Hung, Hanged, Sneak, Snuck, Lay, Lie

Today someone sent me a funny post about the historic origins of some familiar sayings. One had to do with a pre-execution ritual. Before a hanging, the condemned would be conveyed to the gallows in a cart or wagon. If he wanted one last drink on the way, they said he was having “one for the road.” If he didn’t want one, they said he was “on the wagon.” Interesting. But what really caught my attention was the phrase (in my friend’s version), “…the man was hung.” Whoa.

If a man was executed by hanging, then he was “hanged.” If you say a man was “hung,” well, that’s a rather crude anatomical observation, one seldom heard in polite company.

Here’s my pet peeve: the ugly word, “snuck.” Meant as past tense of “sneak.” I’ve always thought of “snuck” as a back-alley expression used only by uneducated people. But these days, you can hardly flip on a TV or radio without hearing a news reporter saying (authoritatively) that someone “snuck” somewhere. Yuck. What happened to “sneaked?” It’s the natural past tense of “sneak.” I still maintain it’s correct. sneaked-you-a-file

I thought I was going to be proven right one day, when a couple of editors from a compendium of English usage were on Walt Bodine’s show. During the call-in segment, I called in to complain about “snuck,” hoping these language gurus would wag a finger and say, “No, no, NEVER say ‘snuck!'” But instead, I got a verbal shrug: “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” The pro’s position was that if people were commonly using “snuck,” then it was a legitimate part of the English language. WHAT? A lot of people say “ain’t,” too, but it still ain’t right!

Finally, “lay” and “lie” seem to give lots of people trouble. Probably because they’re irregular verbs. Like the sale clothing marked “IRR” in the store, there’s something a little wacky about them. Regular verbs make their past tenses and past participles simply by adding “d” or “ed.” But irregular verbs are, well, irregular. Not to get too wonky about it, but here is some good info courtesy of KU:

The principal parts (most-common verb forms) of lie are:

lie (present,) lay (past) and lain (past participle).

[Me: Present, “I lie here every night.” Past, “I lay in bed for hours last night trying to get to sleep.” Past Participle, “I had lain there for over three hours before I gave up and watched TV.”]

The principal parts of lay are:

lay (present), laid (past) and laid (past participle).

[Me: Present: “Will you lay the tablecloth on the grass?” Past: “I’ve laid the cloth on the grass.” Past Participle: “I had laid the cloth on the grass before the food arrived.”]

As an aid in choosing the correct verb forms, remember that lie means to recline, whereas lay means to place something, to put something on something.

Lie means that the actor (subject) is doing something to himself or herself. It’s what grammarians call a complete verb. When accompanied by subjects, complete verbs tell the whole story.

Lay, on the other hand, means that the subject is acting on something or someone else; therefore, it requires a complement to make sense. Thus lay always takes a direct object. Lie never does.

English sure is a peculiar language.

If you want to put all of this to use right now, here’s a sentence: “The dog sneaked away from the mess on the floor, hung his head in shame, then lay down at his master’s feet looking pathetic.”

Here’s another: “When sheep lie in the pasture unattended, thieves can sneak in and steal them, and if they’re caught, they’ll be hanged.”

  1. David Soxman says:

    Well, you just about sneaked this by me but I hung in there and read the whole article. You have so much fun with your articles and we learn so much. Keep up the great work!

  2. liz says:

    Thanks, David. I appreciate your reading it. I must try to start out with more of a bang. I’m trying to improve my writing — by writing.

    [WORDPRESS HASHCASH] The poster sent us ‘0 which is not a hashcash value.

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