Etymology Grammar Usage

Were the files shred or shredded?

Q: At a meeting with my staff, I used the word “shredded,” but was informed by one of my employees that the correct word is “shred.” Was I wrong in saying, “He shredded the patient files”?

A: You can use either “shredded” or “shred” in all good conscience—that is, as long as you’re shredding what you ought to be shredding.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives both forms as standard English, so if you prefer to use “shredded,” you have an authority you can cite.

This means you can give yourself permission to say “I shred” (present tense), “I shredded” (past), “I have shredded” (present perfect), and “I had shredded” (past perfect).

However, another source, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), gives only “shred.”

So your employee can justify a preference for “I shred” (both present and past tenses), “I have shred” (present perfect), and “I had shred” (past perfect).

The advantage of “shredded,” as you can see, is that there’s no ambiguity. Someone who says “I shred the documents” could be referring to either the present or the past.

It may be that your colleague prefers “shred” in the past tense because of its similarity to “shed,” which is the same in present and past (as in, “I shed my coat”).

The word “shred” is extremely old. It was screadian in Old English, when it was a horticultural term meaning to prune or lop off a branch or other growth. It was first recorded in about the year 1000.

Both “shredded” and “shred” have been used as participles for hundreds of years, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Here are two examples: “begynne at the toppe of ye tree whan he shall be shred or cropped” (1523-34), and “Trees and hedges which hang over the kings high waies must be cut and shredded” (1620).

The two words have also been used for centuries as adjectives, though “shredded” is more common nowadays (“shredded wheat,” ”shredded paper,” and so on).

“Shred” has had many related meanings, all involving tearing things into strips or bits. The word has most often been used in reference to food and cooking (since the 1300s), textiles (1600s), and finally paper (early 1900s).

The first published reference to document shredding appeared in Arthur Conan-Doyle’s historical novel Sir Nigel (1906): “With his own hands he had shredded those august documents.”

Shredding became easier, of course, when machines were invented to do the job. Motor-driven shredders have been marketed since around World War II, mostly to government agencies at first.

Shredders have been used in businesses since the 1950s, and later became popular in home offices.

The OED cites this 1950 advertisement: “The ‘Watford’ Shredder and Duster … gives most excellent results in shredding and dusting waste papers.”

Finally, one more sense of “shred,” this one a figurative usage to mean “trounce” or “defeat,”  especially in sports.

The OED’s first citation is from a 1966 issue of the New York Times’s International Edition: “The Celtics shredded the Los Angeles Lakers … with a third-quarter explosion and scored a 120–106 victory.”

In this case, the past tense “shredded” (not “shred”) is the term of choice.

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