A listener named Salomé from Santa Clara, California, wrote,
“I have a question regarding the word ‘sneaked’ versus ‘snuck.’ I religiously hammer into my students’ heads that ‘snuck’ is not a word, but I hear it used all the time (in public speaking and in the media). My students have even noted the instances and have asked me to explain. [Can you help?]”
Salomé is right that “sneaked” has been considered the proper form of the word for a long time, but she and her students are also on to something when they notice people using “snuck” out in the world.
‘Snuck’ Is Becoming More Popular
The previous edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage put “snuck” for “sneaked” at stage 3 on his language change index (which means it was widespread but still avoided in careful usage), but the most current edition, published in 2016, puts it at stage 4 (which means it’s now ubiquitous but still objected to on cogent grounds by a few die-hard snoots, as he puts it), so as people have been predicting and noticing for a while, “snuck” is becoming more popular, especially in American English.
‘Snuck’ Is More Popular in the United States
And this is definitely more of an American thing than a British thing. “Snuck” first appeared in American English in the late 1800s, but it wasn’t until about 1970 that it started really gaining popularity in both Britain and the United States. But it’s still used much more often by Americans than the British, which you can see in graphs from the Google Book corpus.
‘Snuck’ in British English
‘Snuck’ in American English
‘Sneaked’ and ‘Snuck’ on TV
The popularity of “snuck”…