Tuesday, March 29, 2011


Twin asks:

Of course all three of those nitwits were just dizzy with delight hearing Trump go on and on about how Obama could have been sneaked into the country after his Kenyan birth, and the birth records and newspaper notices falsified after the fact.

Sneaked or snuck?

My answer:

I had thought sneaked was standard and snuck was widely used but still considered not quite proper, but it may not even be that far apart anymore. Snuck is near full acceptance, it appears from a quick look, even though it's comparatively new. Some people even insist that as it's more commonly used than sneaked by Americans, it should be considered the correct form in American English. Googlefight lends strong support to that claim, showing nearly twice as many instances of snuck.

In formal writing, I'd stick with sneaked if the question occurred to me, but I am not sure I would catch snuck when proofreading someone else's work, and depending on the sentence, I might use snuck myself. He snuck out of the room seems more natural to my ear than He sneaked out of the room, for instance.

In your example, sneaked seems more natural, though. Might be a case of different kinds of past tenses, the vocabulary of which I've never learned.

Authoritahs: See Brians for the succinct answer. The middle of Safire's 1995 column and The Mavens (via Daggle) go into more detail.

What do you brilliant wordsmiths think?


TC said...

When something is so widely used incorrectly it starts to sound "right" to the ear. But educated speech is to some extent a matter of arbitrary usage by literate people so you can't go strictly by what you hear most often. He lit a cigarette versus he lighted a cigarette. They hung him from the highest tree versus they hanged him from the highest tree. Or your favorite -- "different from" versus "different than". We hear it wrong so often that we are going to accept that as the new and correct usage? You don't hear it so often in the present and past perfect tenses, so it doesn't sound so right there. "He had snuck into the concert" doesn't hit the ear as well as the simple past tense which one hears so often. To me "snuck" is a particularly ugly sounding word -- sort of like "God" which doesn't sound very poetic to me for something which is supposed to be so sublime.

Anytime you speak or write correctly there is a certain amount or pretension to it, but that's one of the ways educated people separate themselves from the car mechanic or the politician. How did we know that W wasn't very smart? Because he didn't speak as well as our car mechanic. And I don't mean to pick on car mechanics. I was one back in the day. One of the reasons that Glen Beck and Fox news don't like Obama is that he speaks like an educated person and that means he isn't one of us. So he's arrogant or professorial -- one of those pretentious guys who would say sneaked rather than snuck.

M. Bouffant said...


And I'm w/ TC: "Snuck" is ugly sounding.

bjkeefe said...

I would have expected nothing less from you two.

I will say that I don't find snuck to be an ugly word. Or maybe it is ugly, but it's vivid, and it's often used to describe some sort of ugly action; e.g., After haranguing the Democrats for three months about earmarks, Sen. McCain snuck $200 million worth of Arizona-directed appropriations into the bill right before the final vote.

Emphyrio said...

Speak spoke.
Sneak snoke.

That's what we should be using to be consistent.

Both "sneaked" and "snuck" offend the ear, loftily or lowly.

So to my mind, avoidances such as "was able to sneak" or "did sneak" are probably optimal.

bjkeefe said...

Be careful what you ask for when it comes to consistency in English. What about the past tense of streak?

Presumably, when you want to describe your crazy college days when you took off your clothes and ran across the quad, you don't want to be telling delicate ears that you got naked and stroke.

Uncle Ebeneezer said...

I have to put in a vote for "snuck." If only because it is great for writing dirty limericks.

[added: word verification below is "abomyo". Librul conspirucy!!1!]

bjkeefe said...

LOL! (x2)

Jack said...

Very interesting discussion. Thanks for your answer, Brendan, and for opening it up for comments. I think TC is right that one solution would be to rewrite the sentence to avoid having to choose between two bad options. The only other thing I'll say now is that it's my feeling that "snuck" is easier to sneak into a verbal conversation -- it sounds natural. "Sneaked" would sound more unnatural spoken. But the opposite is true, I think, in writing. In text, it seems "snuck" is more conspicuous and even momentarily unclear, whereas "sneaked," while ugly, is at least clear.

One of the most interesting points that was raised was slightly off topic, but nevertheless compelling: TC's observation that "anytime you speak or write correctly there is a certain amount or pretension to it." This really can be a problem in certain situations. Calibrating your language to the crowd you're interacting with can be an important skill, if you need to interact with a lot of different people of different types.

Jack said...

Oh, and if it wasn't clear, Jack = Twin.

Substance McGravitas said...

I think TC is right that one solution would be to rewrite the sentence to avoid having to choose between two bad options.

It's more practical to avoid the issue than to make the thing clang to a proportion of the readership. Except Bouffant.