Let us suppose that a lady and a gentleman have quarreled. She insulted him. He insulted her. Then what happened? Did she stamp her pretty foot? Or stomp it?

This is the cosmic topic that absorbs us today. How do we pick a verb when we are offered a choice? Is it dived in or dove in? Lend or loan? Have we forgot our lessons or forgotten them?

Let me firmly equivocate. The choice depends upon intangible elements — chiefly the sound and cadence of the verb, and the context of its employment. When we speak of the writer’s “art,” this is what we are talking about.

Take “stamp” and “stomp.” Semantically speaking, there is not a dime’s worth of difference in the two verbs. They both mean “to bring down the foot on an object or a surface forcibly, to tread heavily or violently upon.” The subtle difference, I submit, lies in the image we are trying to convey. Ladies stamp, horses stomp.

The Portland Oregonian reported the trial last August of a Prineville man convicted of “stamping a raccoon to death.” Wrong verb. The defendant stomped that ‘coon to death. I cannot tell you why we stamp out a fire, or stamp out an epidemic, but that is what we do. We stamp them, not stomp them.

The choice between “dived” and “dove” depends almost wholly upon the vowel sound. (A secondary consideration is that “dove” may be confused for a nanosecond with the bird of the same name.) If we are talking about Hiram, who did a jackknife as he dived from the high board, maybe “dived” works better. If our hero’s name is Reginald, it won’t matter.

Your ear is the judge in the matter of Prince Charming. The lovestruck chap either kneeled or knelt before Cinderella. The trick for writers is to read such alternatives aloud. Kneeled? Knelt? Do you want a long “e” or a short one? Which verbal form evokes a kneelier image?

Not long after 9/11, Charles Krauthammer wrote a column for Time magazine. The editor added a headline: “Total war has been declared on us, but we have forgot how to fight it.” As past participles, both “forgot” and “forgotten” are equally acceptable. I would have chosen “forgotten,” but the editor plainly liked a sequence of three terminal t’s: forgot, fight, it. He went for the harder verb.

Context matters. Are we writing a light piece or a serious piece? All my dictionaries now recognize “snuck” as an acceptable past tense of “sneak,” but only in the most informal passages. It is all very well to say that a fox snuck into the hen house, though the chickens may reasonably object, but the ear would be offended by “the murderer snuck into the child’s bedroom.”

Where do you stand on “stink, stank, stunk”? Upwind, I suppose. Do we say that retail sales stank in 2002? Or stunk? My ear tells me that the hog lot that stunk is more odoriferous than the hog lot that stank, but my ear is fallible. Do we say that a worthless stage performance stunk? More likely, it stank. It’s something to think about.

What is the past tense of “hang”? The Associated Press reported a few years ago that three men were quickly identified after they robbed a bank. They were small-time criminals who “hanged around” street corners in Brooklyn. Nope. Those robbers “hung around” those corners. Three years ago, when he was considering a run for the White House, entrepreneur Donald Trump announced his platform. “He would push for murderers to be hung.” Nope. He wanted them hanged. The rule is easily remembered: Criminals are hanged; portraits are hung. (And participles are dangled – but that is a lecture for another day.)

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.


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