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TWTS: Shining a light on the past tense of "shine"

If you shine your shoes today, tomorrow you’ll be able to say you shined your shoes.

That’s pretty straightforward, but things get tricky when you substitute “light” for “shoes.”

For example, many of us found ourselves fumbling around in the dark after last week’s severe storms. If you had to use a flashlight to find your way upstairs last night, would you say you “shone” your light up the stairs or you “shined” the light up the stairs?

Historically, “shine” is what linguists would call a strong verb – i.e., a verb whose past tense is formed by changing the internal vowel. “Shine” becomes “shone,” much like “ring” becomes “rang” and “swim” becomes “swam.”

Over time, “shine” developed what’s called a weak or regular past tense with “ed.” By the 1500s, “shined” was living alongside “shone.” Around this same time, “shine” also developed a transitive meaning.

When “shine” first came into the language, it was intransitive. We still use it that way, as in “the sun is shining.” What about tomorrow though? Would you say, “The sun shined” or “The sun shone”? Don’t worry too much – you can find plenty of examples of both in the language.

However, the transitive sense of “shine” has two meanings. One is to make something glossy, as in “I’m shining my shoes.” For most speakers, the past tense in this case would be “shined” – “I shined my shoes yesterday.”

The other transitive meaning of “shine” is to aim a beam of light at something, as in “I’m shining my flashlight up the stairs.” That brings us back to the beginning. Tomorrow will you say, “I shined my flashlight down the stairs” or “I shone my flashlight on the stairs”?

Some usage guides will tell you that in the transitive use, “shined” is the standard past tense. However, it might depend on which side of the Atlantic Ocean you live on. British speakers tend to prefer “shone” while Americans lean toward “shined.”

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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