Q: I’ve noticed that even the best-edited publications sometimes use “sunk” instead of “sank” for the past tense of “sink.” This leaves me with a sinking feeling. What can we do about the loss of a perfectly good four-letter word that can be spoken in any company?
A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are correct for the past tense of “sink.” The two are listed without comment in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), which means they’re considered standard English.
So it’s correct to say either “the boat sank” or “the boat sunk.” The past participle is “sunk,” as in “the boat has sunk.”
In case you’re wondering, the same is true – almost! – for “shrink.”
American Heritage says the past tense is “shrank,” while Merriam-Webster’s allows both “shrank” and “shrunk” in the past tense. But I think the writing is on the wall and “shrunk” will come to be accepted by American Heritage too.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says “shrunk” is “undoubtedly standard” in the past tense, though the preference in written usage seems to be for “shrank.”
The usage guide adds that “in linguistic surveys conducted in the eastern and midwestern US several decades ago more than 80 percent of the people polled used shrunk in preference to shrank.”
In 1995, William Safire drew catcalls from the “Gotcha!” gang for using “shrunk” in the past tense in the New York Times. Why did he do it? Here’s how he explained it:
“Because Walt Disney got to me, I guess: the 1989 movie Honey, I Shrunk the Kids did to ‘shrank’ what Winston cigarettes did to ‘as’: pushed usage in the direction of what people were casually saying rather than what they were carefully writing.”
But back to “sunk,” which has bounced back and forth in acceptability over the centuries. Arguments over it are nothing new. For instance, I found a spirited defense of “sunk” in the past tense in an 1895 issue of the journal The Writer.
In the history of English, the use of “sunk” in the past tense has been “extremely common,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
In fact, the OED cites Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 as giving the past tense as “I sunk, anciently sank.”
Johnson himself used “sunk” as the past tense, as in this citation from his treatise Taxation No Tyranny (1775): “The constitution sunk at once into a chaos.”
But Johnson was right: “anciently,” to use his word, the accepted past tense was indeed “sank.”
The verb was sincan in Old English, with the past tense sanc and the past participle suncon or suncen.
The old past tense seems to have been preserved into Middle English, the form of the language spoken between 1100 and 1500.
Here’s an example from Arthur and Merlin (circa 1330): “Wawain on the helme him smot, / The ax sank depe, god it wot.”
But in modern English, both “sank” and “sunk” have appeared as past tenses. In fact, “sunk” may have been preferred in literary usage.
Here’s a citation from the Bible in 1611: “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here’s an example, from Sir William Jones’s poem Seven Fountains (1767): “The light bark, and all the airy crew, / Sunk like a mist beneath the briny dew.”
“Sunk” was used by Addison and Steele in the Spectator in the 18th century, and by Sir Walter Scott in the 19th.
In fact, Scott’s novels are full of “sunk,” as in this passage from The Heart of Midlothian (1818): “Jeanie sunk down on a chair, with clasped hands, and gasped in agony.”
Some commentators have suggested that the return of the “sink/sank/sunk” progression (along with a distaste for “sunk” as a past tense) may have been influenced by the similar irregular verbs “drink/drank/drunk,” “swim/swam/swum,” “ring/rang/rung,” and others.
This common pattern, by the way, probably inspired “brang” and “flang” as illegitimate past tenses of “bring” and “fling.”
And it probably also brought about “snuck,” the much-reviled past tense of “sneak,” which dictionaries now accept as standard English and which I’ve written about before on the blog.
To recap, these days it’s no crime to say “the boat sunk” or – depending on which dictionary you read – “my jeans shrunk.”
But the grammar police will still nab you for using a past participle instead of the simple past when that’s inappropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”