Snuck vs. Sneaked

Q: 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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