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Burned vs. burnt

Burned and burnt both work as the past tense and past participle of burn. Both are used throughout the English-speaking world, but usage conventions vary. American and Canadian writers use burned more often, and they use burnt mainly in adjectival phrases such as burnt out and burnt orange. Outside North America, the two forms are used interchangeably, and neither is significantly more common than the other.

Burned is the older form. Burnt came about during a period in the 16th through 18th centuries in which there was a trend toward replacing -ed endings with -t in words where -ed was no longer pronounced as a separate syllable.  Later, British writers continued to favor the newer -t forms for a handful of verbs, while North Americans went back to the more traditional -ed forms.

The below ngram graphs the use of burned and burnt in American-English books published from 1800 to 2000. It shows that burned has been preferred in the U.S. for well over a century.

And this ngram graphs the use of the words in British English during the same period:


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Of course, these graphs don’t indicate how the words are used, but they do show changing usage patterns. Burned appears to have recently gained the edge in British writing.

Examples

Outside North America, writers use burned and burnt interchangeably, as in these examples from British, Australian, and Irish sources:

The book was ceremonially burnt by O’Brien’s local priest with her mother’s full agreement. [The Telegraph]

They were found burned at Free Derry corner in the Bogside. [BBC News]

England’s poor use of the controversial decision review system burnt them badly. [Sydney Morning Herald]

Baddeley burned the rim on a short putt that would have sealed the win. [Irish Times]

Writers in American English usually use burned-–for example:

Deputies said a woman burned a man with a hot bowl of soup. [Kiro TV (article now offline)]

It’s Larry, in his more familiar severely burned visage. [Wall Street Journal]

Colorado Springs firefighters have a brush fire that has burned about 50 acres on the southern tip of Fort Carson overnight about 75 percent contained. [Colorado Springs Gazette]

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Comments

  1. Somebody. Somewhere. Actually took time out of their all too short lives to compile a graph of uses of the word burnt over the course of two centuries?

    • Grammarist says:

      It’s automated. Google’s Ngrams are really cool. See here: http://books.google.com/ngrams/info

    • Aaronhardy1000 says:

      thats what robots are for dude

    • And then you took the time out of your short life to comment on it! Funny how that works, isn’t it?

    • kane mackinnon says:

      it’s quite a brazen philosophical statement to say a human life is too short. even more so to assume that such an action is of any lesser value than another, or that to do so would be outside of their own life that they taking “time out” from. further more, even if such things were quantifiable, it would surely be presumptuous to say that the life of this man in particular is too short when we live on a planet with a rapidly expanding and aging population.

      there’s some constructive criticism for you. :-)

  2. Kris Hunt says:

    I reject that these words are interchangeable. “Burned” is a past tense verb, and “burnt” is an adjective. Period.

  3. if amercans interchange these words they are wrong, plain and simple.. my hand is burnt. i burned my hand. my hand will burn. my hand is burning. its not complicated

  4. The graphs at the bottom only prove to me that we’ve all become increasingly stupid over the years… AND at a faster pace than the British! Lol

  5. Hello! Well English is not my mother tongue and I find such articles/explanations very helpful, I can’t understand why you all argue in such an aggressive way…Especially when/if it is about your mother tongue :S

  6. IMO “Burnt” as past-tense of “burn” is an anachronism and unless you’re trying to be Mark Twain, should be avoided. “Burned” is more acceptable in modern usage (despite having older roots).

  7. As far as I know, the verbs burn, dream, lean, learn, smell, spill and spoil are all regular in American English, therefore, both in the past and in the past participle, are written as burned, dreamed, leaned, and so on. In British English, they can be regular as well, but irregular past tenses and participles with –t, instead of -ed, tend to be more common, e.g. burnt, dreamt, leant, and so forth.

  8. I was taught that these words are relative to the timing of the situation being addressed. I’m burning the newspaper to light the fire. He burned his finger on the hot iron. She threw out the burnt toast as it’s inedible.
    So you have – in time line – It’s happening now. It’s very recent. It’s been awhile.
    That’s the experience of a classic grammar school education – not the crappy boiled down excuse given for a language in daily usage. Applies to both the American and British English.

    • Kev Ratcliffe says:

      Nah, can’t see how that would make any difference at all. Your examples had more to do with it being a verb or adjective rather than time. Interchangeable none the less :)

  9. matthew thomas says:

    well no we’re actually not, we can’t ever be ‘free’ grammatically and each go on to making up our own language individually,
    we have to follow certain rules of each language, otherwise we head toward basterdisation of the whole structure
    of the basics of terminology….leaving the language to today’s ‘common’ youth will inevitably lead to incomprehension
    throughout the educated world.

    • Myra Aliquis says:

      How very prescriptivist of you. Language is constantly changing. Would you understand Old English? Unless you’ve studied it that is highly unlikely so surely that means that our current language is a “basterdisation” of that original form of English.

      • kane mackinnon says:

        I would argue that there’s an important (though hard to define) difference between the evolution and degradation of a language. a language’s rules are inevitably going to bend over time, but to just snap them is to damage the medium for our whole society. an example, one of my most hated, is the use of the word “literally” when you don’t mean literally, that damages the word’s meaning, as one is less able to interpret what the user is trying to communicate! to do so is an act of barbaric nihilistic anarchism! they might as well just start stealing babies and pooping in the middle of restaurants!

        (yes i’m aware that my written grammar is very poor, but that’s not hypocrisy, just incompetence.)

  10. I pronounce it either way, but I typically use “burned” when writing. I always see “burnt” as incorrect. It’s odd to me.

  11. No, someone took time out of HIS day… “Somebody” is singular, “their” is plural. If he ACTUALLY LEARNED something, instead of impotent argumentum ad hominem, it would have prevented numerous emails of people taking time to say anything… and as far as someone rejecting that the words are interchangeable is delusional, since the British and less educated Americans and hillbillies us burnt and learnt; while one may resist coloquializations becoming accepted speech, it does not prevent change any more than standing at the tide line holding your hands up will stop a tsunami. One person’s “personal opinion” is no more authoritative than another’s. Before rejecting or refusing to believe, if one actually cares about what is right, and not merely asserting self-rightness, then he should consult those who are “considered experts” and then come back and document your findings with something more substantial than self-decree. And of course, the person who though it outlandish that someone took time out of his busy day to ACTUALLY THINK, is free now to go back to his computer games or tv program.

    • It’s apparent that you came from an area that had the privilege of learning the perfect way of pronouncing English. If you were born as a hillbilly or in Texas, how exactly would you “do what is right” with perfect spoken English language with the restraints of your regional accent? I guess being different by design is a flaw reigned down by the acts of God. You sound like a rigid tyrant they may explode on a poor public library at any moment. Neo-nazi views. I noticed you place a period at the end of the word not which this hillbilly was taught in English 101 as a grammactical error. You’re the hypocrite

    • Ahri has nice tails says:

      This comment of yours is just way too long. If you want your superior sense of language and intelligence to come across to other people, maybe you should convert this whole story in a smaller package.
      That way people will actually take the time to read it all, instead of just skipping 70 percent.

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