Ask the Grammarian: How "snuck" sneaked in...

Well, it appears you all don't need more grammar advice, so this will be the last Ask the Grammarian column. Thank you to all who asked questions and who read these columns. They were fun, and I learned a lot from researching the answers to your great inquiries.

I do have one last question to attend to though, so let's get to it.

Emily J Chaney writes:

I cannot stand the word 'sneaked'. How evil is it if I use the word snuck? Never mind. Once I typed it I saw the ugliness of the word.

Maybe that is the difference. Speaking 'snuck' is okay, but writing it is not.

Well, Emily, you are not alone. I fully admit to preferring “snuck” to “sneaked” and use it for all instances of “to sneak” in past tense or as a past participle. It just feels right.

Since the English language is full of such incongruities, it didn't seem like a crime to use it without reservation. There are plenty of other seemingly similar examples in which verbs become past tense or past participles by taking on a slightly new identity, not by simply adding “ed” or “en”.

  • shake becomes shook
  • ring becomes rung
  • shine becomes shone

However, it is an odd one, actually. As Stan Cary (@stancary) points out in his blog entry on the topic:

The shift from sneaked to snuck is unusual: when verb endings change, they usually go from strong to weak. (Dig, string, and dive are other examples of weak-to-strong drift.) Burchfield points out that no other English verb with an -eek or -eak ending makes a past tense -uck; he lists creak, freak, leak, peak, peek, reek, seek, squeak, streak, wreak, and shriek.

He's right; we don't say:

  • I totally fruck out when I saw how high the water bill was.
  • She shruck with delight at the sight of the sparkling new kitchen.
  • The sippy cup luck sticky, purple juice all over the back seat.

At least, we don't say it yet. But before we start blaming this lazy generation for corrupting yet another perfectly good grammar rule, the devolution of sneak started long before we started speaking in initialisms and trading information in 140 characters or less. Check out this graph that shows how the nonstandard usage has “snuck” into our literature over the last 60 or so years.

An Oxford University Press article by Anatoly Libermanon on the etymology of snuck points out that the verb to sneak was a weird one to begin with. Apparently the word is only about 400 years old, and it began to change almost immediately and without a clear path from sneaked to snuck.

At the end of the article, he points out that the popularity of snuck may be because it really does just feel better.

An eminent British scholar devoted a long article to snuck and came to the conclusion that snuck, from the way it sounds, describes its action better than sneaked. His conclusion is probably right. Snuck is shorter and therefore more “final” than sneaked.

I tend to believe that people use language subconsciously as well as consciously, so when a formation happens that seems to fit the action better than the grammatically “correct” version, people feel comfortable using it and reusing it to the point that we can hardly remember where it came from. Rules of grammar and usage exist to ensure understanding, so if a particular construction is established and there exists no possibility of misunderstanding, then it can become an accepted use of the word.

In my opinion, it seems until one or the other version falls out of favor, you can use either without fear of reproach—especially if you use in it alliteratively appropriate situations.

  • Lee sneaked a peek at the her friend's spiked heels.
  • The pup snuck a shrimp from the bucket.

There is LOTS of additional reading on the topic, so if you'd like to read more, here are a few articles I found.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Benjamin Joseph's picture
Benjamin Joseph from Southern U.S. is reading Knockemstiff February 26, 2014 - 4:45am

I was expecting to see a "Don't you dare use snuck!" article. I'm glad you take the other approach. Much like 'hung', 'lit' and the afrementioned 'snuck', some words just feel right in certain contexts. With the example of "lit" --and God help me from the wrath of the grammarists-- I loath the use of "lighted" to describe an illuminated area, i.e. "the lighted room." I will always say it's a "lit room". English is a constantly evolving language, both audibly and written, and I think it will naturally fall into changes that feel "more right" when spoken.

cody8829's picture
cody8829 August 14, 2017 - 2:18pm

Anytime vs. any time: Can someone offer guidance on this? Many thanks!