June 17, 2010 | by John Jeremiah Sullivan
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.