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In one episode of the TV show Sherlock, Holmes and a prisoner has a conversation where Holmes corrected him grammatically many times. The following is just part of that.

Prisoner: (annoyed) Did it! STABBED HER! Over, and over, and over, and I looked down and she weren't… (Sherlock just sighs) …wasn't… moving no more… (Sherlock rolls his eyes) …anymore. (calmer) God help me, I don't know how it happened, it was an accident, I swear! (Sherlock gets up to leave) Hey, you gotta help me, Mr. Holmes! Everyone says you're the best. Without you… I'll get hung for this.

Sherlock: No, no, Mr. Bewick, not at all. (beat) Hanged, yes.

According to Cambridge Dictionary, both "hung" and "hanged" could be the participle form of "hang"

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Why Sherlock insists "hanged" there?

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    Using "hung" to mean "executed by hanging" is similar to using "literally" to mean "figuratively"—a recent change that Holmes and I curmudgeonlyly object to. – chrylis -cautiouslyoptimistic- Jul 16 at 18:10
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    You can use 'hung' for future hangings: The traitors will be hung at dawn. But almost the only time you'll see 'hung' for the past is as part of: 'hung, drawn & quartered'. This is the only example in your cambridge link that isn't 'hanged'. – mcalex Jul 16 at 21:22
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    "Humans are hanged, horses are hung" – Oliver Jul 17 at 9:37
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    Hung has adjective meanings that are not shared by ‘hanged’ (including a slightly vulgar one, to which Oliver is referring). — I suspect ‘hanged’ is preferred in other cases to avoid ambiguity. – gidds Jul 17 at 10:55
  • @Oliver As famously used in Blackadder the Third. – Graham Jul 17 at 11:43
25

Although this is more a matter of style than definition, the stylistic convention is that you always use hung unless you are describing a person (or I suppose animal) who has been killed by hanging—in which case it should be hanged.


This is what Merriam-Webster says about it in "Is it 'Hung' or 'Hanged'?":

The standard rule for the past tense of hang is this: in almost all situations, you should use the word hung.

I hung a picture of Noah Webster on the wall.
After school, she hung out in the library.

Use hanged when referring to a person being suspended by a rope around the neck until dead.

The Salem "witches" were not burned; they were hanged.
Justice Wargrave ordered Edward Seton to be hanged by the neck until dead.

It's not that simple, however: most usage guides reserve hanged for people subjected to death, which means if an inanimate object is suspended from a gallows, the correct term is hung.

Despised by the voters, he was hung in effigy.


To further illustrate this point, I wrote a short piece of fiction a while ago (I will emphasize the words):

The paintings of hanged corpses all hung in the gallery. As the exhibit was also a piece of performance art, the artist had put a noose around his neck and hung himself on the wall as well. Unfortunately, a spectator noticed that he was no longer breathing. When the police were called, they had no choice but to file a report about the man who’d both hung himself on purpose and hanged himself by mistake.

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    There's an analogous distinction between "lay" and "lie;" and between "sit" and "set." I believe it's only stylistic insomuch as native speakers are confused about the finer points of grammar. However, I'm not sure of the rule myself! – jpaugh Jul 16 at 16:19
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    @jpaugh Not the same distinction; lay/laid/laid and set/set/set are usually transitive, while lie/lay/lain (in the sense of reclining, not in the sense of telling falsehoods) and sit/sat/sat are usually intransitive. With "hang," we are talking about the difference between transitive with inanimate object and transitive with animate object, not the difference between hang (v.t.) and hang (v.i.). – shoover Jul 16 at 17:11
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    This distinction is, incidentally, a key point in another murder mystery. – Andrew Lazarus Jul 16 at 18:42
  • How about for future tense? – mcalex Jul 16 at 21:22
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    @mcalex There are various possible versions, but what you would normally expect from this and the use of infinitives with auxiliary verbs: (1) You will be hanged for your crimes. (3) You will hang for your crimes. (2) The paintings will be hung in the gallery. (4) The paintings will hang in the gallery. – Jason Bassford Jul 16 at 21:39
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If you check the dictionary entry that you quoted, you will see that hung is used for suspending things, but hanged is not. The entry for killing people states that both hanged and hung are possible, but it doesn't make it clear that hanged is a lot more common.

This Ngram graph shows that, in British English, hanged is much more common, and in the 19th century, when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was writing, it was a lot more common than hung.

You can read more about it here.

Remember, though, that this is a 21st century representation of a 19th century representation of an imaginary dialogue. The reason that Sherlock corrected this is that the script writer (and possibly also Conan Doyle) decided that he should do it.

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    Probably it was a way to illustrate how pedantic and pefectionist Holmes is. – Barmar Jul 16 at 16:22
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    His last name was just Doyle ;) – Asteroids With Wings Jul 17 at 14:38
  • @AsteroidsWithWings that is true, but in Victorian times, double barreled names (usually mother's maiden name followed by father's name) were very popular, and many people who were not christened with a double barreled name chose to use their last forename as if it were. Conan Doyle chose to do this, and I think that we should respect his wishes. – JavaLatte Jul 18 at 1:22

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