Sunburned or Sunburnt? Which is Right?

Summer is almost here, and as beach weather taps on our door, you might soon find yourself pondering a specific grammar question prevalent in the warmest months of the year. Maybe you will be writing a postcard from a tropical paradise. ‘Enjoying the lovely sand,’ you write. ‘The rum here flows like water. Although I haven’t been able to sleep for two days straight, as I’ve managed to get badly sunburned’ You stop in the middle of the phrase wondering, is that right? Is it sunburned or sunburnt? Well …

The Quick Answer

So that you can go back to enjoying your holidays, let’s answer this quickly. There is good news – either way you choose to spell, you will not be breaking any rules. All dictionaries list both options as correct and acceptable. 

The longer answer

Suppose you’re not satisfied with that and would really like to plant a flag one way or the other. In that case, you may want to consider your geographical location, or at the very least, whether you prefer British English or American English. If you look at the word without the sun-part, you would be left with the verb burn. And this verb happens to be one of those irregular verbs (think learn, dream, spell) that allow two different ways of writing the past tense form. Yep, either a –or an -ed are acceptable.  

And as you may already know, when faced with a choice between the two, the American English tends to favor the –ed endingwhile the Brits prefer the –t.  

For reference, here is a list of more irregular verbs that have two acceptable variations of the past tense form:

Creep (creeped/crept)

Dwell (dwelled/dwelt)

Plead (pleaded/plead)

Hoist (hoist/hoisted)

Knit (knit/knitted)

Shrink (shrunk/shrank)

Dive (dive/dove)

Your choice! 

Of course, this is not a rule set in stone, and exceptions exist on both sides of the pond. At the end of the day, just like the destination of that holiday that left you reaching for sunscreen, the choice is yours. However, once you make it, stick to it, as it’s good to stay consistent in your style. Now you can get back to the important business of enjoying that holiday! 

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By Audrey Horwitz

Audrey Horwitz holds a master's degree in communication and a bachelor's degree in business administration. She has worked with numerous companies as a content editor including Speechly, Compusignal, and Wordflow. Audrey is a prolific content writer with hundreds of articles published for Medium, LinkedIn, Scoop.It, and Article Valley.

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