Burnt vs. burned?

Burned or burnt are past participles of the verb burn, where burnt is chiefly British. American English only uses burnt as an adjective.

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What is the difference between burnt and burned?

Burnt and burned are both past tense forms of the verb burn. The main difference between the two words depends on whether you’re using American English or British English. 

Burnt vs. burned for American English

English speakers in the United States use the word burnt as an adjective to describe something “burned” (past tense of the verb burn). According to Garner’s Modern English Usage, the exception occurs with the adjective phrase “burned out,” where “burnt out” is seldom used (Garner 133). 

Burnt vs. burned for British English

The word burnt is chiefly found in British English as a past participle or past tense form of the verb burn (133). Burned is still found as a past tense form, but burnt remains the more popular form. 

Why do American and British English use burned and burnt differently?

Burned is the original past tense form of the verb burn, but there’s been some English variation over time. For instance, English speakers once used “brent” over “burned” around the 15th century, while several past participles with -ed endings eventually adapted the letter t after the 16th century (such as with spoiled and spoilt). 

The practice of using -t endings never fully took-off in the U.S, but it remains a common source of confusion with English grammar. The Word Counter has covered similar nuances in Modern English with words like “spelled vs. spelt,” “learned vs. learnt,” “dreamed vs. dreamt,” and “whilst vs. while.” 

What does burnt mean?

According to The New Oxford American Dictionary, the adjective burnt (or burned) describes something as: (1) charred, consumed, damaged, or altered by fire or heat; (2) sugar heated until caramelized; or (3) colored or pigmented in a charred or scorched hue (“Burned” 234). 

Sentence examples: 

  • “I don’t like the taste of burnt toast.” 
  • “The sunrise illuminated mountains of burnt trees.” 
  • “The hard surface of creme brulee is made of burnt sugar.” 
  • “The desert is naturally filled with warm colors like burnt sienna, burnt orange, or burnt umber.”

Synonyms

Charred, incinerated, scorched, seared, singed. 

What does burned mean?

Burned (or burnt for British English) is the past participle and past tense form of the verb burn. All verb forms of burn include burn for the present or future tense, burned or burnt for the simple past tense or past participle), and burning the present participle. 

To set on fire or create light

The verb burn often means ‘to be on fire’ or ‘to set something on fire,’ but if you’re discussing a candle or anything that creates light, burn means ‘to be alight’ or ‘to glow.’ 

Sentence examples: 

  • “Pyromaniacs burned down the whole neighborhood.”
  • “We watched as the houses burned.”
  • “The candles burned for hours.” 

Synonyms

Blazed, combusted, flamed, flared, flickered, glowed, ignited, kindled, lit, radiated, torched.

Sunburns or injuries

Did you forget to wear SPF on a sunny day? That’s because the light emitted from the sun can burn your skin, causing redness, painful blistering, and sometimes even genetic mutations. Other times, we can use the verb burn to describe heat injury or conditions that cause fever or hot sensations (such as soreness). 

Sentence examples: 

  • “My skin burned after laying in the sun for too long.” 
  • “The swelling burned, causing excruciating pain.” 

Synonyms

Baked, blistered, injured, mutated, reddened, roasted, torched.

Energy conversion or consumption

Wherever you have heat, you have action. This is why we use “burn” to describe energy conversions for fuel, calories, or anything that produces heat (energy) or when a vehicle drives at high speeds. If you’re discussing consumption, however, the verb means ‘to consume in entirety.’ 

Sentence examples: 

  • “We went to the gym, burned off last night’s cake, and then relaxed at the spa.”
  • “Dad’s truck burned through the tank before we could reach another gas station.”
  • “The drag racers burned out down the street, narrowly avoiding police interception.” 
  • “Politician salaries burned through allocated funds before they could be of any use to the public.” 

Synonyms

Absorbed, ate, consumed, converted, depleted, devoured, drained, emptied, exhausted, expended, spent, used up, utilized. 

Creating CDs or DVDs

Kids these days might not use the verb burn in this way, but it’s helpful to know that it can reference the act of copying digital media to a compact disc or DVD. 

Sentence examples: 

  • “My friend burned a CD mixtape for me on Valentine’s Day.”
  • “Most of his DVDs are burned.” 

Synonyms

Copy, distribute, duplicate, imitate, replicate, steal. 

Emotionally charged

Remember how heat is associated with energy? Well, in the case of burn, it can also reference when someone is excited (such as a ‘burning desire’) or “emotionally stirred up with anger” (sort of like the adjective ‘hot-headed’ or the phrase ‘saw red’). 

Sentence examples: 

  • “Frustration burned through her.” 
  • “The children burned with curiosity.” 

Synonyms

Agitated, angered, boiled, enraged, fumed, raged, seethed, sizzled, shook, smoldered, steamed. 

Deception or insult

The verb burn also references the act of trickery or deception: ‘to cause someone to believe something untrue.’ In most cases, you’ll see the verb in statements like, ‘I’ve been burned before,’ which translates to ‘I’ve been deceived’ or ‘wronged before.’ 

