Q&A: Sow be it

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Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, sowing seeds of doubt…

Q: Hi Australian Writers’ Centre, help!  I’m utterly confused about the difference between ‘sow' (sown, etc) and ‘seed' (seeded). When do we use one, when the other? e.g.  When a mighty oak comes crashing down in the forest, a thousand acorns are (sown?/seeded?) in silence…
A: Hmmm. The real question is did the mighty oak make a sound if no-one was around?

Q: Haha, but not relevant.
A: True. Anyway, sown and seeded are the past participles of verbs ‘sow’ and ‘seed’ respectively. The difference is that’s ALL ‘sown’ is good for, whereas ‘seeded’ has many lives – most commonly as an adjective (seeded bun, seeded funds etc) or in sports tournaments (“Roger Federer is seeded no.3” etc). So “seeded” is potentially more open to ambiguity.

Q: So in my example, you’d go with “sown”?
A: Sure would. Although, the main quandry here should be sown vs sowed – both being past tense variations of ‘sow’. There are situations where ‘sowed’ is needed: “Yesterday I sowed the lawn”. But anywhere ‘sown’ can live, ‘sowed’ could work too. (BTW, “yesterday I seeded the lawn” still doesn’t really sound right, although we reckon the lawn could take a game at least off Federer these days – especially on grass!)

Q: But what about ‘to sow’ things (seeds, ideas, wild oats etc) vs ‘to seed’ things?
A: Well, if you’ve got the word ‘seeds’ in the sentence, you should go with ‘sow’ as to use ‘seed’ would double up. (‘To seed the seeds’ = fail.) Often non-agricultural things find ‘seed’ appealing: ‘seeding ideas’, ‘seeding capital’ etc, but generally we recommend sown/sowed when it’s past tense (‘he sowed his wild oats’, ‘she had sown elements of doubt’ etc). Usage of ‘seed/seeded’ as a verb form of the noun is definitely on the rise – it’s a modern trend (‘to mentor’, ‘to Google’ etc), but be careful using it where ‘sow/sown/sowed’ works fine. It can sound gimmicky.

Q: I think I’m more confused now.
A: It’s a so-so answer for a sow-sow question. Happy to help!

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