Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sneaked vs. Snuck: What Ngram Tells Us

By Betty Azar
Author, Azar Grammar Series

I have just discovered an online tool that I think will be fun and useful for all of us who are fascinated by English language usage. It is Google Labs Ngram Viewer, released by Google in December, 2010.

The Ngram Viewer graphs usage frequency from 1800 to 2000, based on the corpus of millions of books that Google has thus far scanned.

The first word I looked up was snuck. Through my years of writing textbooks, I debated whether to include snuck in an advanced-level reference chart of irregular verbs. I had been taught in school that snuck was nonstandard, not used in “educated language usage.”  As the years have gone by, I’ve observed that more and more “educated” writers and speakers seem to use snuck freely.

In the latest edition of Understanding and Using English Grammar, my co-writer (Stacy Hagen) and I decided to include snuck as well as sneaked after consulting the Longman corpus and a corpus researcher. Ngram confirms what we had observed; the graphs show that usage of snuck greatly increased in frequency from the mid-1990s to 2000, while sneaked (though still more common than snuck) had a spike in the 1940s, but otherwise has stayed relatively steady. In other words, just as it had seemed to me, more and more people have been using snuck more and more often.  (Does your spellcheck allow snuck or mark it as an error?)

I read about this site in the New York Times (Sunday, February 27, 2011) in the On Language column, written by Ben Zimmer (and formerly, for many years, by William Safire). In the article, Zimmer says that Google’s site “…allows anyone to plumb the history of language patterns in the corpus.”  It is easy to use and available to everyone who can connect to the internet.

If you go to the site and enter the words war, peace, you will readily see a visual illustration of how usage frequency reflects cultural concerns and events.

war peace

Here are some of the other things my maiden voyage into Ngram discovered:

  • whom is much on the decline (no surprise there!)
  • gotta is much on the ascent (ditto)
  • the (the most frequently used word in English) has stayed steady; in every 100 written words, 5.5 of them will be the
  • passenger pigeon goes up and down like a disturbed heart monitor until the extinction of the species, then levels out
  • no problem is skyrocketing, while you’re welcome is flat-lining
  • the name Betty reached its height around 1940 (I was born in 1941), and has been, with a few exceptions, in decline since

There’s perhaps no new news here, but it certainly is fun and instructive to see how language usage reflects our understandings and beliefs about our society, our history, and our times. For teachers, it is a tool to inform us of the actual usage frequency of structures, words, and topics we include in our classrooms and materials.

I hope you enjoy the site as much as I do.


Comment from Abu Hassan
March 9, 2011 at 12:12 am

Very useful tool, actually.
Thank you so much, Betty.

Comment from Dorothy
March 29, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Oh, nice! I love that you can compare two words!

For the record, I still say “snuck.” “Sneaked” sounds very odd to me. But then, I still say “dreamt.”

Comment from Barbara
June 25, 2011 at 10:16 am

The word snuck hurts my ears! I grew up using the word sneaked, and I see, as I’m writing this that the word snuck gets a red underscore from my edition of Office Word. I became aware of its acceptance when TV reporters started using it. I am a die hard, however, and don’t think I ever will.

Comment from ChopLogic
June 26, 2012 at 7:32 am

Funny to see this post. Your addition of “snuck” was the most disappointing part of the book (that I’ve seen). You need to understand that Ngram gives you ZERO context about how that word was used. Fiction writers, for example, may use that word deliberately to show someone is uneducated, much like people who don’t know better when they read your books.

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