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Grammar 101: Sing, Sang, or Sung

September 20th, 2010 by

Grammar 101: Sing, Sang, or Sung

In an edition of Grammar 101 earlier this month, friend of this blog Ray Ebersole requested that I write a post on the difference between sing, sang, and sung. They all have fundamentally the same meaning, but they aren’t exactly interchangeable. You need to know which word you want to use under what circumstances.

Word sets like this are among the most challenging aspects to good grammar, because it is very easy to get them mixed up. It can be difficult to remember the difference between ever so often and every so often, for instance, since there is only a difference of a single letter. With sing, sang, sung, it may not always be appropriate to “play it by ear.”

Sing is generally the “present tense” version of the word, in addition to some of the different conjugations based on the subject of the sentence. Some examples of proper use of “sing” and its variants include the following:

I sing in the shower.
He smiles when he sings.
They are singing in the courtyard.

Sang is the “simple” past tense version of the word. It is a verb that can be used on its own to indicating that the singing took place some time in the past. Some examples of “sang” would then include the following:

You sang the national anthem.
We sang as loudly as we could.
She walked and sang at the same time.

Sung is the past participle version of the word. It is a verb that, unlike sang, cannot be used on its own. Instead, it must be accompanied by a “helping” verb (usually “to have” or “to be” and their variants). It can used as the past tense, as well as present perfect and other tenses. Without going too far into the complexities of grammar, some proper uses of “sung” would include the following:

I would have sung more clearly if I knew the words.
The chorus was sung by the entire group.
Jimmy has sung at the venue many times before.

Knowing whether to use sing, sang, or sung can be challenging for even the most seasoned of English experts. Just as people still confuse biannual and semiannual from time to time, it’s understandable to mistake sang for sung sometimes too. The key is to make the appropriate correction when needed and, better yet, look up the right word before you write it in the first place.

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Michael Kwan Freelance Writer

11 Responses to “Grammar 101: Sing, Sang, or Sung”

  1. Ray Ebersole says:

    Thanks Michael, that was very helpful. If I had been writing “Jimmy has sung at the venue many times before” I would have used “sang”.

    What part of the sentence is the helper to make it sung instead of sang?

    • Michael Kwan says:

      “Has” is the helper. If you took that out, then it’d be:

      “Jimmy sang at the venue.”

      … but that has a different meaning, since it would refer to one specific instance of singing in the past.

      With my example of “Jimmy has sung at the venue many times before,” we have the present perfect tense. We’re not referring to a single specific instance of singing, which makes it different than the “Jimmy sang” example.

      At least that’s my understanding.

  2. betshopboy says:

    Does the above application applies to “Drink, drank, drunk”?

    Interestingly, “Drunk” can also be used on its own as a noun.

  3. AOA says:

    I haven’t thought that this can be problem for native English speakers.

    At a certain stage of learning English by Chinese students, they must remember all the forms of the verbs that are irregular when put in different tenses.

    • Thom says:

      In my experience, this sort of approach to conjugation is the standard for a student learning a foreign language. However, one typically learns one’s primary language through immersion, which is likely to propagate common grammatical errors. In school systems (such as my public secondary school), these errors go unchecked over years of substandard teaching, leaving one to commit the same errors or to study the proper grammar of his own volition.

  4. [...] difference. In some instances, the single letter would only affect the tense, as is the case with sang and sung. In other instances, the single letter can dramatically change the meaning. Such is the case with [...]

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