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That sinking feeling

Q: I’ve noticed that when the verb “sink” is used transitively, the past participle “sunk” is often used as the past tense in place of “sank.” Are you familiar with a change in the use of “sunk”?

A: Both “sank” and “sunk” are standard past tenses for “sink” in American English, though “sank” is more common. This is true whether the verb is used transitively (with an object) or intransitively (without one). [Note: An earlier post on this subject appeared on Jan. 28, 2010.]

All the current American dictionaries we’ve checked (Merriam-Webster, M-W Unabridged, American Heritage, and Webster’s New World) include “sank” and “sunk” as standard past tenses. Most British dictionaries consider “sank” the past tense and “sunk” an American variant past tense.

As Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage explains, “Both sank and sunk are used for the past tense of sink. Sank is used more often, but sunk is neither rare nor dialectal as a past tense, though it is usually a past participle.”

The usage guide gives this “sunk” example from a July 8, 1935, letter by Robert Frost: “Then I sunk back never again to blaze perhaps.”

However, Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed.), a more conservative usage guide, considers “sank” the only legitimate past tense and “sunk” the past participle (as in “had sunk,” “have sunk”). The author, Bryan A. Garner, writes, “The past participle often ousts the simple-past form from its rightful place.”

Jeremy Butterfield doesn’t go quite so far in Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (4th ed.), but he says, “The past tense is now overwhelmingly sank rather than sunk.”

As for us, we use “sank” for the simple past tense and that’s what we’d recommend. Incidentally, it’s also closer to the original past tense.

When the verb first appeared in Old English (spoken from around 450 to 1150), to “sink” was sincan, “it sinks” was hit sinceþ, and “it sank” was hit sanc. The “sink” and “sank” spellings showed up in the 15th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, while “sunk” appeared in the 16th century, in the early days of modern English.

The OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, lists both “sank” and “sunk” as past tenses. “The use of sunk as the past tense has been extremely common,” the dictionary adds, noting that Samuel Johnson considered “sunk” the preterit, or past tense, in A Dictionary of the English Language (1755): “pret. I sunk, anciently sank.”

Oxford Dictionaries, an online standard dictionary, has a usage note in both its US and UK editions that says “sank” and “sunk” have a history, but “sank” is the usual past tense today:

“Historically, the past tense of sink has been both sank and sunk (the boat sank; the boat sunk), and the past participle has been both sunk and sunken (the boat had already sunk; the boat had already sunken). In modern English, the past is generally sank and the past participle is sunk, with the form sunken now surviving only as an adjective, as in a sunken garden or sunken cheeks.

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