'Smelled' or 'Smelt': What's the Difference Between the Two?

By Carly Forsaith, updated on January 26, 2023

'Smelled' or 'smelt,' which one should you use? You might have noticed them being used interchangeably and been left wondering which is correct. After reading this article, you'll no longer wonder.

In short, both are correct but 'smelled' is the preferred spelling in American English, while the Brits use both.

What's the Difference Between 'Smelled' or 'Smelt?'

As I mentioned in the introduction, 'smelled' and 'smelt' are both grammatical. You could use either one, and your sentence would be correct.

That is if we're talking about conjugating the verb 'to smell.'

Indeed, there's also the noun 'smelt' and the verb 'to smelt.' Let's take a look at the definitions of each one.

'Smelled' Definition

'Smelled' is the past indefinite or past participle of the verb 'to smell.' To smell something is to detect its odor with your nose using one of your five senses: the sense of smell.

Here's an example sentence using 'smelled':

I thought I smelled onion; what are you making?

'Smelled' is the preferred past tense or past participle in North America and is used in British English, too. This verb form follows the usual rules for conjugating a verb in the past tense, which is to add -ed at the end.

Of course, you might also see 'smelled' in the present perfect, and past perfect tenses since those both use the past participle. Here's an example of a sentence in the present perfect tense using 'smelled':

This square has always smelled like hot dogs for as long as I can remember.

And here's an example of a sentence in the past perfect tense:

If I had smelled it sooner, I would have cleaned it up.

'Smelt' Definition

Much of what I said about 'smelled' also applies to 'smelt.' It is also the past indefinite or past participle tense of the verb 'to smell.' And it can also be used in the present and past perfect tenses.

The only difference is that 'smelt' doesn't follow the usual rules for conjugating a verb in the past indefinite tense, which makes it a semi-irregular verb. Instead of adding -ed at the end, the Brits prefer to add a -t.

Why? Your guess is as good as mine. But these are not the only verbs to follow this format. Here are a few others:

With all these words, the -t ending is the preferred spelling in British English, whereas the -ed ending is the preferred spelling in US English.

But 'smelt' also has a couple of other meanings. First, there's the verb 'to smelt,' which means to melt a rock to retrieve metal from it. Or to melt a metal object to reuse the metal.

Then there's the noun 'smelt,' which refers to a type of fish.

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Smelled'

Now that you're clear on the meaning of each word, wouldn't you like to know how to pronounce them? Let's start with the word 'smelled.'

The International Phonetic Alphabet spells it like this:

/smeld/

And it sounds like this when you say it:

smeld

Pronunciation: How to Pronounce 'Smelt'

Now let's do the same for 'smelt.' The IPA spells it like this:

/smel/

And it sounds this way when you say it:

smelt

When to Use 'Smelled' or 'Smelt'

Time to look at some examples of the two words used in a sentence. Since they both mean the same thing and are both correct, I'll use them interchangeably in the examples below.

The milk smelt a little off, so I didn't drink it.

It smelled like food as soon as you walked into the house.

The flowers smelt delicious and reminded her of summer days spent walking through the rose garden.

She sat down in the office chair and noticed the air smelled a little stale.

My dog smelt fresh and clean after a nice warm bath.

Concluding Thoughts on 'Smelled' or 'Smelt'

So there you have it; 'smelled' and 'smelt' can be used interchangeably because they are both correct. If you're based in the US or writing for a North American audience, you might want to use 'smelled,' but if you're in the UK, you can use either.

If you'd like to learn about more confusing words, head to our blog, where you'll find many other articles on similar topics.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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