Grammar: -ed- and -t-Ending Verbs

 

Most regular verbs take -d or -ed endings in the past tense (climbed, rushed, smoked, touched, washed) while some have retained their older
-t endings (built, felt, lent, meant, spent). But a few troublemakers have alternative -ed and -t endings –

      burned, burnt
      dreamed, dreamt
      kneeled, knelt
      leaped, leapt
      leaned, leant
      learned, learnt
      smelled, smelt
      spelled, spelt
      spilled, spilt
      spoiled, spoilt

and their rules of use are unfortunately inconsistent.

Firstly, there is a general American preference for -ed endings and a British preference for -t endings, The Times, for example, choosing -t endings.1
Secondly, some authorities give -ed endings as the past tense (I burned the toast) and -t endings as the past participle (I have burnt the toast), but
none declares the reverse usage to be incorrect. To 
muddy the waters further, a third convention requires -ed endings when the duration of the action
is important, and -t endings 
when it is not. In other words, we use -ed endings to imply ‘action going on’ and -t endings to imply ‘action completed’ –

      The fire burned for days
      (Duration important; action going on)

      Carol burnt her finger on the stove
      (Duration unimportant; action completed)

      I dreamed of her all night
      (Duration important)

      I dreamt of her last night
      (Duration unimportant; the length of the dream is irrelevant)

      James always spelled liaise with only one i
      (Duration important)

      James mistakenly spelt liaise with only one i
      (Duration unimportant; it is of no consequence how long it took James to write the word)

      It took me a long time before I learned to use the keyboard
      (Duration important)

      Both James and Carol learnt from their mistakes
      (Duration unimportant)

In the circumstances, therefore, it matters little which ending we choose. We can follow either of the ‘rules’ or simply opt for one ending on all
occasions.

When used as adjectives, however, the spellings are fixed –

      burnt toast
      spilt milk
      spoilt child
      learned person

 

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The Times Style Guide. No longer available online. Multiple access, 200304.