Saturday, September 24, 2011

She's Been Hanged

Last night I was telling my husband that I'd just finished reading Newes From the Dead: the YA title based on the true story of a girl who, in 1650, revived after being hung for infanticide.

My husband replied, "Hanged."

I stopped.  Looked at him.  Raised my eyebrows in a well-practiced demand for explanation.

He explained, "When you are speaking of a person who has been killed, they've been hanged, not hung."

"What?"  I was incredulous.  Never heard of that one...but this guy--he's always pulling crazy things like that out of his hat.  He may not plow through books like I do, but he's pretty much brilliant...and honestly has a better brain for remembering grammar terms than I do.

I continued, "I don't think I like that."

He shrugged.

"Anyhow," I said, "she was hung because she gave birth to a stillborn baby when she was 5-6 months pregnant and was accused of murder."

We smiled and went on to discuss the story briefly, as well as scientific theories of the 17th century...both pretty interesting topics.  Then this morning, after spending a little bit of time with my friend Google, I informed him of my findings.

I have no problem admitting that, generally speaking, my husband is right.  He usually is.  I'm resigned to that fact.  When speaking of executions, the word is hanged; everything else gets hung.  We could leave it at that (thank you very much for stopping by, have a nice day,) but I wanted to know if it was a RULE or if it was, like so many things in English, a trend, preference, or even a choice.  My favorite commentaries on the matter were the page, and Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips. had me from the first two words.  It said, "For centuries," and I knew I was going to find more than the simplified rule.
"For centuries, hanged and hung were used interchangeably as the past participle of hang. Most contemporary usage guides insist that hanged, not hung, should be used when referring to executions."
Mm, interesting already.  I love finding out the etymology behind the words we use.  English is such a mish-mash of adopted and stolen vocabulary that it is rarely plain and simple.  I loved the example this page cited from Merriam-Webster's 1994 Dictionary of English Usage:
     "Our evidence shows that hung for hanged is certainly not an error. Educated speakers and writers use it commonly and have for many years. . . . " Hanged is, however, more common than hung in writing. It is especially prevalent when an official execution is being described, but it is used in referring to other types of hanging as well. . . .
     "The distinction between hanged and hung is not an especially useful one (although a few commentators claim otherwise). It is, however, a simple one and easy to remember. Therein lies its popularity. If you make a point of observing the distinction in your writing you will not thereby become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong."
Just my style. (Cue evil grin.  Initiate renegade-grammar-usage sequence.)  Grammar Girl supports this, and also mentions where the word "hang" came from, just in case you are interested. (The emphasis above, by the way, was mine.)

So, while I'm still trying to decide whether to continue saying FebRUary, (because saying FebUary makes me feel like I'm saying Libary, but that R makes me feel like I'm mumbling,) I will also continue practicing the difference between lie/lay (don't know why that one still holds me up) and happily continuing to spell GREY with an E, I will add the task of mulling over this question:  whether being a grammar renegade is worth the "annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong."

What thinkest thou?  Is it worth it? Are you all just laughing in befuddlement that a person who reads as much as I do could have been ignorant of such a basic thing?  Never fear, I've pulled out my illustrated Elements of Style, and hope to become obnoxiously intelligent shortly.  Or maybe I'll shoot for intelligently smug instead.  Although, I have to admit, blissfully ignorant has its attractions as well.


  1. I didn't know before reading this, but I don't think I would have used 'hung' because it sounds too much like 'we hung out', which isn't serious enough for someone being hanged!

    The book sounds interesting too - what a sad story.

  2. Well that's funny because I never say 'we hung out' because it sounds too serious! I always switch it to 'we were hanging out' which somehow sounds more lively to me! I love how fluid English is.

    The book was interesting...guess I should have talked about it more, but I was hung up on the grammar. :) The writing was simple, but the topic was interesting and seemed well supported.

  3. Oh so funny, Melody. Last night my husband and friends were sitting at a bar having a heated and extended conversation about the Oxford comma and the past tense of "drink" (still not so sure about that one). Grammar is perfect bar conversation.

  4. I'm not solid on drank/drunk either, if I knew my grammar terminology it would help. I think I'd say 'I drank' or 'I had drunk' much is influenced by what sounds right--what an inexact science! (btw, long live the Oxford comma!)

  5. I've never figured out lay/lie...and I wasn't even aware I didn't know hanged/hung!

  6. softdrink, this whole grammar thing is so much a process for me...weird when I've always loved to read and write. I've loved your posts on punctuation (crossing my fingers hoping you have another post planned??)

  7. I love Grammar Girl! I can find little-known facts and trends there.

    What about "snuck"? I can't tell you how many books there are with sentences like "he snuck out of the room."

    I had always thought it was sneaked, but again, apparently this is something "informal" that shows up in writing sometimes.

    Thanks for the lively discussion.


  8. So gray is suppose to be grey? I've pondered that one since my first 64 pack of crayolas but never bothered to look it up - just spelling gray or grey whatever way seemed better for the day.

  9. Laurel-Rain, there seems to be all kinds of words that have a debatable past tense...what's strange is that some words (like "ain't") that aren't considered proper now, once were. I wonder where 'snuck' fits into that? Maybe it's something that will eventually be proper because it's used so often? (actually, looking on, it says both are ok)

    Belle, gray/grey are interchangeable--you get to choose how you want to spell it! (so what you've been doing all along is entirely correct.) I like to spell that color with an 'e'...I think it expresses it's mood better. :)

  10. Wow. I gotta say this is an intriguing premise for a YA book (and this is coming from the biggest YA hater, as you know I'm sure). It's playing with this annoying idea to make death cool and sexy (which it is not), but I'm fascinated by death penalty and it's good to see another book than that stupid Mark Leyner one about surviving it.

    I'll check out this book Melody, thanks

  11. Ben, I have a hard time with YA books too...partially because they often seem to portray the world in a way that it's NOT, and partially because it's hard to find ones that are well written. I actually kept trying to hate this book because of that, but in the end I enjoyed it. The writing is pretty simplistic, but the historical value made up for it I think.

  12. I knew of this rule, but it DOES sound wrong.

  13. Ti, it seems so strange that the past tense form would change for only that circumstance. But sometimes, the more I think about a word the stranger it sounds...maybe I just need to accept it and move on. :)

  14. I'm also a big Grammar Girl fan ... and also get into discussion about grammar and punctuation with my family.

    I *think* I say FebRUary, but now, as I test it aloud, I'm over-emphasizing it. Do you say WedNESday as well?

  15. I decided that I pronounce enough of the D in Wednesday that it sounded like Woden's Day (where the name came from) said quickly. So I'm cool with that. Oh the stress! So many decisions! :) With February, I just can't get past the idea that dropping the first R, but insisting on the first R in Library, is hypocritical. Yes, I'm a dork.


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