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The haziness of hung vs. hanged

Dorothy is a listener with a problem: The misusage of the words hung and hanged is killing her sanity.

For Dorothy, it seems like many people can’t tell the difference between the two words to save their lives. But, as it turns out, the distinction may be just that simple.

“The verb hang has two past tenses,” says University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan, “one of which is lethal.”

According to Curzan, there are many grammar books that distinguish between the two past-tense verbs. The website Grammar Girl describes this difference with a saying: “Curtains are hung, and people are hanged.”  Legal grammarian Bryan Garner draws an even finer line: If a person is “suspended and tortured but not killed, then they were hung.”

On the other hand, if they were killed, then they were hanged. For Garner, it really is about death.

To find the origin of this gruesome split, we have to look back at Old English, where we see that there were once two different verbs.

Curzan explains that one of these verbs was what grammarians call a “strong verb” while the other was a “weak verb.” The strong verb made a past tense by changing a vowel, so hang was turned into hung. The weak verb made the same change by adding an “-ed” to the end, so hang became hanged.

Over time, these verbs merged into one and the distinction in past tenses became hazy. “For a long time they were used interchangeably,” says Curzan.

“It was in the 18th and 19th centuries that people started to say, ‘We should make a distinction here,’" Curzan continues. "And then in the 20th century, grammarians latched onto this and said, 'No, no! Hanged for killing and hung for everything else!’”

But to lay this matter to rest once and for all, Curzan turns to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage: “If you make a point to make a distinction in your writing, you will not become a better writer, but you will spare yourself the annoyance of being corrected for having done something that is not wrong.”

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.