Stan Carey on "greenlit"

« previous post | next post »

From Stan Carey at Sentence First, a lucid and deeply empirical dive into the question "Has ‘greenlit’ been greenlighted?".

Stan explores a wide variety of relevant corpus data, both historical and otherwise, providing a lovely illustration of how accessible such resources have become.

And at the end, one of his commenters points him to an old LLOG post on the same topic, "Systematic irregularization", 2/6/2007. That post links the question to publications about morpho-syntax by some eminent linguists, and also to a controversy from the early days of "neural net" models in psychology, linguistics and computer science.


  1. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 8:45 am

    Well, I disagree with the Economist which Stan quotes regarding "highlight" (vb). "Highlighted" has always seemed excessively verbose to me, so I routinely replace it by "highlit". Oddly enough I would be less inclined to do the same with *"redlit" or *"greenlit" — I wonder why … Maybe they are too new for me.

    ‘According to an unwritten rule,’ says the Economist, ‘when a new verb is coined from a noun, it is always regular’ – so we say grandstanded, not *grandstood, and highlighted, not *highlit. But that ‘always’ is overburdened, as we’ll see.

  2. Laura Morland said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 9:14 am

    I'd be interested to see how many ghits "highlit" has. I've never heard it, over here in the Colonies.

  3. unekdoud said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 9:57 am

    For me, the distinction is that something that's downlit or sunlit or limelit is actually lit, but something that's greenlit or gaslit (metaphorical sense) is not obviously so, and using "highlit" can make one sound like they've been churning out poetry while on recreational drugs.

    Jokes aside… the noun "highlight" has the antonym "lowlight". Are objects affected by these highlit and lowlit?

  4. Rod Johnson said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 11:16 am

    Philip Taylor: "Highlighted" has always seemed excessively verbose to me

    Similarly, "excessively verbose" seems excessively verbose to me.

    Anyway: what about "spotlighted/spotlit"? My intuitions completely fail me on this.

  5. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 12:09 pm

    Rod — ah, but "verbose" can be good; only "excessively verbose" requires attention ! For me, "spotlit".

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 2:45 pm

    According to the google books n-gram viewer, "highlighted" was about 1,000 times more common than "highlit" back around 1970 and its dominance has grown by another order of magnitude since then. So it would seem that the copy-editors of the English-speaking world are routinely failing to act in synch* with Philip Taylor's practice.

    *Ironically enough, the same source indicates that "in sync" has over the course of my lifetime built up an ever-widening lead over my own preferred variant of "in synch."** But orders of magnitude less than the highlighted:highlit discrepancy.

    **Perhaps my excessively classical education means I can't help thinking of it as συγχ not συγκ?

  7. DaveK said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 3:45 pm

    At work a few years ago, I caught myself assuring someone that they’d have a check tomorrow because I had just overnit it to their office.
    Made sense at the time.

  8. Lester said,

    August 16, 2023 @ 4:12 pm

    By odd coincidence, I read this post just after I'd Googled a past participle that was new to me: I keep hearing an advertisement touting certain ornamental shrubs that have "been trialed and tested." When I Googled "been trialed," I got 187,000 hits, so it's more widely used than I would have guessed.

  9. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 3:16 am

    "Trialled" doesn't cause even a blip on my mental radar, whilst "overnit" would lead me to think that it was a typo for "overknit" rather than a reference to staying somewhere overnight. And like JWB, I too routinely write "synch", even going so far as to add a trailing "[h]" to "sync" in a message that I am quoting in a reply …

  10. Bloix said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 11:06 am

    To be trialed, used in connection with drugs, means to have undergone a clinical trial. E.g., "The effect of fenofibrate has been trialed in diabetes, in a large trial that did not achieve its primary end of reducing cardiovascular events, but did reduce the risk of myocardial infarction… Gemifibrozil was trialed in patients with low HDL levels in the VA HIT study…"

    That usage seems to have expanded to apply to anything that has been tested in a controlled scientific or technical setting.

  11. Taylor, Philip said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 12:50 pm

    If I understand Google Books correctly, Bloix, that text was published in 2010. However, the history of "trial" (vb) goes back 30 years before that, and in non-clinical contexts :

    1981 Several distribution models are already being trialled in the United Kingdom. M. H. Aston in Lewis & Tagg, Computers in Education 385

    1982 The radar was briefly trialled in two road situations, a T-junction and a straight section of road. International Conf. Road Traffic Signalling (IEE Conf. Ser. ccvii.) 123/1

    1982 The 2946 [computer] was successfully trialled on the weekend of February 19. ICL News March 2/5

    1984 Field trials models weighing 17kg..have been..extensively trialled in field conditions. Proceedings Conf. NATO Advisory Group Aerospace Research & Development cccxliv. xiv. 1

  12. KevinM said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 2:43 pm

    @unekdoud. Agree: Preserving both forms preserves a useful distinction in their meanings, one involving lighting and the other approving. For similar reasons, baseball announcers eschew the default past tense and say that Casey flied out to center field.

  13. Philip Anderson said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 4:57 pm

    “Trlalled” is unexceptional, but “trial[l]ed and tested” is surely an eggcorn for “tried and tested”? Or is it an accepted variant?

    I think unekdoud’s point is a good one – although the first meaning of “highlight” was a spot that was literally highly lit, I think the verb “highlight” came from the noun “highlight”, as did “greenlight”

  14. Thomas Hutcheson said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 6:32 pm

    "Greenlit" sound like a publishing genre, like "chicklit."

  15. ktschwarz said,

    August 17, 2023 @ 7:29 pm

    KevinM: "baseball announcers eschew the default past tense and say that Casey flied out to center field."

    Beautiful theory, meet ugly fact: "flew out" is not uncommon in baseball talk. "Flied" is in the majority, but it's far from universal. Click on the "Systematic irregularization" link in the post for some numbers, and see the further discussion at Language Log of Flew v. Flied for more. Or search for yourself at Google News, or at sites like,,, and

    "Flied out" is prescribed by dictionaries and the SABR Style Guide, and I think the AP and other style guides; and as noted in the "Systematic irregularization" post, there may be a lot of machine-generated recaps in news archives. But unedited humans just keep on producing "flew out" at a noticeable rate, and yes, that includes fans and pros.

    Unexplained observation: the flew/flied ratio is much lower when it isn't followed by "out" (not every fly is an out, or the "out" could come later, as in "Melky Cabrera flew to left for the second out"). Any theory of morphology needs to pay attention to that fact.

  16. Chas Belov said,

    August 18, 2023 @ 1:47 am

    Hmmm, I would go with highlighted and spotlighted but greenlit. It would never occur to me to use either redlighted or redlit, preferring vetoed.

  17. Julian said,

    August 19, 2023 @ 6:12 am

    A friend, talking about a car she was thinking of buying:
    'I test-drived it yesterday."

  18. Yerushalmi said,

    August 21, 2023 @ 2:45 am

    The first few comments here are very bizarre to me. I'm 100% with Chas Belov: Not only is it "highlighted" and "greenlit" for me, but I've never heard "highlit" or "greenlighted" in my life.

    I wonder if it's geographic. Chas: I'm originally from NYC, you?

  19. Chas Belov said,

    August 23, 2023 @ 10:02 pm

    @Yerushalmi Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Hartford.

RSS feed for comments on this post