Everything Language and Grammar

Sneak’s Snuck Sneaked In

Posted by languageandgrammar on May 2, 2008

Flyers general manager in a quote in The Hockey News, February 26, 2008: Pittsburgh kind of snuck in the back door there.

Speaking of sneaking, maybe that’s how the word snuck got into the dictionary; I can’t think of any other reason for it to be there.

Although snuck is used fairly widely, the correct past tense and past participle of sneak is sneaked. (Pittsburgh sneaked in last year. Pittsburgh has sneaked in for the last several years.) Snuck was considered to be non-standard English when people started to mistakenly use it, which, we’re told, was in the late 19th century; instead of correcting it through education, it spread and has now become so entrenched in our language that many well-respected writers and speakers use it and think that it’s correct.

As some of you may know, the use of sub-standard or non-standard language by well-respected writers, speakers, or anyone else doesn’t change my opinion about a word being incorrect; in this case, it just means that even some famous writers haven’t been taught the correct past forms of sneak. Indeed, in some writing and speaking circles, people still do see snuck as an egregious grammar error, so if you want to be sure that you’re using standard, correct English, then your best bet is to use the correct, standard English sneaked.

 

This is also a case of taking an already established regular verb with establish, standard forms and re-classifying it now as both regular and irregular (which I’ve talked about before). It doesn’t make any sense to me to have a verb suddenly be both regular and irregular just to acquiesce to a lower standard of speaking rather than taking the time to educate.

 

Perhaps someday, we’ll have a single national usage panel that will agree on everything, but for now, I’m sticking to what I know to be standard and correct. Everyone else must decide for himself.

 

Sherry

About these ads

11 Responses to “Sneak’s Snuck Sneaked In”

  1. Gabe said

    Of course, the counter-problem is that many people (e.g., me) learned snuck rather than sneaked as the correct form as children. So for me, up to maybe three years ago, I’d have said that “Pittsburgh sneaked in the back door” was just straight-out wrong. I’m certain this is true for many of my compatriots who went through similar schooling as me; the only reason that I am aware that sneaked is acceptable is because I went into linguistics and learned this a rare example of emergence of an irregular form. So if you use sneaked, you’re going to get a lot of regular people screwed up over it. I guess choosing between snuck and sneaked is a question of whether you’d rather alienate the people who fret over grammar or the average man on the street.

    Reply: Oh dear, I do believe that using the word “fret” is a bit extreme when discussing providing information, and I would be astonished, not to mention perplexed, to find out that anyone was “alienated” by the past tense of a verb. Many people are interested in historically correct usage; others are interested in common usage. It is for each person to decide for himself.

  2. Paula said

    I cannot believe that I’ve been using sneaked and snuck almost interchangeably (sp?) all these years! I’ll have to have a word with Sister Thomas Marilyn. Is snuck ever right?

    Reply: Snuck is dialectal, and in my opinion, that means that it is never correct. The past tense has always been sneaked, not snuck, and when a certain portion of the population started saying snuck instead of sneaked at the end of the 19th century, it was a grammar error; however, it was one that was never corrected, so it spread and is now used by many. Since we already had the past tense sneaked, there really is no reason to create another past tense (snuck). Perhaps you should question some of the other things that Sister Thomas Marilyn taught you, but we’ll talk about that over coffee. :)

  3. Gabe said

    Reading over my earlier comment, I owe you an apology, as I stated something other than what I had intended to. The point I was attempting to make is that this is a balancing act: that the choice of snuck will jar those readers who prefer historical usage, while the choice of sneaked will jar those readers who learnt snuck as the proper form. The question is which set has the larger membership, and I am inclined to think the latter outnumbers the former — hence why I prefer to use snuck.

    But as for the alienation over this, it’s surprising how up-in-arms people can get over such minor points; James Cochrane calls phrases like between 10 to 20 degrees “infuriating”, and misuse of as far as “lazy and uneducated”. I’m sure someone has read something with the word snuck in it and refused to respect the author as a scholar because only a fool would not know the proper past tense of sneak.

