Q: Is it “outshone” or “outshined”? Merriam-Webster says “outshone,” but wouldn’t “outshined” be better? What do you recommend?
A: Merriam-Webster, which is updated regularly online, says that either “outshone” or “outshined” can be the past tense and past participle of the verb “outshine.” Both variants are considered standard English. The last two print editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the 10th and 11th) have similar entries.
As M-W explains, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order [as is the case here], they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second.”
Most of the 10 standard dictionaries that we regularly consult list only “outshone” as the past tense and past participle. However, Webster’s New World and Dictionary.com (based on Random House Unabridged) agree with Merriam-Webster and include both “outshone” and “outshined.”
The verb “outshine,” which showed up in the late 16th century, can have either a literal meaning (to shine brighter) or a figurative one (to surpass).
The two senses are combined in this example, the earliest in the Oxford English Dictionary: “His zeale out shinde, the Papists taper lights” (from the English author George Whetstone’s 1585 biography of Francis Russell, second Earl of Bedford).
The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, says the verb was formed within English by the addition of the prefix “out” to the much older verb “shine,” which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.
As we say in a 2014 post, standard dictionaries generally accept either “shone” or “shined” as the past tense and past participle of “shine.” However, the dictionaries often note that “shone” is usual 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.” An intransitive verb makes sense without one: “The sun shone.”)
In the earlier post, we cite an American Heritage usage note: “By tradition, 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. The form shined, on the other hand, is 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.”
As for the etymology, the verb “shine” is Germanic in origin and first appeared in Old English in the early eighth century, spelled scynan, scine, scaan, and so on. The earliest citation in the OED is from a glossary of Latin and Old English that dates from around 725: “Ardebat, scaan.” (The 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 this example from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (written in the 1590s), Hippolyta says: “Well shone, Moon. Truly, the moon shines with a good grace.”