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 accepted for the past tense of “sink” in American English. The two are listed, in that order, as equal variants in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and Webster’s New World College Dictionary (4th ed.).
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 for “shrink.” The same three American dictionaries allow either “shrank” or “shrunk” in the past tense.
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.”
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, we 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, and “sunk” may even have been preferred in literary usage. Here’s Dickens, for example: “ ‘Cold punch,’ murmured Mr. Pickwick, as he sunk to sleep again” (The Pickwick Papers, 1836).
The usage can be found in the Bible (1611): “The stone sunke into his forehead.” And here it is in 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.”
Today, the British prefer to reserve “sunk” for the past participle and use “sank” for the past tense, so the preferred progression in contemporary British English is “sink/sank/sunk.”
The lexicographer Robert Burchfield, writing in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (rev. 3rd ed.), sums up the state of things in British English. The past tense, he writes, “is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.” And today the preferred past participle is “sunk,” not the old “sunken.”
It seems that in American usage, too, most people prefer “sank” as the past tense, even though dictionaries allow “sunk.” As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage says, “Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”
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 we’ve written about before on the blog.
To recap, these days it’s no crime (at least in American English) to say “the boat sunk in a storm” or “my jeans shrunk in the dryer.”
But the grammar police will still fine you for using a past participle when the simple past tense is appropriate, as in “The bell rung” or “I drunk the milk” or “She sung off key.”
[Note: This post was updated on May 26, 2014.]