Sneak, Snank, Snuck

by Aug 18, 2014Linguistics5 comments

I was recently informed by a well-meaning copy editor that my use of snuck was “incorrect” despite “being increasingly common.” Sneaked, she said, is the correct term.

My usage-determines-meaning alert fired immediately, of course. If something is “increasingly common,” it’s probably bidding fair to be “correct.” If a growing number of people are using “snuck,” by what standard may one say that they are “incorrect”? Is there an English dictionary enshrined among Plato’s forms?

As a professional writer, I have several options for responding to overzealous copy editors who have forgotten what the true standard of correct English is—namely, what educated English speakers in fact say.

  • Option 1: I can give up and regard snuck as a “skunked expression.” Even if I know there’s nothing truly wrong with snuck, I may decide that there are enough pedants in my audience to warrant avoiding snuck. If I use it, they’ll all think they’re justified in tsk-tsking me, and demoting me a few slots on their official list of People Who Know the Rules. I’d rather they get the point of whatever I’m writing than have them all miss it because they’re distracted by this supposed error.
  • Option 2: I can argue, pointing to evidence like that below from Google Ngram Viewer: “snuck” has been gaining a lot of ground on “sneaked.” This evidence will, of course, mean nothing to a pedant. It will only raise his or her alarm. Will no one ever learn to speak English correctly? Must we lose every correct word to the barbarians?
  • Option 3: I can gauge my own audience, in this case 12th grade kids born between the years 1998 and 2004 (my book should be out for six years before scheduled revision), and make a decision based on 1) their usage patterns as I hear them and 2) my team’s prior decision regarding the formality level of my book. As you might expect, this is the option I went for (supplemented by the information in option 2). As Steven Pinker put it in a great article I stumbled across today, “10 ‘Grammar Rules’ It’s OK to Break (Sometimes),”

    Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.

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  1. Austin

    This is some of the best sense I’ve heard made on the issue so far. I have become fond of the “‘registers of language” approach to which you first exposed me, a useful principle which I have employed successfully in other contexts as well. A new day has dawned – descriptivism has cross-over appeal! I am still a recovering pedant, but I have at least taken the blinders off enough to recognize that there are times when informal style is not incorrect grammar. Maybe it’s an issue of degrees – I’m unwilling to grant as much latitude to informal style before my own common-usage-too-often-corrupts-meaning alarm goes off. Some mistakes are still mistakes (corruptions) in any given register.

    • Mark Ward

      I’ve made some progress! =)

  2. Jeremy Patterson

    And so what happened to “snuck”?

  3. Mark Ward

    Ha! It stayed. My editor agreed with me against the copy editor. We have chosen a less formal style for the book.

  4. Dave

    Why am I not surprised to see this post the first time I look at your blog in like-forever.