X v Y: Honey, we shrunk our past tenses

In Glosso’s series “X v Y” we’re looking at words that are commonly muddled up, or used interchangeably by design or by mistake. Here we look at shrunk vs. shrank.

When  William Safire, the late writer and popular language columnist, published a statement that a particular verb had enjoyed its proverbial time in the sun “until the usage of this older verb shrunk to the very occasional”, grammar police everywhere raised their eyebrows and shook their fists, asking why such an authoritative voice should have bowed to the colloquial (and now almost universal) use of shrink‘s past participle (shrunk) instead of more correctly using shrank for its simple past tense. (Present: I shrink my kid; simple past: I shrank my kid; present/past/future perfect: I have/had/will have shrunk my kid.)

In his entertaining defense of his shrunken usage (see his 1995 article in the New York Times magazine below), Safire pointed to the famous movie hit of 1989 about shrinking children – which in itself spawned a whole franchise of sequels, theme-park rides and TV series, all with the same dodgy past participle in their names and titles – as both a reflection of and contributor to the ubiquitous colloquial use of shrunk instead of shrank in the simple past tense. But is this usage common in the case of other similar verbs? We don’t tend to do the same with the verb drink: After a long, hard night out, however bad our hangover, we still boast about how we drank ourselves under the table the night before. Perhaps it’s because we do more drinking than shrinking. The same goes for singing, and for sinking: we sang (never sung) on the table, and he sank his paycheck in the fourth round of beers.

Drink and sink have the added complication of their past participles – drunk and sunk – being used commonly as adjectives in any tense, the latter having an informal/slang meaning of being ruined or having one’s hopes dashed. So “we were drunk” and “we had drunk” carry two distinct and very different meanings, as do “we were sunk” and “we had sunk”, although the difference here is more subtle. (Furthermore, in both examples involving were, we could well be the object rather than the subject of the verb in a passive sentence – but that’s for another discussion …)

Here’s a final thought: how do non-native English-speakers ever work out that if we think now, and we did so yesterday, why didn’t we thank? For all we know, they’ve thunk that’s what thank means all along …


ON LANGUAGE; How ‘Shrunk’ Snuck In

Published: July 16, 1995

TRIVIALIZE HAD ITS MOMENT in the vogue-verb sun,” I wrote, “until the usage of this older verb shrunk to the very occasional.”

Louis Jay Herman, noted Gotcha! Gangster, objected: “Permit me to join the Uofallpeople Club, to upbraid you for shrunk. All usage manuals consider shrank the preferred or exclusive past tense of shrink, shrunk being the past participle.” Kerry Wood of Palo Alto, Calif., adds, “I never thunk you’d have done such a thing.”

For the irregular verbs shrink and sink, the simple past tense is “He shrank the material and sank the boat.” The past participle is the form of the verb used in the present perfect tense, which shows action completed at the time of speaking: “He has shrunk and has sunk.” Thus, the natural progression is shrink-shrank-shrunk, sink-sank-sunk.

At an embarrassing moment for the prosecution in the O. J. Simpson trial, Christopher Darden gulped, “The gloves appear to have shrank somewhat.” Incorrect; the past participle is shrunk or shrunken.

Shrink-shrank-shrunk is orderly enough; why, then, did Iofallpeople sink into using shrunk as the past tense? Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” did to shrank what Winston cigarettes did to as: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing. Mr. Herman dutifully objected to one and all about that Disney title (adding a note of praise for the well-placed comma).

In the past-tense dodge, usage is all. The learner of English, having mastered sink-sank-sunk and begin-began-begun and drink-drank-drunk, would assume fling-flang-flung and swing-swang-swung. But there ain’t no such animal as swang or flang, except in some far-out dialect; in those and other cases, the past tense hops over the expected word to the past participle.

“Shrunk is much less common as a past tense than shrank,” notes Fred Mish of Merriam-Webster, “but sunk has somewhat greater frequency of occurrence in relation to sank. These occurrences can be unsettling at times. A local sportswriter here likes to say of high-school athletes that they ‘shined in the contest’ instead of ‘shone.’ ”

In the face of the language’s weakness of grammatical discipline, what’s a poor usagist to do? Be a stiff. Make the new form work for its acceptance. Stick with shrank in the simple past, at least until the movie and its offspring — like the Heritage Foundation’s “Honey, I Shrunk the Tax Base!” — fade from memory, even if it snuck up on us and makes us feel like something the cat dragged (not drug) in.