Likewise, you’ll also find the verb in statements like, “she burned you,” which is similar to the word “roast.” In this case, ‘to burn means ‘to insult’ or ‘make fun of someone.’ 

Sentence examples: 

  • “The burglary left him feeling burned, unable to trust anyone again.”
  • “She doesn’t want to date because she’s afraid of being burned again.”
  • “I can’t believe mom burned you so bad in front of your new girlfriend.” 

Synonyms

Bamboozled, beguiled, bluffed, conned, deceived, duped, fooled, hoaxed, hoodwinked, insulted, kidded, misinformed, misled, roasted, spoofed, strung along, suckered, swindled, teased, tricked. 

Etymology of burn

The verb burn derives from Middle English burnen and Old English beornan and bærnan. According to The American Heritage Dictionary, beornan means ‘to be on fire’ while bærnan means ‘to set on fire.’  

How to use phrases of burn, burned, and burnt in a sentence?

Burn down the house

There are times when “burn down the house” has nothing to do with fire and everything to do with someone’s performance of something. In most cases, the phrase means ‘to act self destructively or contradictory to one’s values.’ 

Sentence example:

  • “Africa does not need to ‘burn down the house’ to defeat COVID-19.” — Al Jazeera

Burned at the stake

The historical phrase “burned at the stake” references a style of public capital punishment for heresy and witchcraft during the Middle Ages. 

Sentence example:

  • “On May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.” — History

Burn one’s bridges

If you make enemies more often than you make friends, you’re probably burning your bridges. More specifically, to “burn one’s bridges” is to do something that makes it impossible to amend a mistake or go back to a previous state (think of literally burning a bridge without thinking of how you’ll travel back across). 

Sentence example: 

  • “You want to cultivate relationships, so don’t burn your bridges.” — Forbes

Burn a hole in your pocket

The old-fashioned phrase “burn a hole in your pocket” references money and the temptation of spending it too quickly. 

Sentence example: 

  • “If you’ve got a spare Benjamin or two burning a hole in your pocket, here are 17 ways to spend it wisely.” — GQ Magazine

Having something to burn

Similarly to burning a hole in your pocket, English speakers use the phrase “to burn” when describing anything in abundance. 

Sentence example: 

  • “… a huge pool of freshly enriched crypto fans with money to burn on anything that matches or supports the system that enriched them in the first place.” — Financial Times

Slow burn

The informal phrase “slow burn” describes the build-up of unpleasant feelings.

Sentence example: 

  • “For a developer known only for third-person, slow-burn adventure games, “Cyberpunk 2077” is a surprisingly muscular shooting experience.” — Washington Post

Burn out

Burn out” (an adjectival phrase or phrasal verb) describes something as ‘consumed of energy,’ ‘worn down,’ or ‘extinguished,’ and it often references one’s mental or physical energy toward work or anything that impacts their well-being. However, if you’re describing the state of feeling burned out, the correct word is “burnout” (a noun). 

Sentence example: 

  • “Anyone can feel burned out, even people who might have spent the pandemic relaxing on a COVID-free island with a magically replenishing money supply.” — The Atlantic

Burning the candle at both ends

Workaholics know this phrase too well. If someone “burns the candle at both ends,” it means they go to sleep too late and wake up too early. 

Sentence example: 

  • “That it’s important to take time for your own well-being rather than burning the candle at both ends and winding up with burnout.” — Orlando Business Journal

Burning the midnight oil

Another way of describing burn-out, if you’re “burning the midnight oil,” you’re working late into the night.

Sentence example: 

  • “Thomas and Agyemang have also continued burning the midnight oil while working on their master plan for the music business at large.” — Billboard

Feel the burn

If you “go for the burn” or “feel the burn” during a gym session, it means you can feel the soreness from exercising a particular muscle group. However, there are times when “feeling the burn” means ‘feeling the pressure’ of a stressful situation. 

Sentence example: 

  • “You’ll definitely feel the burn with her moves, but it’s the kind that feels oh-so-good.” — Teen Vogue 
  • “Wedding venues feel the burn after Northam gives no timeline for full reopening.” — WSET

Test Yourself!

Don’t get burned on your next essay. Test your understanding of burnt vs. burned with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: the verbs burnt and burned have different meanings.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The use of the word burnt is limited to English speakers in __________.
    a. North America
    b. Australia
    c. Europe
    d. None of the above
  3. What is the original past tense of burn?
    a. Burned
    b. Burnt
    c. Brent
    d. Burnted
  4. Burned is the usual past tense or past participle of burn for __________. 
    a. British English
    b. Australian English 
    c. American English
    d. All of the above
  5. American English uses __________ as an adjective.
    a. Burn
    b. Burnt
    c. Burned
    d. All of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. D
  3. A
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

  1. Abbott, G. “Burning at the stake.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Britannica.com, 5 Jul. 2019. 
  2. Burn.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021. 
  3. Burn.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  4. Burn.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  5. “Burn.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 234.
  6. Burn.” Reverso Conjugator, Reverso-Softissimo, 2021. 
  7. Burnt.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  8. Garner, B. “Burned, burnt.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, p. 133. 
  9. Is ‘burnt’ acceptable as the past tense of ‘burn’?Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.