The Strange History Of 'Sneaked' And 'Snuck'

English is supposed to get less weird over time, not more.
The Strange History Of 'Sneaked' And 'Snuck'

We asked readers their least favorite thing about traveling for the holidays. We received a wide variety of answers. Martha C. said, "People." Kurt W. said, "People." Crystal H. said, "People," while James F. Michael H, and Dwardo L. all said, "PEOPLE." Graham H., on the other hand, said, "Other people."

Some readers offered different answers, however. Fred F. said, "Traveling." Tim K said, "Traveling." John K. said, "Traveling," Edwin O. said, "Traveling," and Dwight C. said, "Traveling, lol." Aimee M. and Alan K. said, "Traveling." Brendan D. and Jim D. said the worst part about traveling for the holidays is "Traveling for the holidays." "Having to travel for the holidays," said Robyn M., while Michael R. said, "Traveling for the holidays."

Okay, so this topic didn't excite many people. That's on us. So, instead of talking about travel, let's move on to something that does interest readers: grammar.

Seriously. Recently we talked about how An Injured Teen Sneaked Back Into WW1 By Cross-Dressing As A Nurse At A Dance and A Woman Sneaked Her Boyfriend Out Of Prison In A Dog Crate. Both times, readers wrote to us, saying that "sneaked" is not a word—the word we were looking for is "snuck." Now, if any of you want to use the word "snuck," that's fine with us. But if we used it, rest assured that we'd have people writing to us saying that "snuck" is not a word—the word we're looking for is "sneaked." 

Sneaked is correct; all dictionaries and grammarians agree on that. Snuck has also become acceptable. For the first few centuries that sneak was a word, the sole past or past participle form was sneaked, and then snuck cropped up at the end of the 19th century. Merriam-Webster describes snuck as originally a "dialectal and probably uneducated form" of sneaked

It's surprising that snuck gained popularity over the years. Snuck makes sneak an irregular verb, and while English has lots of irregular verbs, it nearly always evolves the opposite way: Irregular verbs gain regular forms, which eventually edge out the irregular form. That's because people (including those supposedly uneducated ones who first came up with snuck) find regular forms easier. 

If someone doesn't know what's correct, there's no obvious reason they'd gravitate toward snuck instead of sneaked. They can't be confusing it with some other word similar to sneak that takes a past tense of -uck, since none exist. Though, we can think of some similar words like stink and sink that have past participles with that form. 

In the following 2003 clip, Jennifer Garner uses sneaked, then Conan uses snuck, in what might have sounded to her like him wrongly correcting her. "Snuck isn't a word, Conan," she next says, "and you went to Harvard and you should know that." As recently as a decade ago, colleges did teach that snuck isn't a word. 

Conan concedes this, but someone later hands him a dictionary, and he triumphantly points to an entry for snuck.

Looks like Conan won the round after all. Though, if the pair wanted to argue further, Jennifer could have said that dictionaries are descriptive not prescriptive, and just because a dictionary records a certain usage doesn't mean it's right. As proof, look no further than literally. The dictionary currently states the second definition of the word as "is not literally true." 

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For more word stuff, check out:

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Top image: NBC

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