Community Web Version Now Available
Michael IELTS Band 9
Professional Teacher
Correct but strange: The horrible verb "spread” (2 of 2)

Yesterday, I asked you to identify the sentence below which uses "spread" badly.

1.       The company’s international offices are spread across all 6 continents.

2.       I usually spread marmalade all over my morning toast so that it reaches every corner of it.

3.       The company spread a competitive tender for the manufacture of 10,000 high-precision widgets to the market.

4.       I went to work with a cold last Wednesday, and now it is spreading to my colleagues.

The wrong one was 3.  Words like “issue” and “launch” would be suitable for “tender”. To understand why 3 was wrong, let’s look at the meaning and usage of the word “spread”: either A spreads B, or B spreads (by itself).

Sentence 2 – spreading marmalade on toast - is an “A spreads B” situation.  Before spreading, a certain quantity of marmalade has already been selected, and placed on a specific area of the piece of toast.  Then someone (A) spreads the marmalade (B) across the toast. During spreading, the area occupied by the marmalade increases, and the density of the marmalade decreases.

In sentence 3, the context probably indicates that we are launching or announcing the tender. If so, we have used the word “spread” too soon.  We needed first to tell the reader of the existence of the tender in a specific place (the market).  Only then could the tender be spread.

But wait - can you actually “spread” a tender?  It is a countable inflexible thing.  You cannot really extend a tender across space, even in a figurative sense. You could of course “spread the news” of the tender by telling people about it.

Sentence 4 is a “B spreads” situation.  The cold has already been identified and occupies space.  When it spreads, its area of coverage increases, but in this case, density is not an issue - it simply grows as the bacteria multiply.  “News” spreads figuratively in this way too.

In sentence 1, “spread” is an adjective which means “extended across an area”.

In conclusion, when you think about using the verb “spread”, a) decide first if it is the right word;

i. consider whether the reader already knows of the existence of a thing in a certain area from where it can “spread” or “be spread”, and

ii. consider whether in your context the thing(s) has a flexible nature which makes it capable of being spread; news, bacteria, and marmalade can spread or be spread in most cases; but for example, houses, pens, and contracts can only spread or be spread in particular contexts;

b) then consider the two slightly different meanings of “spread”; if the subject has no object (“B spreads”), the usual meaning is “grow and extend across more space”, like the bacteria, and plants like ivy or moss, for example;

c) if the subject has an object (“A spreads B”), the verb can have the same meaning as in b) but also another meaning of “extend across more space while reducing in density”, like marmalade. It depends on the nature of the substance.

If you got something from this explanation, spread your knowledge to others!

Sep 13, 2016 7:12 AM
Comments · 4
Thanks, Sudeep.  You've demonstrated the difficulty of this word because you can't spread a lesson, but you can spread the knowledge you gain from a lesson. In general, you can't spread countable things (A spreads B).
September 14, 2016

Thank you for your insightful and thorough article... I wish there were dictionaries this accurate!

I take it there are other articles like this one? - since the title of the first part is "correct but strange (4)"?

If there are, would you be so kind as to post a link?

September 13, 2016

Thank you@Michael for a nice explanation:)It's a nice lesson which is worth spreading:)

Thank you:)

September 14, 2016
Thanks, Carlo.  Here is a link to all my discussions:  Take care, Michael 
September 13, 2016
Michael IELTS Band 9
Language Skills
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish
Learning Language
German, Italian