The Daily

Letter from Our Southern Editor

Snuck Redux

June 17, 2010 | by

Dear Lorin,

I'm told a publication calling itself The Awl has blogged about our use of snuck for sneaked, calling out the whole Paris Review masthead for this “transgression of English.”

Transgression against English, they undoubtedly mean. If English had been transgressed by us, we would have stepped across it and begun writing in a foreign language. However solid an ambition that remains, no one will accuse us of it here. I suppose there's no pausing to get basic prepositions correct when you're on your way to obsessing over arcane questions of the irregular preterit. But let's not be pedantic.

Actually, let's be pedantic as hell. It ought to go against any writer's grain when people try to pass off schoolmarmish grammarianism as a concern for style. Style is about getting the maximum effect out of words, eliminating unwanted ambiguities, and writing in such a way that readers see things better—in short, it's about meaning. Grammarianism, which is to say, an out-of-control prescriptivism, is about doing things “the right way,” or more often, about giving others grief for not having done so.

I'm not an antiprescriptivist. Trying to keep your mother tongue honest is noble and even necessary. But a person needs to be objecting to a word on some grounds—that it's inexact or obscure, that it's confusing or unbeautiful. What is The Awl's problem with snuck? As far as one can tell, somebody told them at some point that it was preferable to use sneaked. Why, though? We've been saying and writing snuck for at least a hundred and twenty-five years now, in high and low contexts. Everybody knows exactly what it means. Indeed, a big-deal British linguist has theorized that the reason snuck emerged as a form to begin with is that it sounds more like what it says. It's shorter, faster, more final—it's sneakier. To my ear, sneaked has lost the war, and even smells a bit of the lamp.

Admittedly, I come from a place where people still say y'uns (oldest surviving usage of ye, according to some scholars), which may disqualify me from pronouncing on such matters.

I wish The Awl the joy of its style sheet, and strongly urge the excellent Mr. Cox and the rest of you to stick to your guns.

Devotedly,
JJS

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9 Comments

  1. Dawn | June 17, 2010 at 11:19 pm

    I’m glad you posted on this! I’ve been wondering about snuck vs. sneaked for a long time and am pleased to read someone weighing on the matter.

  2. Jules | June 18, 2010 at 4:48 am

    I say “snuck” but I write “sneaked”–writing “snuck” just seems wrong for some inexplicable reason. But then again, I also refused to use the word “while” for a few months, some years ago, when it bothered me for a reason I can’t remember any more.

  3. Harry | June 18, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Amen! All too often prescriptivists are more interested in yelling “gotcha” than in contributing anything positive.

  4. Drew | June 18, 2010 at 10:51 am

    Ah, good. Go forth and thump those grammarians. They have been begging to be thumped. They seem to desire nothing so much as a throw-down in which they make the case that English grammar must be forever frozen in the 1950s–or whenever the beloved, dog-eared copy of their style guide was last printed. Their fear is palpable and their prose is thin stuff.

  5. iplaudius augustus | June 18, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Perhaps this was one way for the Awl to draw the attention of Paris Review readers?

    Many English speakers hear sneak as a strong verb. Are there other examples of “new” strong verbs in Modern English invented from old patterns?

  6. Mark D. Meadows | June 18, 2010 at 7:36 pm

    In all other fields of knowledge, the most learned and erudite set the standard. In English, the most ignorant and uniformed set the standard. If enough ungrammatical people say “healthy” instead of “healthful” or “snuck” instead of “sneaked,” the erroneous usage will eventually be acceptable.

  7. Steven Augustine | June 19, 2010 at 6:18 am

    The lingually fusty among us probably can’t bear the fact that language does not radiate/descend from a central point or peak and that common usage is a balance-restoring counter-force to elite proscription in determining what is “correct” in any given place at any given time in any given dialect. What Anal Amateur Grammarians often lack is an ear for beauty or a sensitivity to the demands of situation-appropriate register; I’m reminded of the molecular biologist who was a lousy effing cook.

    As I always say: language is a fluid, grammar is a knife.

  8. David | June 21, 2010 at 4:54 pm

    Perhaps this is one sneaky way for Paris Review to draw the attention of The Awl readers?

  9. whelanandealin | June 22, 2010 at 7:33 pm

    Where do they say “y’uns”?

    Because we Pittsburghers say “yinz” and it sounds like “y’uns,” but no true member of the Steelers Nation would ever spell it “y’uns.” So hopefully you’re not from the ‘Burgh.

    But where?? Where???

6 Pingbacks

  1. [...] without delay over to The Paris Review, where you can read [...]

  2. [...] of which makes the fuss over snuck seem increasingly misplaced. From John Jeremiah Sullivan’s witty response to The Awl on the Paris Review blog: It ought to go against any writer’s grain when people [...]

  3. [...] long ago­nized over snuck vs. sneaked. But the force and sly grin­ning vital­ity of this defense of the for­mer—from the Paris Review!—puts me over the top. I’m sold. Snuck [...]

  4. [...] the meantime, check out John Jeremiah Sullivan’s response in The Paris [...]

  5. [...] The Paris Review slo tilbake: I suppose there’s no pausing to get basic prepositions correct when you’re on your way [...]

  6. [...] Wars” escalated quickly, as Paris Review Southern Editor John Jeremiah Sullivan got all “pedantic as hell” in a scathing letter to the editor. After another round or two of posts, literary license prevailed [...]

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