Snuck or Sneaked?

Which is correct – snuck or sneaked? That choice – once firmly settled in favor of sneaked – is once again up for grabs.

I just finished reading a fascinating book about polygamy: Stolen Innocence by Elissa Wall (ghost-written by Lisa Pulitzer). Wall was married, against her will, at the age of fourteen at the command of Warren Jeffs, self-proclaimed “prophet” of the polygamous FLDS sect (now serving multiple sentences for forcing underage marriages and other crimes).

The book is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at life in a polygamous community. It veers back-and-forth between normalcy (school, friends, family celebrations) and shock (the types of control inflicted on members of the sect). I thought that Lisa Pulitzer did an excellent job of turning Elissa Wall’s  harrowing story into a book.

But then there’s snuck, which showed up in the book multiple times. Language experts call it “an informal variant” of sneaked (which is preferred in formal writing). You could argue that an uneducated girl like Elissa Wall would naturally use snuck (the sect did not permit her to finish high school). Valid argument. But all the other writing is formal, right down to lots of semicolons and conjunctive adverbs. All those snucks seemed jarring and out of place.

When to use snuck? It’s one of those unsolvable problems (like why the Mona Lisa is smiling).  I view it as a jokey, informal word, a step or two above ain’t (a word I use myself when I’m kidding around). Garrison Keillor uses snuck in his Lake Woebegone stories.

But in a serious book like Elissa Wall’s I would have used sneaked (unless I was writing dialogue, where snuck would help make the conversation sound natural and real. Hard to do, by the way).

In 50 years snuck will probably have become an accepted alternative to sneaked. Right now, though, we’re in transition time. I would (and will) stick to sneaked.

It’s common to view this kind of evolution as an example of the deterioration of our language. Nonsense. It’s a natural process, and we’re not losing anything. In the meantime, however, we need to be careful.

Good writers are very sensitive to these time-will-tell issues. If you’re too slow to adopt a change, you sound stodgy and old-fashioned. If you’re slightly ahead of the pack, you risk sounding careless. And so we tap-dance through the dictionary, hoping we’re making the right choices. It’s part of the fascination of language.

Stolen Innocence

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