May 29, 2018

Words of the Month - The Incredible Shrinking Shrank

        I first noticed it in 1989 with the release of the Disney movie “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.”  But that’s wrong, I objected to a heedless world.  It should be “Honey, I Shrank the Kids.”  Nevertheless, since then I’ve been witnessing the steady demise of the simple past tense of shrink.  What’s going on here?
        First of all, shrink is a good Old English verb, and its past tense forms have come down to us from the earliest forms of the language.  Shrunk is (or was) the past participle, as in “Honey, I have shrunk the kids.”  It’s also the form found in the adjective shrunkenShrank, as the simple past tense, doesn’t appear in any other forms, so perhaps that leaves it weaker, sounding stranger to the average ear.  When speaking one’s native language, one doesn’t look things up in grammar books, except possibly when writing an essay for school; one simply goes by ear.  If it sounds right, it’s right; if it sounds wrong, it’s wrong.  So the more you hear shrunk, the more that sounds right, and the less you hear shrank, the weirder it sounds.
        Words don’t live by themselves, however; they associate with each other, reinforcing what sounds right and wrong.  Other Old English verbs that form their past tenses to the same pattern as shrink include sink, stink, drink, sing, and spin.  So let’s see what’s been happening to them.
        “Honey, I sank the boat,” has been correct for the past thousand years, but I have begun to see (or hear) sunk creeping in as the simple past tense. (Actually, in the interests of full accuracy, “The boat sank” has been correct forever, but “I sank the boat” only since the mid thirteenth century, when sink came to be used transitively.)  In October 2017 the Boston Globe reported “A 65-foot boat loaded with diesel fuel sunk in Boston Harbor early Tuesday morning.”  Probably helping to confuse the issue is the fact that sunk is also an adjective so that you can get perfectly correct sentences like “The boat sunk in Boston Harbor has not been salvaged.”  Again, the ear can begin to think that “the boat sunk” sounds better than “the boat sank.”
        It’s my impression that as of 2018 sank is still stronger than shrank, but span is a past tense that seems to be farther along the road to extinction.  The correct grammar is (or was originally) “I span the wheel” or “I have spun the wheel,” but I wouldn’t use span unless I were at my most pedantic.  It sounds weird to me.  In Paul Zelinsky’s 1986 Caldecott Honor retelling of Rumplestiltskin, “the little man once again spun all the straw into gold.”  What sounds right to you?
        Sing - sang - sung, on the other hand, remains pretty strong.  Indeed, it wouldn’t even occur to me that anyone could possibly say something as wrong-sounding as “I sung the song,” except that a quick internet search reveals many many grammar sites earnestly explaining that the correct past tense is “I sang.”  Clearly people are wondering, no longer certain of their own ear-intuition.  The same situation seems to be true of drink, with enough confusion out there to warrant plenty of grammar advice.  Indeed, one site urges not only that “I drunk” is wrong, but that “I have drank” is also wrong.  How could one possibly be unable to hear how wrong those are?  Well, if you hear enough other confused people, you get confused, too.
        This particular class of strong verb forms seems gradually to be simplifying itself: losing its simple past tense form in favor of using the same form for both past tense and past participle.  But just to keep things exciting, sometimes the language complicates itself instead.  The past tense dove began as an 18th century error based on analogy with the past tense droveDrive - drove - driven is the original correct formation, but the original past tense of dive is dived.  Somewhere along the line, speakers (chiefly in the USA) began to think dove sounded better, and now that is the more common usage in the US, although dived is still more common in the UK.  The same thing happened to dig - digged, except that dug appeared in the sixteenth century and has now completely superseded the original past tense, leaving digged as the incorrect form.  It’s worth noting that the English language survived the change.  So give it a couple more centuries and for better or worse we’ll probably be seeing the same thing with the disappearance of shrank, sank, stank, and span.

[Pictures: Tom Thumb dancing on the queen’s hand, wood block print from an eighteenth-century chapbook, reproduced in Chapbooks of the Eighteenth Century by John Ashton, 1882 (Image from Internet Archive);
Magres Serapion, wood block print from Ortus Sanitatis published by Jacob Meydenbach, 1491 (Image from Internet Archive).]

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