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Intoxicating: How to Derive "Drunk" Responsibly

We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she looks at the way that the "drink/drank/drunk" verb paradigm is changing, and advises you how to derive "drunk" (but please, don't drive drunk).

No one needs to be told that the present tense of the verb "to drink" is "drink." But what about the past tense? Is it "yesterday I drunk two martinis" or "yesterday I drank two martinis"? If you said "drank," reward yourself with an olive in your next martini.

But many people use "drunk" as the simple past tense. Despite what you hear in the street, that is still considered "wrong" by most usage authorities.

Take one more step back, and talk about what you imbibed before you had those two martinis. Do you say "I had already drunk a beer before the martinis," or "I had already drank a beer"?

The "right" answer is "drunk." But, as Bryan A. Garner notes in Modern American Usage, because so many people associate "drunk" with "inebriated," "drank has encroached on the past participial drunk." Saying "I had already drank a beer" is at Stage 2 on his Language-Change Index, meaning it's the equivalent of flunking a Breathalyzer test, but not falling-down drunk.

If you do flunk that Breathalyzer test, are you "drunk driving" or "drunken driving"? Now we're getting into the realm of judgment (which is probably impaired if you've had that beer and the two martinis).

"Drunk" and "drunken" actually have separate meanings. As the Chicago Manual of Style says: "Drunk describes a current state of intoxication {drunk driver}. (By contrast, a drunk — like a drunkard — is someone who is habitually intoxicated.) Drunken describes either a trait of habitual intoxication {drunken sot} or intoxicated people's behavior {a drunken brawl}."

But in a usage note, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fifth edition, says that "as an adjective, the form drunk is usually used after a verb such as be or seem, while the form drunken is used in front of the noun to modify it directly. Garner disagrees, calling "drunken driving" an idiom, because, after all, it is the driver that is drunk, not the driving. He's perfectly happy with "drunk driving." Using it, not doing it.

Most everyone agrees that "drunk" is the adjective form after the noun, and that the British "drink-driving" is a nonstarter over here.

But wait, there's more. Back to the usage note in American Heritage: "A differentiation between drunk and drunken is sometimes made in legal language, wherein a drunk driver is a driver whose alcohol level exceeds the legal limit, and a drunken driver is a driver who is inebriated." Yeah, right.

The Associated Press Stylebook makes it easier for you: It says to use "drunken driver" and "drunken driving." (But you are "driving drunk.")


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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday January 29th 2012, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Nice. Garner does qualify his suggestion with "no doubt" -- "for this reason, no doubt, 'drank' has encroached ..."

I do harbor at least some doubt, and wonder whether this isn't just an otherwise normal conflation of past tense that we see in the vernacular (not SWE) generally -- "done" as a preterite ("I done it"), or "went" as a participle ("They've went and done it"). There are certain participles that even native speakers hesitate about -- for "to dive" and "to sneak," as two examples, and perhaps "to drink" is just another of those. (?)

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