The debate of sneaked or snuck has divided grammar enthusiasts for some time, particularly those who insist there can only be one correct choice.
One of my colleagues cringes every time he hears someone use the word snuck as the past tense of sneak. In the debate over sneaked or snuck, his preference is more than clear.
But it’s not as clear for many others, who as enthusiastically maintain snuck is fine.
The past tense of leak is leaked, not luck, but probably only because luck is its own word.
Grammarly, the grammar plugin I use on multiple browsers, addressed the issue on its blog:
Sneaked is the past tense of sneak when the verb is treated like a regular verb.
Snuck is the past tense of sneak when the verb is treated like an irregular verb.
Well that clears it right up, doesn’t it?
No, not for me, either.
The problem is, who gets to decide whether sneak is treated like a regular or an irregular verb? Grammarly points to a similar issue involving the verb dive, which can be expressed in past tense as dived or dove. Both are considered acceptable, although in that case, it seems dove has a little more acceptance than snuck.
Dictionary.com points out snuck was used as early as the late 1800s, and has become the “standard variant past tense and past participle” of sneak.
It does note, however, that particularly among the British, sneaked is still prefered. My co-worker isn’t British, but on this issue, he might as well be.
Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, points out the mystery of the construction:
Perhaps the most mysterious part of the story of snuck is the question of where it came from. No common verb follows the precise pattern of snuck: the past tense of leak is not luck, of streak is not struck, of creak is not cruck, of peek is not puck.
The form just showed up, it says, and the rest of us (mostly) just accepted it. Except for folks like my colleague.
Five years ago, Brian A. Klems, at Writer’s Digest, predicted that in another 10-20 years, most people would never raise an eyebrow to snuck, but recommended in the meantime that you should go with sneaked instead.
It’ll make you sound smarter, he said.
It’ll also keep folks like my co-worker from coming after you when you least expect it, I’d add.