Monday, June 12, 2006

A change has 'snuck' into the language

The verb sneak, which arose from rather obscure origins, was first recorded in the works of William Shakespeare; and, from the time the Bard wrote of "a poore unminded Out-law, sneaking home" (1596) through the latter part of the nineteenth century, the verb took--uncontestedly--a regular form. Since the late 1800s, however, a new past tense form has arisen to contest the dominance of the original, "proper" form--and today it seems to be all but dominant.

The form in question, snuck, is a home-grown American form that first arose in dialectal speech. As such, it is not surprising that it was first recorded in renderings of the speech of rather lowly figures, such as bums and vagrants. Since its humble beginnings, however, this form has gone through several intermediate levels that reveal an edging toward respectability: in the 1930s, it began to be used jocularly by some standard speakers; in the 1950s it crept increasingly into casual standard speech and writing; and today it is used widely--"even," as Paul Brians notes in Common Errors in English Usage, "in sophisticated [American] writing."

A pair of quick Google searches bore this out (score: sneaked 1,700,000, snuck 3,500,000), revealing that--on the web at least--snuck is not only "respectable" but actually dominant. Nevertheless, the quality of much of the writing on the web is somewhat dubious, and there's nothing I consider less advisable for discerning writers than to parrot the usage of those less talented. I do concede, however, that many writers of quality use snuck at this point.

A good summary of the current situation of snuck in America, it seems to me, would read "standard but not proper"; in Britain, according to Burchfield's The New Fowler's (1996), it is neither. I'd be interested to hear from British respondents about the current situation across the Atlantic, since I gather things might have changed since then. As regards my view: I approve of snuck in American informal speech and writing, but I'm not willing to sanction its use in more formal contexts. If you're wearing blue-jeans and sneakers, snuck is fine; if you're wearing a tuxedo or gown, stick with sneaked.


Blogger Alexandra said...

Very interesting. It continues to surprise me how many words and phrases that sound correct are actually considered (or have been considered in the recent past) incorrect. I don't think I was ever told that sneaked was the correct past tense of sneak. In fact, it doesn't even sound right. I blame my public school education. I guess we're stuck with it now :)

3:00 PM  
Blogger MadisonMan said...

The problem with sneaked/snuck in spoken language is that snuck is so much easier to say. It fairly rolls off the tongue compared to sneaked. That long e followed by k and d is tough. If you grow up hearing 'snuck' all the time, it's easy to convince yourself that it's proper.

5:52 AM  
Blogger Cellanjie said...

I grew up in Texas and now reside in the hills of Appalachia. While watching FOXNEWS today, the following phrase scrolled across the screen, "Three of the suspects may have SNUCK across the border."

Even to someone such as myself, my eyes bugged at such a grammatical error. I am shocked that it is considered proper to use such a term.

11:46 AM  

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