X v Y: You say lit, I used to say lighted

Cate Blanchett in "Carol" / Tumblr

Cate Blanchett in “Carol” / Tumblr

Continuing Glosso’s September series, “X v Y”, we take a look at lit vs. lighted.

Anyone who has seen Carol — or read The Price of Salt on which the movie is based — will remember how often our heroine lights up during the story. And by that I mean she lights a cigarette, although most will agree that she also lights up the room — and simply lights up — when she’s portrayed by the great Cate Blanchett on the big screen. But here’s a question: we’re back in the ’50s here, very much in the past tense, so is it correct to say that she “lighted” cigarettes, or that she “lit” them? What would you say?

Before we look at these two past tense versions of “to light”, here’s a reminder — and this is relevant — that the verb has a couple of different meanings: when you light something you’re either illuminating it (“she used a flashlight to light the cave”) or you’re setting it alight (“he likes to light the fire with newspaper”).

Some time ago — but not that long ago — that difference in meaning affected which past tense (or past participle) we chose to use in different contexts: we “lighted” something when we illuminated it (“she lighted the hallway that evening”), but we “lit” it when it involved flames or fire (“he lit the fireworks with a match”). However, that distinction has fallen by the wayside, and only those of a certain age remember it.

Both past tense forms of “to light” have been around for centuries and are used in all spoken and written versions of English around the world; however, they’ve taken it in turns to be fashionable in common usage, and at the moment it’s definitely the turn of “lit”. Take a look at these Ngram graphs for the two phrases “he lit the” and “he lighted the” over the past couple of centuries — in British English  and in American English . You’ll see that “lit” started to take over from “lighted” in the second decade of the 20th century — but the latter remained popular, especially in American English, for several more decades. In The Price of Salt, for example, written by the Texan-born Patricia Highsmith in 1952, “the detective tapped a cigarette on his thumbnail and lighted it in the gusty wind with a slowness that suggested a stage performance.” If you’re wondering which one to use, it’s probably best to go with what sounds right to your ear.

Grammarist has asked us to “keep in mind, though, that lit is generally favored for both uses outside the U.S. (though lighted, again, appears some of the time). Lighted, where it does appear, is usually an adjective (e.g., a lighted grill), while lit is more often a verb (e.g., she lit the grill). Neither form is inherently more American or more British. Both forms are hundreds of years old, and each has had periods of prevalence throughout its history. It just happens that at this stage in history lighted is more common in American English than elsewhere.” Although this claim isn’t borne out by the Ngram graphs mentioned earlier, I have noticed on a purely anecdotal basis that “he (has) lighted it” seems to grate less on American ears than it does on my native British ones. And that’s even when I’m lit*

* The slang meaning of the adjective lit — “drunk” — dates back to 1914.

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First posted Feb 2016.