    Reply: As for the apology, no worries. As for the “more people learned snuck than learned sneak,” there is, of course, no way to know whether that is true or false. I cannot imagine–or perhaps it is that I am loath to imagine– that there are teachers who actually stand at the front of the classroom and say “sneak, snuck, has/have snuck”–or would it be have/has snucken? I would, however, believe that it is taught in some places as an “alternative” conjugation, but that was actually part of my point, i.e., there are myriad intelligent individuals who use snuck as the past tense and might appreciate knowing that sneaked is actually the past tense. Again, usage is up to the individual. My goal is to give information to people who are interested, not to be the grammar dictator (unless, of course, it pays more than my current job). Thanks for your articulate, civil discussion.

  4. Hey, I’d like to invite you to my Grammar Group:

    http://www.blogcatalog.com/group/the-grammar-group

  5. Jeffrey Carlton said

    I don’t know what it was I was formally taught as regards sneak and its tenses, too many years ago, I suppose. But perhaps it was through conversations with friends, family, and from watching television that really ingrained in me what I finally came to accept as the true (for me) word to use. I can remember talking with boys and girls when I was a child and we spoke of sneaking about the kitchen and taking snacks we weren’t supposed to know about. We never said, “I sneaked into the kitchen…”. It was always, “I snuck into the kitchen…”. As you say, there was never any criticism over the use of this word, not like when you might say, “Tommy and me went…” and suddenly there was a, “You mean ‘Tommy and I, don’t you?'”. I have the distinct feeling it was never brought up in school, because I was the school spelling bee champion, and I feel if the word ‘sneaked’ had made an appearance in our lesson for the day, it would have raised a huge red flag and sounded off so many bells and whistles that it would have been for me equivalent to the day JFK was assassinated, one I would never have forgotten. So over the years, I don’t even think I considered the existence of such a word as ‘sneaked’ until I started seeing it in certain books I was reading, and even then it only jolted me to the point of wanting to write these guys and tell them to start using proper English. I guess it’s like you say, one man’s meat is another man’s poison.

  6. Scott said

    I just wrote about a study that I came across that talked about this very sort of thing:

    http://translation-blog.trustedtranslations.com/the-past-tense-then-and-nowthe-past-tense-then-and-now-2008-12-02.html

    I am becoming a big fan of the blog, too!

    Reply: Scott, thanks for sharing the information about the study. It’ll be interesting to see their perspective on the subject.

    We’re so glad you’re enjoying the blog. Thanks!

  7. Kristine said

    My 9year old boy, in the 3rd grade, came home with a writing project. He used the work “sneaked” in his writing. His teacher corrected him and said, “it is snuck”. He told his teacher, “my dad said it’s “sneaked”. She said, “no, it’s snuck”. He had to change his correct work and put the incorrect one in his writing project. I’m going to print your information out and have my son use “sneaked” in his writing.

    Reply: I’m appalled that a teacher wouldn’t know the difference. At the very LEAST, she should have known that sneaked is the PREFERRED form and that snuck is considered by many to be an alternative form (if you believe in the fallacy of alternative forms since they’re usually errors that have gained popularity because of teachers such as your son’s). Maybe someone ought to alert the principal.

    Thanks for writing.

  8. Bob said

    I see the word “snuck” as American and the word “sneaked” as British. I don’t consider it an error.

    • Rupert the English teacher said

      I’m a British English teacher and I didn’t know the correct answer until I “googled” it. I felt that snuck was correct, even though I suspected it to be possibly wrong. I like the word snuck. It is nasal and staccato and, yes, sneaky.

  9. Patrick said

    I am a 19-year-old college student who has, until reading this blog post, never heard the word “sneaked” in either its past tense or past perfect tense forms, or at least not consciously. I am a bit bothered by the stance you take on the issue. Because something is historical, it’s correct? Taken to an extreme, this argument states that we should be dropping thee and thou into all of our formal writing. I also took a linguistics class and one thing that was stressed was that language is constantly evolving. “Snuck” is in the dictionary because it is a word that people use and holds meaning, as is “sneaked.” There seems to be no reason for your disdain for “snuck” other than the fact that it is not the way you change “sneak” to past tense and thus not correct. I think a more open-mind and acceptance of linguistic evolution and diversity would be beneficial to this blog and it’s readers.

    • languageandgrammar said

      This blog is not about having an open mind about language changes, especially those being perpetuated by a common error; it’s about how words have traditionally been used for those who want to know.

      We’re glad that we enlightened you to the fact that sneak is a regular verb, meaning its primary past tense is sneaked.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 147 other followers

%d bloggers like this: