Okay, so this question came up the other day and it's not the first time, but it got me to thinking about words in English with variant past tenses and past participles; what is correct? Can one use somewhat archaic formations that may now be dialectal English or even obsolete and still get the message across? What are the rules for the myriad past tenses and past participles that can exist for one word? I know there are certain rules wherein it is used, but often as an attributive adjective such as "sunken" in the example,

"the sunken ship";

however, what do I do when I am editing someone's English paper and the writer insists on writing constructions that don't go with usual rules in Modern English? Here are a few examples that I have had to debate about whether I should edit or allow the writer a certain cachet or style in his writing, not to mention that I am not 100% sure whether these can't be used this way and still follow the rules to the point that it's not a grammatical error or a form of catachresis:

"By the time they arrived on scene, the ship had sunken into the deep blue sea." (past participle: to sink)

"By springtime, the snow has usually molten from site." (past participle: to melt)

"The batter knows he swang at a bad pitch." (simple past: to swing)

Now, I've looked these up in several dictionaries, both online and in book form, and they appear to work. "Swang" as the simple past for "swing" says in some dictionaries that it's archaic, dialectal, "archaic and/or dialectal", nonstandard, and the list probably can go on.

I know there are strange past tenses as well as some that are not used too often. I can list some and hope you can figure out where they come from if you should not know them offhand: slank, stang, slang, wrang, snuck, clave, wrothe, writhen, chode, chid, stove, rove, shope, shapen, misshapen, drunken, shove, shaven, shore, snew, snown, crew, abode, abidden, bode, bidden.

In my editing within the last couple of years, I've run into a few of these listed above in sentences similar to the ones listed below:

"He slank through the hallway."

"Man has been shapen in God's image."

"He wrang the man's neck."

I've looked up "wrang" to see whether it can be used as the past tense of "wring" and it's hard to find it in most dictionaries, but I have found it in a couple as an alternative past tense or one that is archaic or dialectal, and it appears to have some provenance as I have found that wringen in German has a simple past tense of wrang and a past participle of gewrungen.

Then there's "snuck" as the past tense and past participle of "to sneak", which gives me pause in correcting since I've been chidden before for having corrected this form:

"He snuck out with his friends."

In this situation, I've always been told that "snuck" is bad English; the past tense should be "sneaked"; however, some dictionaries give it a pass as a new variant that has gone from a weak verb to a strong verb in its past tense. Does that mean I allow this one to go by unedited?

Basically, my question is this: What do I do with someone who likes to write with this style? Is the style fine to allow to go uncorrected or is he just wrong? What are some of the rules for these past tenses and past participles.

  • 1
    Good and bad are not necessarily productive labels unless you must enforce style guidelines for an organization. If that is your job, you can enforce whatever you deem appropriate. There are minor and major transgressions. Using "snuck" instead of "sneaked" I would consider a minor infraction, but your organization may not. We can't advise you on where to draw the line.
    – Robusto
    Nov 16, 2017 at 22:23
  • Good point. I wasn't talking about newspaper articles; I tutor English and am available for students or people who are struggling with writing papers for their classes. My job is to oversee their papers so that they get a good grade, but I don't know their professors; I don't know whether archaic, dialectal, or just strange variants will cause their professors to take a red pen and mark down their papers. Many of the students are smart, but just need help in writing; others are good enough to play around with language, but struggle in punctuation and structure. I was just bandying about ideas
    – Nick
    Nov 16, 2017 at 23:04
  • Maybe "oversee their papers so that they get a good grade" was misworded. I don't make sure that they get a good grade or that's not a job of mine; it's just to help them with their grammar, spelling, structure so that they understand how to compose a paper well.
    – Nick
    Nov 16, 2017 at 23:10

1 Answer 1


When tutoring English, as you say, there are many participles and forms which are archaic and are no longer in common use. And there are many dictionaries and online resources in which some of the more obscure constructions can be found and might be therefore considered technically still valid constructions.

But when helping with grammar, spelling and composition, I would stick with a few dictionaries that are widely recognised as English references such as the Oxford, Cambridge or Webster dictionaries. I have also used the Macquarie dictionary as a reference for Australian English.

In the cases where a student has argued that the participle they used was correct because they found it in the English Dialectical Dictionary for the Western Region of Upper Lesotho*, it is more usually the case that they have used a construction they thought was valid and searched until they found a match to support their opinion rather than change it to a form found in a more widely recognised reference.

Stick with what is in mainstream and recognised dictionaries and refer students to the same as references.

* English Dialectical Dictionary for the Western Region of Upper Lesotho is an imagined name for illustrative purposes.

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    That's a good way to put it, but I think I looked up "wrang" in a gigantic, unabridged Merriam Webster dictionary, and it seemed to allow it, but I would not say "wrang". "Swang" seemed to be allowed. I know I still say "slank" for the past tense of "slink", but I've been told it's an older variant that is borderline archaic or uncommon; then there is "snuck", which seems to be allowed here in the United States even though I was always told it was as nonstandard as "brang/brung" for the past tense of "bring".
    – Nick
    Nov 17, 2017 at 0:40
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    One other thing: that doesn't help me with "molten" and "sunken" either because they are still used, but they're usually used as attributive adjectives and not past participles; plus "shapen", to me, sounded all right when referencing "God". I don't know why, but I liked it there when I read it in someone's paper.
    – Nick
    Nov 17, 2017 at 0:41
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    Well, adjectives and past participles are different cases. As you said, molten and sunken are adjective forms, whereas the past participles are melted and sank/sunk. The approach for English tutoring is usually to apply the mainstream usages for written work.
    – Mick
    Nov 17, 2017 at 0:45
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    This is true, so should I just say that it's archaic or not common and then point out the modern or more common variant? I personally think there's some ground for creativity if they want to make it sound fancier or more old-fashioned. I guess there's a line that one shouldn't cross and that line is arbitrary. For instance, "shope" should not ever be the past tense of "shape", but "shapen" is okay as the past participle sometimes. "The metal has molten" is fine as a past participle because the sentence talks about "metal", but when talking about "snow" then no, it's not okay.
    – Nick
    Nov 17, 2017 at 0:55
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    Yes, I tend to agree with, "The metal has molten" is fine as a past participle because the sentence talks about "metal", but it depends on the context. Some fields use words in a very specific way, which is different from everyday spoken language. Also, if quoting or writing dialogue then the rules of grammar don't apply as it's characterised as someone's speech. But in general, for writing essays and papers, students should be encouraged to use "formal" structures rather than colloquial.
    – Mick
    Nov 17, 2017 at 1:08

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