Q: I use “shined” with an object and “shone” without one. But lately I’ve read a lot of books whose authors use “shined” in all contexts. Have you ever written on the difference between those two words?
A: No, we haven’t written about the the verb “shine,” but thanks for giving us the opportunity.
Standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.”
However, the dictionaries often note that the past tense and past participle are usually “shone” when the verb is intransitive and “shined” when it’s transitive.
A verb is transitive when it needs an object to make sense (“He shined his shoes”) and intransitive when it makes sense without one (“The sun shone”).
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), one of seven standard dictionaries we checked, has a good explanation of all this.
“By tradition,” American Heritage says in a usage note, “the past tense and past participle shone is used when the verb is intransitive and means ‘to emit light, be luminous’: The full moon shone over the field.”
On the other hand, the usage note continues, “shined” is the form “normally used when the verb is transitive and means ‘to direct (a beam of light)’ or ‘to polish,’ as in He shined his flashlight down the dark staircase or The butler shined the silver.”
American Heritage says its usage panel, in a 2008 survey, “found both forms acceptable in transitive literal use (shone/shined the light) and in figurative intransitive use (Carolyn always shined/shone at ribbon-cutting ceremonies).”
However, the usage note says “a larger majority preferred the traditional usages (shined the light; shone at ceremonies) over the nontraditional ones, so maintaining the traditional distinction remains a sensible practice.”
As for the etymology, the verb “shine” is a Germanic word that first appeared in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on.
The earliest citation in the Oxford English Dictionary is from a glossary of Latin and Old English, dating to around 725: Ardebat, scaan. (In Latin, ardebat means burns, glows, or sparkles.)
The spelling of the past tense roughly evolved from scan and scean in Old English to scean, schon, shoon, etc., in Middle English, and finally to shone and shined in the 1500s, during the early Modern English period.
In Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), for example, Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”
As for the past participle, the OED says early versions of “shined” were popular in Middle English, while “shone” was rarely seen until the second half of the 16th century.
We’ll end with an example of the past participle from Miss Dividends, an 1892 novel by Archibald Clavering Gunter: “His large boots have been very brightly shined by the boot-black on the corner opposite.”
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