Reporting on a grammar debate in a crime novel by Michael Connelly, I remarked that the politics of English usage can show up anywhere. Sure enough, I just came across a great example in Simpsons Comics Royale, a comic book from Matt Groening and colleagues published by HarperCollins in 2001.
The issue this time is sneaked vs. snuck. It features centrally in a story about Radioactive Man called ‘Planet of the Strange-O’s’, which begins with our eponymous superhero dashing into what he thinks is a portable toilet (‘This is the nicest porta-potty I’ve ever been in!’). But the structure is not a porta-potty but a portal-potty, and by flushing it Radioactive Man ends up (FLUSHOOOOOM!) in another dimension.
Here he is soon surrounded by an army of near-Doppelgangers on a mission. You can recognise them below by their pale, cracked lower faces; Radioactive Man’s, by contrast, is yellow and smooth. The Strange-O’s pressure him to join them, but he resists. That’s when, shibboleth style, a dispute over usage (and semantics) breaks out:
[click images to embiggen]
Before we go on, it’s worth noting that while snuck is not universally liked or accepted, most contemporary usage authorities consider it standard, more or less, noting its unmarked occurrence at virtually all levels of English.
Back on Planet of the Strange-O’s (Radioactive Man calls this world ‘bizzaro’ – a misspelling I’ll address some other time), the linguistic in-fighting spreads, and snuck is demoted from nonstandard to downright incorrect:
Punched out of the melee – punched right off the planet, in fact – Radioactive Man realises the Strange-O’s are plotting to take over his world, so he disguises himself as one of them by putting concrete on his face and punching it before returning to the scene.
His verb choice gives him away again, but the Strange-O’s are distracted being amusingly alarmist about linguistic degradation:
By the time they realise what’s happened, it’s too late to stop him:
Radioactive Man then destroys the inter-dimensional portal-potty by double-flushing it (FLUSH! FLUSH! KABOOM!). The Strange-O’s are left frustrated yet relieved, and, maybe as a result of their confusion, they misidentify the passive voice:
‘I’ve ever heard’ (essentially ‘I have heard’) is perfect tense, not passive voice. If the clause were in passive voice it would be the unnatural-sounding ‘His poor grammar and syntax were the worst that have ever been heard by me.’
Given the story’s tongue-in-cheek nature, I can’t be sure the mix-up was unintentional. But nothing about it suggests irony on that point, and previous form from most people commenting on the passive voice – including language professionals – leads me to suppose it was an unconscious error. Fun story, though.
[Comic credits: Story: Jesse Leon McCann & Robert L. Graff; Art: Hilary Barta; Letters: Chris Ungar; Colours: Nathan Kane; Edits: Bill Morrison; Bizarro No. 1: Matt Groening.]