Thursday, July 19, 2012

Writing tips: Consistency stinks, but without it, you're sunk

Skunk in the backyard, courtesy

"The skunk in the back yard last night stunk, didn’t it?"

"No, it stank." 

Or is stunk right?

What about this one: “The ship sunk during the storm last night”? Is that correct?

English. It can be beautiful, powerful, inspiring. It can also be maddeningly confusing and inconsistent.

There are so many inconsistencies to trip people up, that if languages were shopping malls, English would be closed until it was brought up to code.

For instance, consider the past tense. English usually indicates an action that occurred in the past by adding an –ed to the end — like in occurred. Then there are all the other verbs that show past tense in other ways, like thrown, or eaten.

Verbs that end in –ing and –ink give people a lot of trouble. Simple examples pretend to set the pattern:

Infinitive Past tense            Past participle
ringranghas rung/was rung
singsanghas sung/was sung

Then, English goes and changes the pattern just a little, with –ing verbs that have identical past past participle forms. There doesn’t seem to be any logical distinction. You just have to memorize this.
cling         clunghas clung
fling    flung              has flung/was flung
hanghung "from the
chimney with care" 
has hung/was hung

However, when using hang to mean a form of execution, the past tense and past participle are hanged and was hanged: Billy Bailey was the last person to be hanged in the US.

Some verbs ending in –ink conform to these patterns, too:
drink        drank                   has drunk/was drunk
sinksankhas sunk/was sunk
slinkslunkhas slunk
stinkstank or stunkhas stunk

But not link or ink (as in to put something in ink, or to cover something with ink).

Of course, there are –ing verbs that follow the more usual pattern of adding –ed for the past tense and participle: ding or ping, for instance.

Then, there are the most baffling verbs of all:
bring         brought               has brought/was brought
thinkthoughthas thought/was thought

There is almost a logic, but if you can’t have more than two examples that follow the same method to indicate past tense, that doesn’t really make it a system.

To answer the questions I started with: stunk or stank are both acceptable past tense forms for stink, according to the Oxford Dictionary. However, sank is the correct past tense for sink, while sunk is the past participle.

What about you? What exceptions give you the most trouble?
The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic.

The Titanic was sunk by an iceberg.


  1. It's like you read my mind, Scott with this and the quotation post. Thanks, she thunk.

  2. Great post! brain knows these rules...but sometimes my fingers forget.

  3. Anonymous2:29 PM

    So very true! Thanks for making the English language funny and not frustrating for a change!

  4. Anonymous10:58 PM

    Have run/ran got me earlier today, in reference to advertisements.