Learn English

Hang out with ‘hang’ and ‘hung’

© ImageSource \ Image Source
Written by Stan Carey

Hang on, don’t hang up yet – hang out a while. The verb hang has impressive versatility, being used in many phrasal verbs, idioms, and expressions. It’s also a grammatical oddity: the past tense form hung is irregular, though the regular form hanged is used too – but usually just in certain contexts. Hang around with us here for a brief survey of this curious word. (Note: sensitive readers should take care, given one of the word’s common meanings.)

The entry for hang in Macmillan Dictionary includes numerous phrasal verbs, such as hang about, hang back, hang on, hang over, and hang with, and phrases such as hang by a thread, hang in there, hang a left/right, and hang your head. In the Related Words box you’ll find various nouns and noun phrases involving hang, such as hang-up and hang time. Hang itself can also be a noun, in the informal expression get/have the hang of something. Are you getting the hang of hang yet?



It’s no surprise, then, that Macmillan’s entry gives the verb hang three red stars, which means it’s one of the most common words in English ­– part of the language’s core vocabulary. Among the various sub-senses defined is one, sense 4, that’s worth a closer look: ‘kill with rope’ (i.e., around the neck, though it’s not always with a rope). This is the usage whose past tense and past participle forms are hanged – unlike all the others, which take hung.

The existence of the two forms is a result of two Old English verbs (hōn and hangian) and one Old Norse verb (hengjan), which became increasingly entangled before effectively merging. Hung, writes Robert Burchfield in his revision of Fowler, ‘became established in literary English in the late 16C., with hanged largely restricted to the sense “kill by hanging” and in imprecations of the kind I’ll be hanged if I do that.’ The expression I’ll be hanged is a way to convey either surprise or, as in the example quoted, determination not to do something.

Some writing guides insist that hanged and hung be kept neatly separate. But in practice, each spills a bit into the other’s domain. This has long been a feature of English, with authors such as Austen, Shelley, Faulkner, Updike, and Flannery O’Connor using hung where we might expect hanged. It’s less common, but it’s not wrong. Just be aware that if you use hung this way, some people may criticise the choice. For all other senses of hang, including all the phrases listed up top, you’re safe with hung.

Email this Post Email this Post

About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

3 Comments

  • By coincidence, I read this exchange in White Teeth by Zadie Smith today:

    ‘…tries to shoot his captain, misses, tries to shoot himself, misses, gets hung –’
    ‘Hanged,’ said Clara absent-mindedly.
    ‘Hanged or hung? I’ll get the dictionary,’ said Archie, laying down his hammer and climbing off the kitchen counter.

  • Sir James Fitzjames Stephen (1829-1894), a High Court judge and the most eminent criminal lawyer of his time, would often have sentenced murderers to be hanged by the neck until they were dead. He was an enthusiast for capital punishments. In his books and journalism, however, he always wrote that they were ‘hung’ for murder. Most notably in the well known quotation: “Some men, probably, abstain from murder because they fear that, if they committed murder, they would be hung. Hundreds of thousands abstain from it because they regard it with horror. One great reason why they regard it with horror is, that murderers are hung with the hearty approbation of all reasonable men.” (General View of the Criminal Law of England, 1863)

Leave a Comment