Snuck vs. Sneaked

snuck vs sneakedQ: I say “snuck” all the time (as in, “I snuck some cookies before dinner”), but my grandma is always telling me “snuck” isn’t a word and I should be saying “sneaked.” I’ve never heard anyone (other than her) use the word “sneaked.” Is she right? –Anonymous

“Sneaked” versus “snuck” is one of those classic grammarian conundrums that you’ll hear word enthusiasts debate all the time. Many people (including my sister) will say “snuck” without even slight hesitation, while supporters of “sneaked” (like me) will adamantly throw red flags on them, calling them out for improper use of our fine English language. But do we who say “sneaked” really have a case against the “snuck-ers” of the world?

Twenty years ago, maybe. Today, probably not.

“Sneaked” is the standard past tense and past participle form of “sneak.” Last night I sneaked into the movie theater. Unfortunately, the ticket taker sneaked in right behind me and tossed me out on my rear. What this means is that “sneaked” has always been accepted as the past tense of “sneak.” So if you use it, you will be abiding by the long-time language rules preached by most of our high school English teachers.

Of course, the rules of the English language are always evolving, and “snuck” has sneaked its way into our American lexicon. It’s considered the nonstandard past tense—basically meaning that “sneaked” is the preferred word-choice, but “snuck” is also acceptable. (English teachers across the nation just united against me—though if any start a “We Support Sneaked” Facebook page, I promise I’ll join.) I snuck into the meeting a few minutes late hoping no one would notice. The next week, my boss snuck a few dollars out of my paycheck. Even Merriam-Webster, who calls itself “America’s foremost publisher of language-related reference works,” doesn’t make the distinction in its online definition and fully recognizes “snuck” as a past tense and past participle of “sneak.”

In another 10-to-20 years, “snuck” may even become the preferred past tense form of “sneak”—who knows? But until then I suggest using “sneaked.” It will not only make you sound smarter, but it’ll also keep the English teachers from hunting me down like a movie-theater ticket-taker.


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31 thoughts on “Snuck vs. Sneaked

  1. Old Man Emu

    Snuck may be acceptable in the US, but not in countries where English is spoken. Next thing we know, “drug” will become an acceptable alternative to “dragged”!

  2. linker

    I remember in the sixth grade once a student used the word snuck and our teacher quickly pointed out that snuck was not a legitimate word but was instead a slang word and not to be used when speaking proper English. I realize these days that many words are either over used or used incorrectly even by those in the media that should be educated and know better. Two words that come to mind immediately are issues and totally. In answer to the question, your grandmother was correct, if you want to speak correctly use sneaked. I am surprised at the number of people that question the use of sneaked and actually think snuck is correct. Our education system isn’t what it used to be.

    1. xmccormick

      It seems you didn’t pay very close attention when reading this article. The education system literally is not what it used to be since it is evolving, as was pointed out. Merriam-Webster is an authoritative source for information, but I can’t say the same about a random person on the internet.

  3. mikepascale

    Thanks to Brian for the article.

    For me, it’s quite an easy choice.

    Use the “correct” version for third-person narration/editorial, and either of the versions for dialog. As seen from the comments, different people use different terms, so the same should apply to our characters. Having all characters use the same term would be unrealistic and false.

    I use the same philosophy with similar “vs.” terms, such as dived/dove, drank/drunk and so on. Not everyone speaks “correctly” or the same, and our dialog should always reflect that…even if it’s abrasive to our own preferences!


  4. Okieauthor

    I would use snuck. Another topic to debate, as mentioned by another person on this forum, is “lit” vs. “lighted.” Steinbeck used lighted; it seems weird.

  5. foxtracks

    Though I’m hardly an expert, the difference between using an ablaut versus adding an “ed” is determined by etymology. Proto-Germanic “*sneikanan” gives us sneak by way of Anglo-Saxon, which like many Germanic languages has two classes of verb: weak (ed) and strong (ablaut). My theory is that the more common verbs tend to be strong. We English speakers intuitively understand ablaut patterns, and can apply them to weak verbs with little difficulty, and little loss of clarity. Languages like English have a high degree of irregularity, and without continuous reform to stabilize them, we end up having discussions about whether or not sneak is a weak or strong verb. Any Proto-Germanic or Anglo-Saxon scholars out there who can shed some light on sneak for us?

    1. PolishMartian

      I agree with your theory that common verbs – and also nouns and adjectives built on verbs and nouns – tend to be strong. I believe that most linguists feel that way these days. or at least they used to. I wouldn’t consider sneak to be a common enough word to be a strong verb and have retained ablaut, so that’s why for many years it’s had a weak verb ending. However, if the word becomes more common in English speech, then speakers who intuitively understand ablaut might be forcing sneak from a weak verb to a strong verb. I’m not sure if the historical or etymological scholars could shed any light on this common phenomenon unless sneak used to be a strong verb, then changed to weak, now apparently back to strong. Sometimes strong vs. weak is in the mind of the speaker, which explains a number of alternate past tenses and past participles both considered correct by many sources.

  6. angle-on-writing

    One of the more interesting discussions I’ve seen on here. I’ve always wondered about some of these. Like what’s the difference between ‘lit’ and ‘lighted’? A friend once got in a heated discussion with her editor about ‘ground’ v. ‘grinded’.

  7. roadwarriorcal

    I just like the sound of “snuck”. I don’t think I’ve ever used “sneaked” in a sentence. That probably comes from upbringing, though, because everyone used “snuck” where I came from.

  8. TWMidwife

    Thanks for this . . . and if you don’t mind a correction . . .