Snuck up? “How did snuck ever sneak in?” asks Doris Asmundsson, professor emerita of English at Queensborough Community College in New York. (So that’s the feminine of emeritus.) “Words like creak, critique, eke, freak, leak and tweak do not, in the past tense, become cruck, crituck, uck, fruck, luck and twuck. Why then snuck? Eventually a sneaker might turn into a snucker.”

Evidently Charles M. Schulz, the cartoonist of “Peanuts,” agrees; Rerun says to Charlie Brown, “If you sneaked up behind him, you could hit him with a stick.” This is formal English.

On the ABC sitcom “Step by Step,” however, a teen-ager tells her parents, “I know I shouldn’t have snuck out.”

Here’s a perfect example of a usage that has crept (informally creeped) up on us. “He grubbed ten dollars from de bums and den snuck home” is the first print use cited in the CD-ROM O.E.D., in an 1887 edition of The New Orleans Lantern. The novelist James T. Farrell used it as the past participle in the first part of his Studs Lonigan trilogy, the 1932 “Young Lonigan”: “They had all snuck in and were having a good time, making trouble.” Raymond Chandler, the great mystery writer, used it in the simple past tense in his 1940 “Farewell, My Lovely”: “I snuck in there and grabbed it.”

The Random House Webster’s notes this in accepting the term as a standard variant: “Snuck occurs frequently in fiction, in journalism and on radio and television, whereas sneaked is more likely in highly formal or belletristic writing.”

John Algeo of American Speech goes further: “Snuck is now educated, standard use; sneaked is rare.” He notes that sneak has mysterious origins; it first appears in Shakespeare’s “Henry IV, Part 1”: “A poor unminded outlaw sneaking home.” Professor Algeo notes that the Old English verb snican meant “to crawl,” but that word would have become snike, not sneak, in Modern English; curiously, the past tense of snican would have become snuck.

Thus, we should hold off a few years before caving in to shrunk as a simple past tense; I’m sorry, it snuck up on me. Exclamatives

I’m a pop grammarian and word maven who makes no pretense of living in syntax. Every now and then one of my innocent pitches gets slammed out of the park by a heavy hitter in the field of linguistics. In this year’s Bloopie Awards, I noted the trend among advertising copywriters against using question marks at the end of interrogative sentences. One was “Isn’t It Great to Be in Luvs,” which seemed to me to call for a little squiggle with a dot under it at the end.

Wrong, I’m told. “That slogan is clearly an exclamative sentence and not an interrogative,” writes Prof. James D. McCawley of the University of Chicago’s linguistics department, author of the seminal “Syntactic Phenomena of English.”

“While two of the major exclamative patterns in English evolved through the adaptation of interrogative structures to exclamative uses,” Jim notes, losing me before he even gets to his sentence’s subject, “they now diverge from interrogatives both phonologically (the word with the primary stress, here, great, is pronounced with a fall in pitch, not the rise that an interrogative would normally have) and syntactically (the inverted exclamative, as in the Luvs example, allows a use of ever that doesn’t mean what ever in an interrogative means: Was I ever hungry! vs. Have you ever been arrested?). . . . If the Luvs copywriter had used the question mark that you demand, he/she would have thereby pinned an unwarranted and misleading badge of interrogativity on the sentence.”

I disagree; the Luvs ad asked for a response, if only “Yes!” But criticism from geniuses who could give short festschrift to Noam Chomsky doesn’t faze me; I am a synstrategist, not a syntactician.

McCawley’s insights are also accessible to the layman, however; after an observation about metaphoric inflation in a piece I wrote about “$40 words,” he conjectures, “The obsolescence of the expression ‘Dollars to doughnuts’ is partly due to the narrowing of the gap between $1 and the current price of a doughnut: it no longer is a bet with long odds.”


First posted Sep 2012.

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