Why do some verbs in English have two different ways of spelling the past and/or past participle forms? Forms such as Got Vs. Gotten, Learned Vs. Learnt, Laid Vs. Lain, and Hanged Vs. Hung differ because of region, meaning, or usage. What about the forms sneaked and snuck? The answer isn’t so simple!
To Sneak or Not to Sneak
The verb to sneak is…well…sneaky! No one knows exactly when or how this verb came into being. Shakespeare seems to have been the first person to record it in writing back in 1596 and again in 1605. Back then, the past and past participle forms were clearly sneaked, which gave us sneak–sneaked–sneaked (similar to leak–leaked–leaked).
It Snuck Up on Us
The origins of the past tense and past participle form snuck are equally mysterious. The first documented use was in America in 1902, and early usage suggests that it was a form used by the uneducated rural class. However, there are no other verbs with the endings -eak or -eek that take -uck as the past form, so it’s strange that snuck even exists at all.
From its infrequent and underprivileged roots, snuck started being used much more frequently in the US and Canada in the 1950s. Nowadays, sneaked and snuck are almost considered equals in terms of frequency and status in North America. Snuck is less commonly used in the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, though there is evidence that it is sneaking its way into the lexicon in these countries as well. Merriam-Webster Online has this to say about its usage:
From its earliest appearance in print in the late 19th century as a dialectal and probably uneducated form, the past and past participle snuck has risen to the status of standard and to approximate equality with sneaked. It is most common in the U.S. and Canada but has also been spotted in British and Australian English.
- Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Merriam-Webster, Incorporated, 1994.
- Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Oxford University Press, Fourth Edition, 2015.
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