Another Irregular Verb Sneaks Into Regular Usage

When I think the word “snuck” I always think of Huck Finn, partly because the word rhymes with “Huck” and partly because he did so much sneaking around.

But I was surprised to find that “snuck” actually never occurs in the text of Twain’s novel though “sneaked” does.

From Chapter 30 of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:
So the king sneaked into the wigwam and took to his bottle for comfort, and before long the duke tackled his bottle; and so in about a half an hour they was as thick as thieves again, and the tighter they got the lovinger they got, and went off a-snoring in each other's arms. 
From Chapter 30 of Tom Sawyer, Huck speaking:
I wanted to see what was up—they sneaked along so. 
I’m not the only one that misremembers Twain: sayings are often attributed to him that he actually never uttered.

“Snuck” used to be considered slangy and there is a report of an early word processor rejecting as a “non-word,” but it has largely replaced “sneaked” even in the vocabulary of sophisticated speakers. I hear it used frequently by National Public Radio reporters. Although I still recommend “sneaked” in formal contexts and most dictionaries label the other spelling “informal” it will rarely cause raised eyebrows.

The results of a quick-and-dirty Google search:
sneaked:  1,170,000 hits
snuck:      2,540,000 hits 

In Google Books:
sneaked: 752,000 hits
snuck:     401,000 hits
Of course Google Books contains many more older texts, so it’s biased toward “sneaked,” but “snuck” still makes an impressive showing.

Most of the time words which have changed their spelling in the past tense from irregular (“strong”) forms to regular (“weak”) ones ending in “-ed.” Since the Anglo-Saxon period the number of strong verbs has shrunk by two-thirds. “Holpen” became “helped,” “raught” became “reached,” and “swole” became “swelled.”

But there are other exceptions to this pattern: “digged” became “dug,” “dived” has largely been replaced by “dove,”  and “stringed” became “strung.”

I was helped in researching this topic by an excellent discussion of “sneaked” vs. “snuck” on the English Language & Usage Stack Exchange.


Peter Belenky said...

Although I tend to adopt a highly prescriptive attitude toward grammar, It's becoming more difficult. I found in "Bloomsbury Grammar Guide: Grammar Made Easy" by Gordon Jarvie, "...there has been a tendency over the years for certain strong verbs to become weak (e.g. thrive is listed below as following the same pattern as drive, but as well as thrive/throve/thriven, the weak thrive/thrived/thrived version is also used nowadays, especially by Americans)." "MU/13A-English Spelling for EFL Students" by Paula López Rua says, however, ",,,the verb thrive is regular (thrive, thrived, thrived) in BrE but irregular (thrive, throve, thriven) in AmE..." So which version has historical priority and which has national credentials? The sources are contradictory.

Paul Brians said...

When the British say one thing and Americans another, we're both right—in our homelands. I wouldn't presume to tell someone from the UK not to use the spelling "colour."

However, they have begun to abandon "gaol" for our "jail."

"Correct" English doesn't exist separate from the linguistic communities that use it.