MUNDANE MYSTERIES: Is It “Burned” or “Burnt”?

Hopefully, everything goes smoothly & as-planned the next time you’re preparing dinner. However, if you’ve ever overcooked your supper, you might’ve found yourself wondering: “this black piece of food in my pan…is it “burned”, or is that “burnt”?  (Okay, so grammar usage would probably be the furthest thing from your mind in that moment…but the question is still a valid one.) What should the proper past tense of burn be? “Burned”, or “burnt”?

Well, according to the dictionary folks at Merriam-Webster, both words are actually acceptable. However, in the American English language, they each serve different purposes. If your first inclination is to say you “burned” your meatloaf as you take it out of the oven, then you’d be grammatically correct. Because whenever you’re describing the act of burning in the past tense (i.e., “I burned my hand”, “she burned a log the fireplace”), the right way to go is to add “-ed” to the end of the root word (burn).

If you were to attempt to use “burnt” in those situations, it would most likely seem awkward when trying to speak them aloud or write them on a page. But…that doesn’t mean you should delete “burnt” from your vernacular altogether, since there is one scenario where it’s called for: when the past participle of “burn” is being used as an adjective. Let’s say you want to describe a different word, specifically a noun, as opposed to recalling a prior instance of burning…in that situation, “burnt” would be the appropriate choice. Prime examples include food names such as “burnt ends” & “burnt cream”, as well as colors like “burnt umber” & “burnt sienna”.

When in doubt, just remember: “burned” is the past tense of the verb “burn”; meanwhile, “burnt” is a past participle used as an adjective. But since both are proper words, mixing up one of them for the other shouldn’t be too big of a big deal. Especially if you happen to be outside of the U.S., since, in other varieties of English, “burned” & “burnt” are both totally acceptable as the past tense of “burn”. (Though, if you’re using them to describe the food you accidentally just set on fire literally moments ago, then you definitely have bigger problems to deal with.)

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