It seems as though every time I’m directed to the Huffington Post, it’s to see an article that someone was complaining about. My most recent trip was no different, as I was directed to an article about “Words Almost Everyone Mixes Up Or Mangles” thanks to Daughter Number Three. It offers as either a mix-up or mangling (I’m not entirely clear which) shined and shone, which battle for the position as past tense and participle for the verb shine:

Shine is one of those ‘strong verbs’ that had an irregular past tense and past participle (shone) but later acquired a regular form ending in –ed as well. Some people use the forms interchangeably, but there is a pattern that most people follow to keep them distinct. Shined takes a personal subject and an object: I shined the flashlight at the bear. Shone is used of light sources and does not take an object: The moon shone over the harbor.”

But DNT didn’t think this fit with her usage, and I don’t think it fits with mine, either. Let’s break down the claims and see how they stand up. But first, let’s briefly talk about past tenses, because they’re going to be important later on, and I think the English tense system isn’t adequately taught in school. A verb in English has two basic past tense forms, the simple past and the past participle. Consider the verb speak. It has two past forms, spoke and spoken:

(1a) He spoke of New World Orders and death panels.
(1b) Afterward, I wished we had never spoken.

Spoke is the simple past form, which occurs without any auxiliary predecessors (e.g., had). Spoken is the past participle, which occurs with an auxiliary (had in (1b)). The past participle is also the form that is used in the passive, and for certain adjectival forms of the verb:

(2a) The words were *spoke/spoken in the style of Sy Greenbloom, owner of Spatula City.
(2b) Justin Bieber’s new *spoke/spoken word album is expected to sell tepidly.

For most English verbs, these two forms are the same (talked, slapped, etc.), but many common verbs have two different forms. These two-form verbs include eat, beat, bite, and do. And, possibly, shine. Okay, enough digression. Let’s examine the claims.

Shined is the newer form. More or less right, but neither one’s new. Shine is originally a Germanic word, and its past tense was formed using ablaut, a kind of morphological vowel mutation. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in Old English the infinitive was scínan, with simple past forms scán and scinon. The past participle form is apparently unattested in Old English (if I’m correctly understanding what the OED is telling me).

In late Middle English and Early Modern English (1300-1700), according to the OED, shone (from OE scán) and shined split time as the simple past, and shined was the common form for the past participle. Shone, if it did indeed come from scán, is technically older, but shined was standard throughout the period in both usages:

(1a) “No man she saw & 3it shynede the mone” [simple past; Chaucer c1385]
(1b) “Then shined foorth indeede all loue among them.” [simple past; Sidney a1586]

(2a) “The mone is alway halfe shyned of the sonne.” [past participle; Trevisa 1398]
(2b) “It is god..which hath shyned in oure hertes, for to geve the light of knowledge off the glorious god.” [past participle; Tindale 1526]*

It’s not clear that shine originally had shone as its past participle; the OED notes that sinen appeared once as the past participle in Middle English, but that shone is only first attested as a past participle in 1566. It may well be that shined was the original past participle, but I lack sufficient knowledge of the history of English to state this as anything more than a hunch. The key point is that the relative ages of the forms are irrelevant; both have been around for centuries.

Shined takes a personal subject. Nope. I searched for shined in Mark Davies’s excellent and free Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)**, and found 166 instances. In 47 cases, the word preceding shined was shoes, but shoes were rarely the subject. The sentences were mostly things like “I just had those shoes shined!”, so let’s overlook them for now as irrelevant to the claim. The next most common predecessor, though, was light, which appeared 10 times, each time as a subject. Same with the five times sun shined appeared and the two times for eyes shined. There were another 14 inanimate subjects that only occurred once, bringing the total to 31. By comparison, there were only 18 occurrences of human subjects with shined.*** No evidence there for requiring a personal subject.

Shined takes an object. Not necessarily. Again, we’ll overlook the cases of shoes shining for now. But in each of the cases with inanimate subjects listed above, there was no object of the verb shine. The sentences were instead “The sun shined like his smile” and such. Since inanimate subjects were more common in this sample, lacking an object was more common than having an object, so there’s no evidence for this claim either.

Shone takes a light source as its subject and no object. On shone, the claim held up better. COHA returned 3753 instances of shone preceded by a noun, and of those, 906 are sun shone, 633 are eyes shone, 418 are light shone, and 312 are moon shone. These alone account for 60% of the results. In fact, the top 100 subjects all appear to be light sources (although some, like eyes, are only metaphorical). I failed to find a single instance in COHA of shone taking an object.

However, this preference for light-source subjects and no objects may only be the case in written or historical English. A quick Google search shows “she shone” and “she shined” are comparably common (64K to 84K hits), so while there may be a preference for inanimate subjects with shone, there’s clearly no prohibition against animate subjects.

So what’s the real difference? It’s not about light sources or who’s doing the shining. It’s about shoes. shone is hardly used in the context of shining shoes; “shined shoes” has 34K Google hits, while “shone shoes” has 1K. On COHA, shoes is the most common noun to appear next to shined, with 74 examples. shoes doesn’t appear in the top 500 nouns on either side of shone, meaning that there is at most one instance of shoes shone or shone shoes in COHA. This is where the shined/shone difference actually shows up. Don’t get so distracted by the light.

I’m betting that there is also a formality/tone difference. For me, as a relatively young speaker of American English, The light shone in the darkness sounds almost poetic compared to The light shined in the darkness. My belief in this tone difference is bolstered by the fact that shone is far more common in COHA than shined is, but only twice as common on Google. That’s hardly conclusive, of course.

Lastly, there might be a past tense versus past participle distinction. I think that I prefer shined as a past participle but shone as a past tense. Other people might too. In fact, the OED lists shined as an American, dialectal, or archaic form for the past tense, but standard and current for the past participle, so I think (some) Brits might agree with me.

How could we settle this? Logistic regression over attested and labelled corpus examples would probably be the best way, allowing us to control for all the various variables proposed here and in the Huffington Post article. Then we’d know which ones are really significant preferences and which ones are idiosyncratic to either me or the author of the Huffington Post article. Until then, let’s fight it out in the comments!

*: This section as a whole has been substantially reworked thanks to points raised by Ryan, HR Freckenhorst, goofy, & The Ridger. Amongst other problems, both of the examples I’d given before were of shined as a simple past tense. goofy supplied the two past participle usages to complete the point I’d only partially made.

**: I’m using COHA here because of the claim that people are currently mixing up the words, so presumably we want to look back a bit to before this confusion hit. It also has higher quality texts than the average Internet hit, and some useful part-of-speech tagging.

***: These numbers come from a quick perusal of the data, so I ignored subjects that did not immediately precede shined, and probably miscounted a bit. Think of them as nothing more than vague estimates.