When Tiger Woods lost the Western Open by two strokes last summer, a reporter asked for a comment. “I’m really disappointed,” said the Tiger, “but I’m proud of the way I hung in there and grinded it out.”

Grinded it out? We’re talking about verbs today, and “grinded” is a beauty. Only the giant Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges its existence, but surely “grinded” is much grindier than the pedestrian “ground.” You can feel the grit. There’s precedent in “to mind,” as in “Lady Macbeth minded her manners.” She didn’t mound them. Otherwise the usual authorities give us bind/bound, find/found, and for a clock, wind/wound.

Before leaving the links, we ought to consider the past tense of “sink.” Should the reporter have said that Woods “sank” too few putts – or “sunk” too few putts? In his “Modern American Usage,” Bryan Garner addresses the choice. He quotes an item in The New York Times about a fellow who was drinking beer as he stood on a tabletop in Munich. A woman he had never met “came up behind him and sunk her teeth into his leg.” Garner would have emended the sentence to read, “sank her teeth into his leg.” In another example, Garner examines a story from Boston, where a basketball player “sunk 15 of 23 shots.” Garner would have edited to read, “sank 15 of 23 shots.”

Garner’s opinions always deserve respect, but there’s no binding rule on the matter of sank/sunk. The choice is finally a matter of a writer’s ear. Offhand, I would suppose that the Tiger’s putts sank and the Boston center’s 15 shots sank, but the woman in Munich properly sunk her teeth into the leg of the unoffending fellow. Or improperly. Consider the Titanic: It either sank or sunk. Your call. Consider the drama critic as he ponders a bad performance. It stank? Or it stunk? Which is stinkier? What about the past tense of “to shrink”? The cheap shirt either shrank or it shrunk, but “shrank” appears to be the wider choice. Have we lately huddled over slink/slinked/slunk? A writer could wait months – indeed, years – for a chance to write that “the skunk slunk.”

Such difficult choices abound. What is your feeling about “wiggle” and “wriggle”? In USA Today, a Seattle pitcher “wiggled out of a jam.” In Chicago, a columnist complained that “sex offenders have been wriggling through legal loopholes.” The last time I asked for a vote, a consensus began to form that earthworms wriggle and some defendants wiggle, but the sample was not large enough to be conclusive.

Have we recently examined a homely verb for “to expectorate”? Probably not. Is the preferred past tense “spit” or “spat”? The choice turns upon context. Little Bobby just spit out his spinach; our villain spat his warning. Thinking of “spat,” it’s not only a verb, it’s also a noun. A spat is a young oyster, a covering for a shoe and a petty quarrel. Stop digressing!

As every writer knows, words have penumbras, echoes, associations. The past tense of “to shine” is either “shined” or “shone,” but one active verb works for the sun and the other for a pair of shoes. A supplicant either “kneeled” or “knelt.” It was his prayer, but it’s your verb.

James Kilpatrick is a syndicated columnist.

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