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Most dictionaries seem to indicate that highlighted is the past tense for highlight, rather than highlit. However, we use lit as the past tense for light without reservation, with lighted appearing much less frequently. Why the difference? Why isn't the derivation of the past-tense verb consistent for these two related words?

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    And why is moonlit the adjective that means lit by the moon, while moonlighted is the past tense of the verb to moonlight, which means to work a second job? Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 18:01
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    It's because to highlight is a relatively new word - verbifying the noun form, rather than being directly based on high + (verb) light. Anglophones don't like to introduce new "irregular" verbs, so we naturally tend to regularise all neologisms. Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 18:03
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    @FumbleFingers That's interesting, do you want to expand on that as an answer?
    – NWard
    Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 18:10
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    @NWard: I nearly closevoted as a duplicate of Is it possible for a new irregular verb to appear in English language?, but Peter's comment gave me pause for thought. Both he and I posted answers to that earlier question, but because neither of us specifically addressed your issue, I refrained from closevoting here. The general issue of irregular verbs has come up several times before though, and maybe this answer to another question is more relevant to you. Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 20:14
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    See also troubleshooted vs troubleshot Commented Sep 12, 2014 at 20:23

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To me, "highlighted" says that something has been accentuated so that it stands out from a background or the crowd rather than having been ignited so that it sheds light on everything else around it. There is a distinct difference in meaning. And since "highlighted" has been verbed from the noun "highlight" by present-day users, it is unlikely that they would conjugate it irregularly.

Contrast that with the adjective "backlit", which is used to describe something that has been lit up completely and evenly from the back (such as a poster, a display on a screen, or a keyboard) to show all the details even at night or in dark places. This follows the irregular conjugation pattern because it is related to the original meaning of lighting something up.

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English has a mix of origins such as Germanic and Latin languages and when it comes to conjugating verbs you cannot rely on rules as easily as you can on purely Latin languages.

I would consider your example as an irregular conjugation. You are right - it makes no sense, but it's English and you just have to learn it - sorry. There are plenty of other examples in the language like this:

  • breach and breached
  • teach and taught
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  • you are comparing two words with similar suffixes, but the OP is asking about the same word (light) with and without an added prefix (high), by using backformation one could conclude that all words that derive from light (backlight, highlight, greenlight, moonlight) should follow the original word's conjugations (backlit, highlit, greenlit, moonlit), which makes it seem to me like one of those cases where a wrong word (highlighted) is used so often that it becomes the norm... like "female" for example Commented Jul 5, 2021 at 17:59
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Compare "lighted" with "lit". A tennis court may be lighted by the addition of lamps, but the tennis court is only lit when those lamps are turned on. A phrase is either highlighted or it is not.

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