Smelled vs. smelt

In American and Canadian English, the verb smell makes smelled in the past tense and as a past participle. Outside North America, English speakers use smelled and smelt interchangeably, and neither form is significantly more common than the other.

For North Americans, smelt usually means (1) to melt or fuse ores, and (2) any of several small, silvery fishes of the family Osmeridae found in fresh waters of the northern hemisphere. Smelt as a form of smell is not unheard of in North America, but it is rare (see the Ngram below), appearing mainly in the rhyming jocular expression whoever smelt it dealt it (and its variants).

This ngram suggests that smelled may now be more common than smelt in British English (though this does not mean that smelt is wrong):

Smelled Vs Smelt British English

And this one suggests that smelled has been preferred in American English since the early 20th century:

Smelled Vs Smelt American English

Examples

Outside North America

In the film, Zuckerberg, having smelt success, quits college and throws everything at Facebook. [Telegraph]

And if voters did not know what it meant to prorogue Parliament, they certainly smelt a rat. [Sydney Morning Herald]

The moment they smelt weakness, they were all over South Africa like a cheap rash. [Guardian]

North America

Remember that guy or girl in college who smelled so inexplicably good? [Los Angeles Times]

The man smelled of booze and wore a hooded sweatshirt over his face, said her son. [Winnipeg Free Press]

The woman said she had smelled alcohol on the men. [NJ.com]

23 thoughts on “Smelled vs. smelt”

    • So smelt is also a past tense of the word smell and it is more British while smelled is commonly used in american english

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      • Not really correct; smelt and smelled do have slightly different meaning in British English. People do interchange them but shouldn’t.

        When should you use ‘sank’ and ‘sunk’?

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  1. Not quite accurate. I’m a 3rd to 7th generation Canadian whose family mostly came from the Channel Islands. Everyone in my family uses “smelt”, not “smelled”. The same is true of my wife’s family (2 to 6 generations in Canada, originally from Cornwall and Devon, England); they all use smelt as well. I come from southern Ontario, my wife, from northern Ontario, so this usage is not a simple local anomaly.

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    • Yes, I’m sure it’s a regional thing. It may be different in say, Northern or Southern England. My only gripe is people who think just because they have always used one form, anyone else who uses anything different must be wrong.

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  2. For some reason, I always thought smelled was the past tense of smell, an action you did with your nose, “She smelled the roses,” and smelt was the past tense of smell, the odor one gives off. “She smelt terrible.”

    And until now that’s how I used them. Guess I wasn’t technically wrong.

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  3. Then someone needs to explain to me how every child in America knows the phrase “He who smelt it dealt it.” And how I, as an American, came to this page after seeing someone in a former British colony (Hong Kong) write ‘smelled’ (intransitive) and thought it looked wrong.

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  4. There is nothing wrong with using ‘smelt’ instead of “smelled”, and it is certainly widespread in the UK. It is not lazy or bad grammar. In fact trying to standardise grammar by telling people they should not use it would be totally unacceptable. It is the quirks like this which help make English such a rich and wonderful language.

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