On snuck and sneaked

Mesthrie et al. write on p. 23 of their book Introducing Sociolinguistics (2nd ed., 2009, Edinburgh University Press, that different verb forms are regarded as standard in the UK than in the US. One example they is give is snuck/sneaked, on which they remark that as a participle snuck is common “in parts of the USA against sneaked in Britain”.

Checking this against the data found in the 100 million-word British National Corpus would seem to confirm this for British English at least: there are only 11 instances of snuck as against 132 for sneaked (though I didn’t separate the data for past tense or past participle).

Sneak is a usage item in British usage guides. At least, I found an entry for it in the Longman Guide to English Usage (Greenbaum and Whitcut, 1988), which states quite categorically:

The past tense and participle are sneaked. The past tense is snuck in American English only, and is nonstandard or jocular (p. 659).

Do you agree with this? Has usage changed, perhaps, since the late 1980s? And what about American usage guides?

One immediate comment that came in just now deserves to be quoted at length. The comment comes from Matthijs Smits, who recently completed his MA thesis at Leiden, called “’Garnering’ Respect? The Emergence of Authoritty in the American Grammatical Tradition”:

Using information from the online 450 million Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), I found that snuck has actually become increasingly popular over the last 20 years (1990-2012). A well-established usage guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009), states that “snuck” is nonstandard and occurs “half as often” as “sneaked” in writing. The COCA results show that “snuck” is far more common in speech than “sneaked”. In writing, COCA shows that the NEWSPAPERS category contains more entries for “sneaked”, although the FICTION and ACADEMIC categories are very close. Thus, I think usage has certainly changed regarding sneak and snuck (with snuck becoming more acceptable over time).

Also, the issue was once debated during Conan O’Brien’s talkshow, when actress Jennifer Garner (unrelated to Bryan Garner) chastised O’Brien, stating that “snuck isn’t even a word”.

Many thanks for this, Matthijs!

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3 Responses to On snuck and sneaked

  1. Matthijs Smits says:

    Using information from the online Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), I found that snuck has actually become increasingly popular over the last 20 years (1990-2012). A well-established usage guide, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd ed., 2009), states that “snuck” is nonstandard and occurs “half as often” as “sneaked” in writing. The COCA results show that “snuck” is far more common in speech than “sneaked”. In writing, COCA shows that the NEWSPAPERS category contains more entries for “sneaked”, although the FICTION and ACADEMIC categories are very close. Thus, I think usage has certainly changed regarding sneak and snuck (with snuck becoming more acceptable over time).

    Also, the issue was once debated during Conan O’Brien’s talkshow (link below), when Jennifer Garner (unrelated to Bryan Garner) chastised O’Brien, stating that “snuck isn’t even a word”.

    COCA searches:

    SNUCK – http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=17893390

    SNEAKED – http://corpus.byu.edu/coca/?c=coca&q=17893389

  2. When we wrote the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, we did a survey and found that our respondents overwhelmingly said snuck, so this is the entry we ended up with:

    sneak

    → verb ( past and past participle snuck or sneaked )
    1. intransitive & transitive [foll. by in, out, past, away, etc.] go quietly and secretly in the direction specified.
    2. transitive (informal) take or do something secretly, often without permission (snuck a chocolate from the box).
    ( There is a long tradition of objection to snuck, though it is in fact more common than sneaked in spoken English, fiction, and journalism, and is for many people the only form used. It may, however, be safer to use sneaked in formal writing.)

  3. In Macavoy says:

    I have lived in England for most of my life. The only people I have ever heard use “snuck” were US nationals. British English doesn’t recognise or use “snuck”, either formally or informally. Is this an attempt to sneak “snuck” into the UK?

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