Usage Poll: Shined or Shone?

After reading my last post, my wife expressed some doubt about the appropriate usage for the past tense of to shine. Her belief that some of the examples were incorrect only emphasized my point. I believe that having both a regular and an irregular past tense of a verb is superfluous and will eventually lead to the loss of the irregular form.

However, the question still remains as to how interchangeable the regular and irregular past tense forms are for the speaker community.

The sentences in question are as follows:

The sun shined on the clear blue lake.

The sun shone on the clear blue lake.

Each of these sentences is considered correct by some authorities while the other is incorrect.  The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that they are interchangeable. So there is no hard and fast rule as to which is correct.

I decided to see what you all think. Are both OK? Do you prefer one over the other?

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin


Out-shined by Norma Loquendi*

Grammar mavens like to complain. One complained recently that the narrator of a history program used an incorrect past tense for the word to shine. The narrator used shined when, as the argument goes, he should have said shone. Of all of the nuanced usage distinctions that mavens sometimes get themselves all worked up over, this is arguably one of the weakest and most useless. The fact that the verb to shine has two past tense forms is an example of unnecessary redundancy in our language.

So what is causing this hullabaloo over the past tense of to shine? Simply put, it’s a matter of whether the verb is used in its transitive or intransitive forms. However, it gets a bit more complicated than that.

The transitive form occurs when the verb has an object and takes the past tense shined. For example:

Mark shined his shoes before going to the dance.

The intransitive form occurs when the verb does not have an object and takes the irregular past tense shone. For example:

The sun shone all day last Saturday.

At this point the distinction is easy enough. True, two past tenses for the same verb is excessive and superfluous, but it’s not difficult to keep straight. But it doesn’t end there.

When the verb is transitive but less active, there is a disagreement over whether the use of shone or shined is appropriate. Consider the following sentences, both of which are considered correct by some but incorrect by others.

The sun shined on the clear blue lake.

The sun shone on the clear blue lake.

Compound the needless distinction of dual past tenses with disagreements over how the distinction is best applied and you have a grammar rule that’s ripe for the garbage bin. In fact, the American Heritage Dictionary, which normally provides an explanation of contentious usage that has been submitted to a usage panel, doesn’t even mention the issue of “less active” transitive usage. In fact, it has the intransitive form taking shone or shinedMore prescriptive than other dictionaries, if the American Heritage Dictionary reports that shone versus shined is optional, then I think it’s safe to say that the distinction is close to disappearing.

Shined will eventually reign. Remember that the rule for forming regular past tenses only requires adding the suffix –ed to the root. The exception to this rule occurs when separate (irregular) past tenses can be provided by memory. In the case of the verb to shine, there is an overlap that does not follow the rule. Given that we tend to obey word forming regularity as we learn our language, a child learning English will default to the regular ending unless some other input (parents, teachers, etc.) introduces the irregular form and its contexts. But this requires that the distinction is held strongly enough that most fluent speakers remember it as well. And as we have seen, the unnamed narrator didn’t remember it, and there is disagreement over whether it is necessary or optional. In this case, I predict that the loser will be irregular shone. And the grammar sticklers risk appearing even more lugubrious than normal by insisting upon keeping it.

*norma loquendi: a lexicographic principle, started by Samuel Johnson, stating that the standards of word meaning and usage are established by the usage customs of the speaker community. In other words, the principle is to report how speakers use language, not dictate how the speakers ought to use the language.

This principle is still in use by lexicographers today for descriptive dictionaries such as the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink. Say No More

One of the great joys of being a parent is the opportunity to revisit children’s literature, particularly fairy tales. Reading them with an adult eye, however, I was at first surprised at the number of adult themes that are addressed in these classic tales. I sometimes wonder if it is not just my stereotypical male brain that reads too much sexual innuendo into statements that are semantically innocent.

For example, a tale called “East of the Sun and West of the Moon” in Andrew Lang‘s The Blue Fairy Book, tells the story of a prince turned into a bear by some trolls and forced into an engagement with a troll. He finds a girl to marry and the two of them hatch a plan to break the spell and the engagement. When they knew that the plan would work, the story explains:

There was great joy and gladness between them all that night…

Reading this line as a child, I would never have thought more of it other than what it says on the surface – they were glad to have created a plan to escape their predicament. And this interpretation of the text is semantically sound.

However, looking at this sentence through the perspective of pragmatics, there is an implicature that suggests the writer’s intended meaning is beyond the purely semantic. How can we infer that the writer implicates another meaning? H.P. Grice explains implicature as flouting of either the Cooperative Principle or one of it’s maxims. The Cooperative Principle is a description of how people interact in a conversation. It is stated as follows:

Make your conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.

Flouting this principle intentionally could be used to deceive the listener/reader or to convey some other meaning to what is being said. Grice proposed four additional conversational maxims that are special cases of this principle. For this context, I will skip the first three maxims and focus on the fourth which, I believe, reveals the implicature of the sentence in question. (Grice’s full article can be found here).

The Maxim of Manner is “Be perspicuous” followed by four sub-maxims:

  1. Avoid obscurity of expression.
  2. Avoid ambiguity
  3. Be brief (avoid unnecessary prolixity).
  4. Be orderly.

The assumption is that, by following all of these maxims when conversing, semantics will determine the meaning of a given statement. That is, they were glad and experienced great joy at finding a way out of their predicament. Flouting the sub-maxims of obscurity and ambiguity, however, is an attempt to convey a meaning to one party while leaving the meaning unknown to a third party. A common example of this is when adults are speaking around a child and do not want the child to understand all of what is said. The speaker/writer must not be so obscure, however, that the meaning is lost for everyone. Regarding the sentence in question, why did the author not say they rejoiced if that was what he intended to mean? Semantically, they rejoiced is nearly synonymous with the sentence, is far more concise, and less ambiguous.

Presumably, Lang chose the sentence, There was great joy and gladness between them all that night, to implicate (by flouting the maxim) an idea not stated semantically, to say something that he couldn’t say. It conveys a message to an adult reader that (he would hope) would be missed by a child reader. A prince and a maiden, sharing an experience of great joy and gladness, in the prince’s room,… at night and… well…

Nudge nudge. Say no more.

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin