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'Lit' or 'Lighted'?

Have you ever wondered why we have both lit and lighted? You can use either, but which on you should choose depends a bit on where you live and whether you're using lit and lighted as verbs or adjectives.

By
Mignon Fogarty,
July 28, 2016

Have you ever wondered why we have two past tense forms of the verb to light? Should you say Squiggly lit citronella candles, or Squiggly lighted citronella candles? Maybe you’ve even wondered whether one is wrong. Lighted sounds kind of weird in that sentence, right?

‘Light’ Has Two Past Tense Forms: ‘Lit’ and ‘Lighted’

Both words are correct. Light is one of those rare English words that has two acceptable past-tense forms.

Lighted is what we call a regular verb because you make it past tense by adding -ed to the end. Lit is what we call an irregular verb because you change the spelling to make it past tense; you don’t just add -ed.

lit or lighted

English Verbs Tend to Become Regular Over Time, but ‘Lit’ Didn’t

In the past, English had a lot more irregular verbs, but over time, many changed form and became regular, making English simpler. But for reasons nobody seems to be able to explain, light took the opposite route. Long ago, people used the irregular verb, saying they lit candles, and for a time, the verb acted like many others and moved toward becoming a regular verb—in other words, people started saying they lighted candles instead of saying they lit candles. But, and this is the thing that makes this verb unusual, around 1900, people switched back to using lit as the past tense, and that’s still the more common form today. As a verb, lit is currently much more common than lighted in both British and American English.

lit or lighted chart

‘Lit’ and ‘Lighted’ as Adjectives

Of course, lit and lighted can also be used as adjectives. For example, you can say you entered a lit hallway or a lighted hallway. The story here is a little different. Lit appears to be more common as an adjective in British English, just like the verb, but in American English, lit and lighted seem to be used with about equal frequency.

That’s your Quick and Dirty Tip: Lit and lighted both currently exist as fully acceptable past-tense forms of the verb to light and as adjectives, but lit is used more often.

Open the next podcast segment in a new window: How words become homophones

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