“Sank” vs. “Sunk” vs. “Sunken”

My wife made me think this morning about the verb “sink”.

Some pairs of these verb forms are synonyms, which causes confusion.

My wife used the word “sunken” this morning.

This made me wonder about the difference between “sunk” and “sunken”.

And this led me to a dictionary.

The verb “sink” has these basic forms:

  • Sink — present simple, as in “I sink when I do not dog-paddle.”
  • Sank — preterite, as in “He sank my battleship!”
  • Sunk — past participle, as in “She has sunk the deal.”
  • Sinking — present continuous, as in “Hey, your boat is sinking!”

But here are the catches that lead to confusion:

  • “Sunk” is often used as a synonym for “sank”.
  • “Sunken” is definitely a synonym for “sunk”.

Putting the above two lists together, we see that the verb “sink” actually has these basic forms:

  • Sink — present simple
  • Sank or often Sunk — preterite
  • Sunk or Sunken — past participle
  • Sinking — present continuous

I recommend avoiding “sunk” as a preterite and instead always using “sank” as the preterite. And I recommend using “sunk” in your writing and speech as the past participle but recognizing that “sunken” is a standard alternative as a past participle, especially in literary references such as “The pirates were looking for sunken treasure.”