Shine a light

I have Elton John running through my head at the moment, since typing those three words. Sorry if I’ve earwormed anyone else.

There are two verbs that many people have trouble conjugating and using correctly. (Okay, there are many, many more than two. But I’m talking about only two today.) There’s shine the transitive verb, which conjugates shine/shined/shined, and there’s shine the intransitive verb, which conjugates shine/shone/shone.

I see heads shaking already because I used grammatical terminology. Transitive verbs “transfer” action from the actor to an object. “He shined his shoes.” He performed the act of shining(here meaning “polishing”) on the recipient of the action, the object: the shoes. (I’m partial to Kiwi brand polishes, personally.) “He shined the flashlight into the dark hallway.’ He performed the act of shining, which in this case means aiming the lit flashlight, on the recipient of the action, which is the flashlight itself (the thing being aimed). He shined it into that dark hallway with the creepy cobwebs and peeling paint.

Intransitive verbs don’t transfer any action from actor to recipient (object). “The sun shone a dusky orange through the clouds of dust.” The sun’s doing its sun thing; it’s shining. Light’s coming from it. “Her face shone with delight.” No action’s being transferred. This is a figure of speech; her face is not emitting light, like a star, after all. Not literally.

In Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition), the error of using “shined” for “shone” is given a Stage 2 on the language-change index. That means it’s unacceptable in standard usage. It’s seen enough that people might wonder whether it’s an error.

It’s an error.

8 thoughts on “Shine a light

  1. Thanks for this. I’ve always struggled to understand the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, and your explanation seems to make sense.

    However, I find it hard to grasp why, in your examples, the sun shining into a hallway is transitive (requiring “shined”) while it shining through a cloud of dust is intransitive (requiring “shone”). In both cases something is being illuminated. Is there distinction I’m missing, or are your examples perhaps faulty?

    Growing up in the UK, I don’t think I ever saw “shined” used in any sense apart from an object being polished. “Shined,” in other words, meant “to be given a shine.” I’ve found it rather perplexing while reading US writing to come across “shined” in phrases like “the shine shined on the lake,” which in British English would, I think, always be in the form “the sun shone on the lake.”


    1. It’s the difference between passive shining (what a sun or star does) and active shining (what we do with a flashlight/torch). If you reread my examples, you’ll see that those are the items I used: shoes and a flashlight/torch, and the sun/her face. He shined his shoes. He shined the flashlight into the hallway. (My error was in saying the hallway was the recipient. It isn’t. The flashlight is the recipient/object of the action. “Into the hallway” tells us where that light went. I’ve corrected that part; thank you!) The sun shone. Her face shone.

      You’re correct that it would be “the sun shone on the lake.” It’s passively doing its sun-thing.


      1. OK, the correction helps! I get it now.

        In UK English, though, “He shined the flashlight [actually it would be “torch”] into the hallway,” would sound wrong to educated readers, and you’d have to say “He shone the torch into the hallway.”

        11,900 results on Google Books for “shone the torch” versus 278 for “shined the torch.”

        Despite having lived in the US for 15 years I have trouble getting my head around some American English usages!


      2. It is a puzzling thing to be sure.

        As with so many usage issues, we all have to make our own decisions based on reference materials, our own usage preferences, and so on. As a professional editor, I’m sticking with what I find in Garner and Merriam-Webster. That tells me that “shined” is transitive, and “shone” is intransitive. I’m an AmE speaker. I work with BrE clients, and if there’s a problem, we hash it out. I don’t recall running into this one in that situation (yet), but I won’t be surprised if I do.


      3. Depending on whether you choose the American, British, or combined English corpus, you’ll get different results.

        In any case, I provide my professional opinion, and I use more than Ngrams to reach it. I stand by my opinion, and in any work I’m paid to edit, I will ensure that “shined” is transitive, and “shone” intransitive.

        Your opinion is clearly different. That’s not a bad thing. Thanks for the conversation.


  2. I wasn’t challenging you, and I wasn’t expressing an opinion — just pointing out that in US-published books (“flashlight” is a US usage, not a British one) “shone” and “shined” are used with equal frequency as transitives. It’s just data, not a criticism.


    1. I’m aware that “flashlight” is US.

      I’m also standing by my word. I’ve chosen to adhere to Merriam-Webster and Garner. If I were on a usage panel, which I’m not, the Ngram data would be of far greater use. As it is, what it shows me is that the distinction between transitive and intransitive forms has become very weak. Some of us choose to retain it.

      I am such a one. That’s my point.


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