“Snuck” vs. “Sneaked”: Which One Is Correct?

Sneak is one tricky word—sneaky, you might say. It started out as a regular verb. You know the type: adhering to the rules, using regular verb endings … but then took a detour (in the last 100 years or so) into irregular verb territory. It’s odd to say the least.

But what does this all mean?

Is the verb sneaked correct?

Like leaked as the past tense of leak, sneaked is the past tense and past participle for sneak, which means “to move in a stealthy or furtive manner.”

Leak and sneak are both regular verbs, meaning they follow the set rules for forming their tenses. The past tense is formed by simply adding the suffix -ed. And so you’d say:

  • The water leaked out of the bucket all over the floor before I finished mopping.
  • The teenagers sneaked out of the house after dark.

So yes, sneaked is correct. (Though your own sneaking around may not be.)

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Is the verb snuck correct?

Strangely enough, sneak is one example of a regular verb becoming irregular over time. And it may well be the only one that follows this pattern!

Used as early as the late 1800s, snuck is also used as the past tense of sneaked. Snuck is formed by removing several letters of the original verb sneak and adding an irregular ending -uck. 

Other irregular verbs include to beget, and take. Their past tenses do not follow a pattern. For example, their past tenses would be used as follows:

  • I was tired so I slept most of the morning. (Was is the past tense of am.)
  • Sandra got two loaves of bread at the store. (Got is the past tense of get.)
  • We took some freshly baked cookies to our next-door neighbor. (Took is the past tense of take.)

There is no precedent for treating sneak irregularly, as it’s not, as you’ve already seen, originally an irregular verb. But snuck has also become a standard variant past tense and past participle of the verb sneak. 

So how did this strange form sneak into standard English? Writing in 1995 in the New York Times, language maven William Safire explores how colloquial usage slowly standardizes by examining how shrunk overtook shrank as the preferred past tense of the verb shrink. He pinpoints the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids as pushing the use of shrank into obscurity in favor of the past participle shrunk for the simple past tense. He also discusses—and uses—snuck as the past tense form of sneak, calling it a “perfect example of a usage that has crept (informally creeped) up on us.”

Should you use sneaked or snuck?

Though some grammarians, particularly in Britain, still prefer sneaked, snuck has achieved widespread acceptance and usage in edited writing, including fiction and journalism. That means you can choose between them, and now, if you find yourself questioning which is correct, you’ll know it’s not necessarily a matter of impropriety, but of a verb that is treated as both a regular and irregular verb.

We know a good grammar debate can't sneak by you, like the correct use of "used to" vs. "use to."

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