    I believe that your hyphens are incorrect (and not merely unnecessary). “In another 10 to 20 years,” is how it should be written. Perhaps you were thinking of a construction such as, “A 10-to-20-year effort will be required to complete the project.”

    Correct me if I’M wrong!

    The Writer’s Midwife

  9. Jazukai

    Using “sneaked” doesn’t work in general, but if you combine them, it’s less noticeable.
    “Last night I snuck into the movie theater. Unfortunately, the ticket taker sneaked in behind me and tossed me out.”

    1. WriteMurikan

      In order to be less repetitious, yes. My instinct would be to use sneaked first then snuck, it sounds better to my ear.
      In anticipation that I have probably stumbled into the proverbial Nuremberg of grammar Nazis I am sure mine is horrific to the educated soul.

  10. derp

    i was taught in school that internally modifying the structure of verbs based on tense are from the germanic part of english, ie – drive v. drove, sneak v. snuck . where as the “ed” suffix fro showing tense is form the romantic or latin side of english, ie – sneak v. sneaked, play v. played and words like good, better, best v. good, gooder, goodest. Both are technically correct but can sound odd based on regional dialects. Also over time english has tended toward the “ed” suffix with the germanic style slowly falling out of favor.

    1. PolishMartian

      No, actually the internal vowel changes (ablaut) of both verbs and nouns is from the German part of English and so is the “normal ending” in theory, because German has the same changes and rules as English. However, the “ed” weak verb suffix could come from the German “t” suffix or the French and Latin “é” or “atus” suffix for first conjugation verbs. But we have other English strong verbs that end in “t” or “en” similar to those of German, with no French or Latin correspondence. Most plural English nouns, the weak or regular ones (some not really weak because they’re common nouns) end in “s” just as in French, but some strong or irregular ones (often strong because they are common nouns) have endings more similar to German. At one time good, gooder, goodest might have been acceptable in English, but now it’s good, better, best for the adjective and well, better, best for the adverb. Compare German gut, besser, best for the adjective and gut, besser, am besten for the adverb. The Germanic style is not falling out of favor if sneaked can sneak back to snuck rather than sneaked. Some verbs wants to standardize with the “ed” ending, but many still won’t. Most of the direct French and Latin influence on English has ended and English has far greater influence on French and other languages than they do on us. Just check out new technological terms in other languages, including French and Spanish, German and Dutch, Polish and Russian, etc. English is a West Germanic language and will keep being one for a long time, despite all the historical mingling with French and Latin and borrowings from Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, Hawaiian, Polynesian languages, etc.

    1. PolishMartian

      Snucked? I didn’t see that word in Brian’s text anywhere, unless he edited it out since May 2013. That would be overkill on past tense, a double past tense indicator of ablaut plus ending. That would’ve been funny.

  11. CharlieRoop

    Obviously written by a youngster. :)

    Growing up (60s and 70s) snuck was always used. As in: I snuck in; you snuck in; but WE sneaked in.

    Of course, I don’t like or use sneaked. Just like I don’t like pleaded. It was always Pled. as in he pled guilty. Not, he pleaded guilty. But language evolves as do people.

    1. It Makes Me Crazy

      I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s, too, and we Never said “snuck.” The only times I ever heard “snuck” being used were in movies to depict a country bumpkin or someone lacking any intellect. Oh, by the way, “pled” is incorrect, as well. I’m afraid that what you perceive as ‘language evolving’ is really America getting dumber and dumber.

      1. Grimm

        This comment may be a couple of months old but it really bothered me. Language does evolve and it evolves quickly. Words that have started as ‘slang’ on the internet are now accepted as general use and some even make it into the oxford dictionary.

        Does something as simple as changing the structure of verbs be seen as people getting dumber? I disagree. Five hundred years ago or so you would be saying thou, cometh and dost. Does that mean that we have gotten dumber since then. No, our use of language evolved. Culture can also change the way that words are used, for example there is now an recognised difference between English and American English. Are you saying that Americans are not as intelligent?

        This was a tad bit longer then I wanted it to be. XD Still I hope I got my point across, even if its a tad late.

      2. Samuel Croodle

        Oh, really? Can you point in the direction of some of these “films”?

        As far as usage goes, I’ve generally seen “sneaked” more in favor with the uneducated hicks as it seemed to be the go-to form for Floridians whereas I more often ran into “snuck” while in the better-educated New England.

        Beyond that, the German rules predate the Latin ones. As such, the tendency for using “-ed” is the newer trend and thus represents your “dumbing down” of the language… albeit the crime in question took place over a hundred years ago.

  12. jotokai

    I think the word snuck into the language.
    I also doubt that I’ve ever heard or seen ‘sneaked’ elsewhere, and more to the point, if I have to admit it, I think I will have “employed stealth” or “performed clandestine operations.”

    But that’s just my opinion at the moment- I am notorious for change on points like this.

  13. Davy

    WTS?!? Snuck? Most tense forms follow rules The past tense of words ending in eak is eaked. What’s the past tense of sneak? What’s the past tense of peak? What’s the past tense of leak? What’s the past tense of creak? What’s the past tense of freak (as in freak out)? Exceptions include speak (spoke). But sneak is not (or should not be) an exception.

    1. PolishMartian

      I can tell that Brian took some of your criticisms to heart and edited some of his mistakes long before I read this, because he changed (like my sister) to (including my sister), thus bypassing the “like” vs. “such as” problem. Darn! I missed the good stuff.

  14. Leigh Ann

    >> "Of course, the rules of the English language are always evolving, and ‘snuck’ has sneaked its way into our American lexicon."

    Clever. :-) Thanks for the interesting article–and the fair treatment of both sides.