When I was editing a new Discussion Starters lesson on Solitary Confinement the other day, I came across a note from our creative director, Robyn: hanged or hung? Her friends had recently had an argument about hanged vs. hung, and she was curious if we had chosen the correct word. As I have heard both past forms used often, I assumed it was one of those irregular verbs where both choices were acceptable, like dreamed/dreamt. However, I discovered that the issue of hanged and hung has been hotly debated since the 17th century! Which is the correct simple past/past participle form? What’s the difference between the two words? What is the safest choice, and what should we teach our students?
Use the verb forms hang – hanged – hanged when the meaning is to die by hanging (usually from a rope around one’s neck with no support under one’s feet).
- The murderer was sentenced to be hanged next Thursday.
- The gang leader hanged for his crimes.
Use the verb forms hang – hung – hung for all other meanings of hang, such as to put or attach something somewhere, or in other idioms and expressions.
- I hung the dress back in my closet.
- The artwork was hung in the gallery by the artist himself.
- Her new diamond necklace hung around her neck.
- She hung her head in shame.
- He really hung her out to dry when he left her and the baby.
Hanged and hung come by their different past forms honestly—they stem from two different Old English verbs! Over time, they became interchangeable. Eventually, though, hung became the more popular choice in all instances except for the meaning of “execute by hanging.”
It is important to note that, according to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, both hanged and hung can be used to describe the action of death by hanging. Using hung in this instance is not a mistake, and Merriam-Webster cites many examples from literature to prove it. However, Merriam-Webster does note that hanged is much more commonly used (and is also the common legal term) for this meaning.
My advice is to teach our students to use hanged for the death by hanging meaning and hung for all other instances. It’s an easy rule to remember, and this is the most commonly accepted usage for these two words.
See these words in context in our new Solitary Confinement Discussion Starters lesson.
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