Sneaked Versus Snuck & Past Tense Versus Past Participle

Driving back from the airport this weekend after our vacation, I put on an audio CD for the kids, one of the Horrid Henry stories. In part of the story, he was said to have “sneaked” into a room. Sneaked? Surely he “snuck” into the room, I thought. But then I lost confidence. Have I been saying “snuck” all these years by mistake?

To reassure myself, I quickly tried to think of other irregular verbs ending in -eak where I would do this. I couldn’t think of any. Instead, I thought of examples where I don’t do this. For example, I wouldn’t say:

  • cruck rather than creaked
  • fruck rather than freaked
  • wruck rather than wreaked

So how on earth did I come to believe that it was snuck rather than sneaked? AskOxford told me that I wasn’t alone and that it was an American form that has grown popular. Common Errors In English agreed but warned I’d be safer sticking with “sneaked.”

Random House’s The Mavens’ Word Of The Day left me most reassured about snuck. It wrote comprehensively about how usage had changed, how it is indeed unusual as a -eak verb to have a -uck form and why no one should feel “snuck” is non-standard for American English

Interestedly, Francesca Simon — who writes the Horrid Henry books — is an American who grew up in California (like me) who lives in the UK (like me). So why didn’t she use “snuck” rather than “sneaked?” No idea, but since her British books use British spellings, I’m guessing “sneaked” won out over here.

While discovering why I use “snuck,” I also learned it was both a past tense and past participle for sneak. And what was the difference between “past tense” and “past participle” again?

Yeah, here I am an English major asking about this. Cut me some slack. English majors don’t take lessons in grammar. You know how we relearn grammatical forms we’ve long forgotten since elementary school? We study a foreign language! That’s why I have on my shelf my trusty copy of English Grammar For Students Of German.

Rather than reach for that, however, I first did a little web searching. A lot of what I found explained how a past participle was formed but not what it was in terms of when you use it.

In other words, plenty of pages told me that a past participle is usually a verb with -ed added as a suffix, except for irregular verbs. Great, but what’s the difference between that and the past tense in terms of usage, not in terms of how you make the verb form?

OK, this page had a good definition of past tense: an action that was both started and finished in the past. The verb form to show this usually ends in -ed, so:

  • The race ended.
  • The car stalled.

What about the past participle? That same page indirectly explains this is a verb form usually ending in -ed and with a helper or auxiliary verb that is used to represent the various perfect tenses, such as:

  • Present Perfect Tense: An action that happened in the past at an indefinite time or began in the past and continues into the present.
    • The race has ended.
  • Past Perfect Tense: An action that happened in the past before another past action.
    • The race had ended, and the awards were given out.
  • Future Perfect Tense: An action in the future that will happen before another future action.
    • The race will have ended before the awards will be given out.

So to bring it back to sneak, if you consider it to be a regular verb, you use -ed as the suffix for the past tense and the -ed suffix with a helper verb to make the past participle form used for the perfect tenses. Examples show it better:

  • He sneaked into the room. (past tense)
  • He has sneaked into the room. (present perfect tense)
  • He had sneaked into the room, and then he was caught. (past perfect tense)
  • He will have sneaked into the room, before stealing the money. (present perfect tense)

If you are like me and prefer to treat sneaked as a irregular verb, then forget that -ed suffix and use snuck:

  • He snuck into the room. (past tense)
  • He has snuck into the room. (present perfect tense)
  • He had snuck into the room, and then he was caught. (past perfect tense)
  • He will have snuck into the room, before stealing the money. (present perfect tense)

Isn’t grammar fun? No doubt, if I’ve got it wrong, folks will leave comments below.

From below, a video of Conan O’Brien smacking Jennifer Garner down as she tries to correct him from saying snuck:

Postscript 2: Grammar Girl has a video up (sorry, it doesn’t allow embedding) that says it’s sneaked over snuck, if you want to be proper.