May 7, 2015

Weekly Language Usage Tips: burned or burnt

Posted in burned/burnt, burnt/burned at 6:19 am by dlseltzer

We’ve been having some picture perfect Spring days lately, and I wrote a note to a friend:

I went for a lovely walk (to the bakery) and read outside all afternoon (I’m a little burnt). Oh, that might be a good wlut–burned or burnt.

And here we are: burned or burnt.

I chose ‘burnt’ to describe a slight sunburn because it felt more benign to me. ‘Burned’ seemed more severe. A house burned down. A friend cheated me, and I was burned. The fire burned ferociously. I had just sat in the sun a little too long—not at all the same as being burned by fire. Well, I was wrong. Completely, totally, 100% wrong. (You won’t often hear me say that! Of course, I would if I were wrong, but I’m hardly ever wrong, you know.) Sigh, but I was surely wrong this time.

Here’s the REAL scoop on ‘burnt’ and ‘burned.’ They mean absolutely the same thing! They are both standard as the past tense or past participle of ‘burn.’ It’s just that here, in the US, we tend to say burned, while in the UK, they tend to like the ‘t’ ending and use burnt. We save burnt for use as an adjective, as in burnt umber or burnt supper. So, I guess I was correct in saying “I’m a little burnt.” I was just using it as an adjective. Yeah, that’s the ticket. But, STOP. No, if I’m to be honest about it, I chose the word for all the wrong reasons.

Incidentally, the US-UK difference can be found in lots of other verbs, (e.g., dreamed or dreamt, spoiled or spoilt, spelled or spelt).

After writing all this, just for the heck of it, I went to our language tips website ( to see if we had addressed this before. I was pretty sure we hadn’t, but much to my surprise, there it was! We discussed ‘burnt’ or ‘burned’ back in 2010! Yikes!

(By the way, if you want to look for something specific on our website, look under ‘Categories,’ and there, you will find a list of all the topics we have covered in alphabetical order—just click on the topic, and you find the relevant discussion(s).)

Back then (back in January, 2010, I mean), we were in the midst of proposal season (nowadays, proposals don’t have a season—the whole year is proposal season), and I was bemoaning the fact that I was feeling burned out after reviewing proposal after proposal after proposal. I kind of liked the way I ended the discussion, so I think I’ll use it again here (after all, it’s been five years). This is what I wrote:

So that’s pretty simple, but I’ll tell you this, last night, whether I was burned out or burnt out, I was toast.

But that was then, and this is now. You don’t get burned out at all when you’re retired. Everyday brings something new and extraordinary. Retirement rocks!


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