Q&A: Lighted vs lit

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness This week we light up over lighted and lit!

Q: Hi AWC, Kasia got in touch with us the other day and had a question about “lighted” and “lit” – mainly, is one recommended over the other?

A: Ah, and so we have come to this one at last…

Q: There’s no need to be dramatic about it.

A: It’s just a very interesting case.

Q: How so?

A: Well, both are centuries-old past tense forms of the verb “to light” – and equally acceptable around the world. It’s quite unusual to still have two words used for a past tense verb.

Q: You mean that one would have died out by now?

A: Precisely. And often it’s the irregular verb that tends to die out. However “lit” has been enjoying a comeback over the past century and is now the favoured of the two for the simple past tense. “Lighted” is used more in past participle conjugation.

Q: Wait, what’s “conjugation” again? Is that like when my Aunt Jill visits Uncle Teddy in prison?

A: Haha, no. “Conjugation” simply refers to the different forms a verb takes. In this case, due to a change in tense.

Q: So examples of simple past and past-participle?

A: Sure. You would probably say “we lit the candles” (simple past tense) but for a past participle, it’s preferable to say “I have lighted the candles”.

Q: And yet, both are acceptable?

A: That’s right – no real America vs British distinction here. It’s just on what feels right in the sentence. It’s a little unusual for English to be so casual about the whole thing.

Q: I gave up second guessing English years ago.

A: Very wise!

Q: And what about when the announcer says to “please alight from the train”?

A: Ah. Well, this verb form relates to “lighten” – as in descending from something to make it lighter. It’s nothing to do with the adjective form similar to “ablaze” – such as in “the town was alight”.

Q: So you’re saying that when they announce that, one shouldn’t set the carriage on fire?

A: No, of course not.

Q: What about if it’s a designated quiet carriage?

A: No.

Q: Okay, I may have to make a phone call after this.

A: Um, okay. So shall we get back to “lighted” and “lit”?

Q: Sure.

A: “Lighted” and “lit” are also used as adjectives. For example “a lighted path” or a “dimly lit cave”. Purists actually prefer “lighted” for all adjective work – but modern usage has won over.

Q: So purists would prefer we write “a dimly lighted cave”?

A: They would.

Q: I think they may have been spending too long in that cave.

A: Exactly – and the language evolves to the point where again, both are acceptable. However, usually one will sound better than the other in certain contexts. It’s up to the writer to choose.

Q: I know one area where you have to use “lit” – it’s what the kids are saying lately to describe something as awesome, cool, etc.

A: That’s true. Early 2000s, it was used colloquially to describe being intoxicated or high. But this decade it has broadened to what you describe – definitely one of the hot words of the moment.

Q: This Q&A is so lit.

A: Indeed.

Q: Well thanks for this lesson in English-lit… haha, see what I did there?

A: Yes, you used the shortened form of ‘literature’ to make a hilarious wordplay.

Q: Um, yeah. Well, I feel completely literate now. And Kasia can feel confident using either form without ridicule.

A: That’s right. Now please alight from this Q&A.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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