Sing, Sung, Sung?
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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