Shone vs. Shined, Lit vs. Lighted

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A Canadian reader asks,

Has it become okay to change irregular past verbs like lit and shone to lighted and shined?

The answer to the first part of the question is that irregular verbs have been in a state of flux for centuries, so I suppose that it’s always “okay” to change them.

The dominant tendency in English has been for irregular past tense forms to be replaced by the “regular” -ed past tense ending. For example, the past participle of help used to be holpen:

Now, when they shall fall, they shall be holpen with a little help… –KJV, Daniel 11:34

As only about 300 strong verbs (what we call “irregular” verbs) existed in the Old English spoken and written a thousand years ago, I think it’s amazing that any of them have survived into modern English.

The reader who posed the question implied that writing lighted and shined for lit and shone must have something to do with American spelling habits:

I’m from Canada and we often struggle between American and British rules.

A persistent misconception is that when American usage differs from British usage, the American version must be a corruption. I’ve received many a comment comparing American English to “real English,” as if Standard American English (SAE) were a usurper of the “real thing.” The fact is, King Alfred would have as much difficulty in understanding Queen Elizabeth II as he would President Obama. Both SAE and BrE flow from the same source, but both have traveled a long way from it.

Generally speaking, shone and lit are preferred in British English and shined and lighted in American English. Both the OED and Merriam-Webster show the inflected forms lighted/lit and alighted/alit. In both dictionaries, the -ed form is listed first.

Generalities aside, both weak (regular) and strong (irregular) past tense forms are in use on both sides of the Atlantic. I grew up in the American South and was quite comfortable saying “Mother lit the birthday candles,” and “The sun shone all day long.”

The verb shine is used with two meanings:

shine: of a heavenly body or an object that is alight; to shed beams of bright light

shine: to cause to shine, put a polish on

According to some authorities, context determines whether an American speaker will use shone or shined when speaking of the sun or some other object that emits light:

The transitive form of the verb “shine” is ”shined.” If the context describes something shining on something else, use “shined”: “He shined his flashlight on the skunk eating from the dog dish.” You can remember this because another sense of the word meaning “polished” obviously requires “shined”: “I shined your shoes for you.” –Paul Brians, professor emeritus, Washington State University.

As for shine in the sense of “to polish,” British speakers would say neither “I shined your shoes for you,” nor “I shone your shoes for you.” For a statement in the past, they would probably use the verb polish: “I polished your shoes for you.”

Now for the really interesting bit: The OED tells us that irregular shone is unrecorded in Old English and appears only once in Middle English. The form shined was in common use from 1300-1800. The form shone first appeared as a past participle in the second half of the 16th century.

As for the forms lighted and alighted (to descend from a horse or conveyance), these -ed forms were in use before the 16th century. Shakespeare uses lighted in the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow” soliloquy in Macbeth:

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

My conclusion is that shined and lighted are no less “okay” than shone or lit. But then, my dialect is American English.

Note: British speakers pronounce shone to rhyme with gone; for Americans, shone rhymes with bone.

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6 thoughts on “Shone vs. Shined, Lit vs. Lighted”

  1. ”A persistent misconception is that when American usage differs from British usage, the American version must be a corruption…The fact is, King Alfred would have as much difficulty in understanding Queen Elizabeth II as he would President Obama.”

    AMEN, Maeve. I don’t know why some English English-speakers (and it is a one-way complaint) can’t comprehend this straightforward and obvious fact. Is it the last wobbly vestige of British nationalism? The lack of an haute cuisine? The result of eating too much sheep meat? How many realize that the word jewelry is much older than jewellery, or that the “distinction” between inquiry and enquiry is a modern British invention? That curb, licorice, and omelet are all the originals and older spellings than kerb, liquorice, or omelette? Not many, apparently.

    As to the strong verbs, I vote to keep them. What become acceptable, of course, is a moving target. And sometimes the change swings the other way—I still hate “dove” as a past tense of dive even though it is well established anymore, and “had/have dove” is even worse.

    As an American who is not from the South, I can say I have always heard and used “lit” more than “lighted” in most contexts; “shone” not nearly so much. In the context of “shining” something it would definitely always be “shined”. You would never say “he shone his shoes”. To be honest, “lighted” almost always sounds rather stilted to me, even in writing. His cigar was lit, her smile lit up the room, the smoking lamp is lit, the sun lit the courtyard, a candle lit the way, we lit a fire… all of these would sound somewhat strange with “lighted” substituted, IMO. This is especially true in the context of lighting a fire. “We lighted a fire” sounds plain wrong.

  2. They SHONE 100 searchlights into the sky for the premiere of the new film in Los Angles.
    Never “shined”. “Shined” is for shoes, boots, belt buckles, the buttons on military and naval jackets, and silverware.
    The American task force shone searchlights onto the Japanese warships and then opened fire.
    Also, Johnny / Jean really shone in mathematics class.

  3. The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.

    King James Bible (1611) Isiah 9:2

  4. Thank you for this clarification! As another Canadian, I’ve been puzzled by this for many months, as I’m seeing more and more of what is favoured, apparently in American usage… and was raised with what has been described as “British” usage. Now I know that both are equally correct, have been around forever, and I can stop worrying about whether I’ve missed some mysterious shift in grammar usage…

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