbledygook, just remember that if there is a “helping” verb like “has,” “had,” “was,” etc., before the past tense of “spring,” then you want “sprung.” If there’s no helping verb, more than likely you want “sprang.”

Sports stories in particular seem to have a problem with the past tense of “spring.” In the last six months, at least half a dozen sports stories have used both “sprung” and “sprang” for the simple past tense of “spring” in the same article. But others get it wrong as well.

“Sprung” sounds incorrect to many ears, and “sprang” sounds wrong to others, hence so much confusion. Regionalisms come into this, too. Who has not heard “We sprung him from jail” or something similar? Can you imagine some rough-and-tumble cowboy saying “we sprang him”? (“We done sprung him” would be grammatically OK for “sprung,” but “done,” while a helping verb, adds a different problem.)

Garner’s Modern American Usage lists “sprung” as used incorrectly for the simple past tense “sprang” at Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index, meaning it’s still considered wrong, but moving toward respectability. “Sprang” misused for the past participial form “sprung” is also listed at Stage 2, so you can see where this is heading.

But “springed” is perfectly correct only when one is speaking of something that contains springs, as in “that mattress is springed.” (And, just as you could say “we summered in the Hamptons last year,” you could say “we springed in Paris this year.” But please don’t say either one.)

Back to our ditty. While Ogden Nash or E.E. Cummings often get credit for the “Spring has Sprung” poem, the real author is lost in antiquity. Among the first mentions were in a 1952 book of verse, under the title “The Budding Bronx.” In a heavy Bronx accent, the poem in its entirety reads:

Der spring is sprung

Der grass is riz;

I wonder where dem boidies is.

Der little boids is on der wing.

Ain’t dat absoid?

Der little wings is on der boid!

And, while we’re at it, Cummings capitalized his name. But he usually signed his poetry “e e cummings,” with no punctuation at all, in line with his use of capitalization and syntax in his poetry.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , , ,