The Grammarphobia Blog

A show stopper

Q: I recently read that a poll “had showed” Clinton and Obama neck and neck. The use of “showed” felt awkward to me and I wondered if “shown” would have been better. When is it appropriate to use each one?

A: The usual past participle of “show” (that is, the form of the verb used with “had” or “have”) is “shown.” But “showed” is also acceptable and not a mistake. Dictionaries these days consider both of them standard English, but list “shown” first.

The verb “show” was once spelled “shew.” Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says the original past participle was “shewed” (it first appeared in the 14th century), followed by “showed” (15th century).

Although “shown” is the predominant past participle today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, it only became common in the 19th century.

The OED notes that the older “showed” is still used with “have” or “had,” but it’s obscure in the passive voice. So it would be considered a mistake (or at least archaic) to say something like “the argument was showed to be false.”

If you’re using the passive voice, along with “is” or “was” or “are” or “were,” then “shown” is preferred, as in “he was shown the door” or “the paintings were shown to be forgeries” or “names are shown in italics.”

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