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Language sneaks up on you

I refer you to Stan Carey’s excellent post at Sentence first on the word snuck, considered historically and linguistically.

And after you have read what Mr. Carey has to say, here are a couple of my own reflections.

I don’t like snuck myself and do not use it. To my ears it sounds not only casual but also uneducated. But that is simply a question of personal taste. As an editor, I wouldn’t dream of altering to sneaked in a direct quotation.* If it appeared in ordinary prose, I would have to gauge how formal the occasion was and who would be the audience before deciding whether to let it stand.

But this much is indisputable. The form has been steadily gaining ground in spoken English for more than a century. There are now many people for whom snuck sounds natural and sneaked artificial. Whether snucked will eventually become the dominant form of the past tense in written English as well, I can’t tell you. Probably no one else can with assurance. But it is not going away, and decisions about its use are purely judgments of taste and style rather than determinations of what is right or wrong grammatically. This is how language works.

*Actually, as an editor, I wouldn’t dream of rewording any direct quotation.

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 1:00 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

I tend to agree with you about the word "snuck" being something that doesn't fit my taste in words. But then I realize that I use the term "snuck out" occasionally to describe what youngsters do when their parents think they are asleep. Somehow, it seems better in that context than in others.

It's unlikely that "snucked" will become the dominant form, but "snuck" apparently already has. I refer you to Language Log for numbers.

Weak verbs becoming strong are unusual, but it does happen. "Cost" and "quit", for instance (in at least some of their meanings); "dive" for Americans; "put" and "wear" and "dig" and "fling".

Count me among that upstart young generation that uses "snuck." And I'm not even ashamed to admit that I think "sneaked" sounds maybe just a little stilted or archaic.

Ridger: I believe that "cost," "quit," and "put" would still be considered weak nouns, not strong, since strong nouns employ vowel changes. Those are just weak nouns whose suffixes have assimilated to the stems.

I like snuck. But I have a question. What about "shat" as the past tense of, well you know what. And I'm aware that that is also slang or a "bad" word. But cursing is becoming more acceptable to I think. After all even VP's like Biden consider it not to be a big f**ckin deal to use some curse words to describe something that is a big f**kin deal. Personally I find the idea of a "bad word" kind of silly when thinking of the word on it's own. I think words are bad when they are used with the intention to hurt someone. I can stub my word and say a random curse word, but it's different if I say "You are a _____" with the same random curse word. Anyway, I'm aware this is a bit off topic, but the word snuck for some reason immediately made me think of "shat" which is usually used as a joke, but for some reason it sounds to me as if it should be a real word. I wonder why I get that feeling?

God, I need an editor. I wish there was an edit button so I wouldn't have to be embarrassed.

So here are my edits

cursing is becoming more acceptable I think

I can stub my toe . . .

Though the thought of stubbing my word might be kind of funny in it's own right

When I read the word snuck, I hear it in Gomer Pyle's Voice and twang - or, perhaps, his cousin Goober's - and picture the speaker standing in Hee Haw cornfields saying, Ah snuuuuck up on that thar Revenoooor!

I, too, am of the generation that finds "snuck" more natural than "sneaked". In fact, odd though this may sound, "sneaked" is the one that sounds uneducated to me (which probably calls into question the quality of my supposed education).

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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