Sing, Sung, Sung?

By Maeve Maddox

A reader wonders if the verbs rung, sung, hung, stunk and “their ilk” can ever be used without a helping verb. For example, is it possible to say “He sung tenor with the choir”?

It’s possible, but speakers who do so may find themselves the target of such comments as these:

Yes, there are still people in the world who know, and practice the knowledge that the simple past tense of sing is sang. But many poor benighted souls seem to be under the misapprehension that the simple past is sung.—American fiction writer.

Does any reputable or mainstream source on English accept sung as the regular past tense of sang? I can’t think why they would print such a thing.—DWT reader.

The use of sung as the simple past of sing is not a modern aberration.

Nearly 90 years ago, Fowler (Modern English Usage) and the OED observed that although sung had formerly been the simple past of sing, “recent usage” favored sang.

Sung was the usual form of the past tense in the 17th and 18th centuries. As late as 1836, sang was still less in use than sung.

Although some style guides make a point of noting that “in modern usage, the simple past of sing is sang,” both the OED and Merriam-Webster include sung as an alternative past form:

OED: sing, past tense: sang, sung; past participle: sung.

M-W: sing, past tense: sang, sung; past participle: sung.

To the dismay of writers who (like me) insist that sang is the only acceptable past form of sing, the old form continues to linger in published sources:

Chamber choir sung a classical Latin narrative poem by the Roman poet Ovid, titled “Metamorphosis” right after Dr. Andrews read aloud a transcribed version of the title in English.—US high school newspaper, 2005.

[Pete Doherty] sung a version of Chim Chim Cher-ee at the event at London’s Southbank centre.—Metro (UK), 2007.

Madz is a world class talent. Indeed a pride and glory of the country. With the short concert they did with the different Davao choir groups, I was hooked when the group sung St Francis Prayer.—Sun Star (Philippines), 2013.

Playing Didymus, Cole sung an aria about strength.—Australian ABC.net, 2013.

Nevertheless, writers who wish to be taken seriously are advised to limit sung to the past participle:

On Friday, the chorus sang “Ode to Joy.”

We have sung all the songs from Fiddler on the Roof.

The reader also asked about the past forms of ring (as in “to ring a bell”) stink, and hang.

Modern usage prefers the following for ring and stink:
ring, rang, (has) rung
stink, stank, (has) stunk

However, writers (chiefly sports writers) who are likely to use the crude word stink are equally likely to use stunk as its simple past:

Why the Lakers stunk so bad this season, and how they can recover—Headline, LA Times.

Opening Night stunk for the Chicago Cubs, both on the field…and off it, as a lack of working restrooms led to utter chaos on the concourses.—Matt Bonesteel, Washington Post.

The verb hang possesses two different simple past forms, depending upon context.

When hang means, “to execute by suspending a person by the neck,” the preferred forms are hang, hanged, (has) hanged. For example:

Highwaymen were hanged on Tyburn Hill.

When hang refers to suspending an inanimate object or a person without intent to execute, the forms are hang, hung, (has) hung. For example:

The earl hung the portrait of his ancestor in the parlor.

The bullies hung Charlie on a coat rack in the locker room.

Bottom Line: Language changes. In this century—in US English, anyway—“He sung tenor with the choir” sounds uneducated.

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4 Responses to “Sing, Sung, Sung?”

  • David Knuttunen

    You didn’t mention it in the article, but my copy of Fowler also says, for ring: “Both rang & rung are still used for the past tense, but rang is much commoner, & likely to become universal.” (Ampersands in original.)

  • venqax

    This is surprising. Equating “strong” verbs with older forms you would think that sets like sing/sang/sung, ring/rang/rung would be the longstanding originals and simplifying (or non euphemistically, dumbing down) from 3 to 2 forms would be a symptom of modern sloth. Using sung or rung as a simple past tense sounds downright illiterate or pre-K.

    Do most publications have editors anymore that deal with these kinds of things? I ask because whenever I see this really bad stuff– inexcusably bad– I think, “This would have had to gave gone through 2 layers of filtering– a terrible writer AND an even worse editor afterward whose WHOLE JOB it is to catch this kind of thing. And that just isn’t possible” (I like to tell myself.)

  • Jean Kearsley

    I think there’s a flip side to this phenomenon. While I too decry the use of the past participle of a strong verb used as the simple past, I’ve seen — or, rather, heard — the inverse much more often of late: i.e., people apparently ignorant even of the existence of the past participle form of a verb, and substituting the simple past in its place. Hence, “I’ve went there a lot,” “She has swam with dolphins in Florida,” etc. I’ve recently heard variations on the former example so frequently that it’s almost stopped setting off my grammar radar; I mean, in some quarters, “gone” appears to be simply gone! Doesn’t anyone — parents, school districts, et al. — teach these strong verb triplets anymore?

  • thebluebird11

    OK, I wasn’t around 200 or 500 years ago, and I was unaware that these words were correct then. I don’t know what to think. I have for all my relatively short life been under the impression that it is sing/sang/sung (etc), that anything else grates on my ears so badly, it gets all the way to my inner ear and makes me a bit queasy. I am sure that my facial expression reflects my inner upheaval when someone says things like “I could have went,” “the ship sunk,” and so forth. I no longer correct people as I did in the past; I swallow the urge (which could explain the nausea). I think I need some kind of “Grammarians Anonymous” or something because I don’t want to discuss this in public; only here do I allow myself to be indignant and prescriptivist!
    OK, got that out of my system…where is my Xanax…

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