Drank vs. Drunk: Which One Is Right?

The English language is an incredibly interesting one. It is the lingua franca of the 21st century, and thousands of words are added to it every year. Dictionary and linguistic websites track new, trending, and obsolete words. There are blogs and articles about some words that have been part of the language for so long, their meanings are embedded into our understanding without us actually understanding them. For instance, Drank vs. drunk.

We know that they both derive from the root word drink, and we know that they are both past tense, but can you use them interchangeably? If not, when are you supposed to use the word drank and when is drunk appropriate?

In order to understand the differences between the two similar words, this article will explore the etymology of their root word (through its English lineage), the definitions of each word, their histories, and their different uses and examples of them.

Etymology of the Root Word Drink

The verb form of the word drink stems from its Proto-Germanic ancestor, drenkanan, which meant “to swallow water or liquids.” The word has kept its main definition through the centuries and English’s evolution (Old English drincan and Middle English drinken), and has accrued other meanings, some of which are negative.

“Drink lots of water to stay properly hydrated in the summer,” and “We love to drink lemonade,” denote the word’s original meaning, while the simple sentence, “He drinks,” reveals a person’s addiction to alcoholic beverages. Because of this definition, the derivative word drunk can be used in a derogatory manner as well.

The infinitive, or present tense, word drink can also be used as a euphemism. “Drink the Kool-Aid,” is a negative connotation to following or worshipping something. The phrase stems from the mass suicide of the Peoples Temple cult in 1978, when the followers of the cult drank the sweet grape drink that was laced with cyanide.

The noun form drinc emerged in Old English around c. 1300 to describe either a simple beverage such as water or an alcoholic one.

Past Tense vs. Past Participle

Verbs are categorized into four principal parts: the infinitive or present, the past, the present participle, and the past participle. To understand the different definitions and uses of drank and drunk, let’s brush up on English’s past tense and past participle.

The past tense describes an action word that happened with a definite endpoint. “Tom crossed the street,” “She tied her little brother’s shoelaces.”

The past participle describes an action word that happened in the past but can function as both a verb and an adjective. “The strap to her purse was broken,” “Thomas had a swollen lip after he fought the bully on the playground.” When written, this principal part gives a passive quality to the voice of the narration.

Drank vs. Drunk: The Difference

As a verb, the word drank is a simple past tense conjugation of its root word. For example, “Moira drank the last of the milk with her Oreo cookies,” “He loved orange juice as a kid and drank it every day,” “I drank a lot of water today.”

The verb drunk is the past participle, which is always preceded by the necessary conjugations of the words have and be. For example, “Lots of wine had been drunk at the party.”

Drunk is used as other parts of speech, too. Its meaning, while still connected to the root word, changes slightly with the different parts. As an adjective, the word’s meaning changes to a state of being. It refers to the physical and mental impairment that is a side effect of consuming too much alcohol. For example, “There’s a drunk man yelling at a tree in front of the building,” “Drunk me is much more honest than sober me.”

Adjectival drunk can also be used to describe feeling an overwhelming emotion. “The king was drunk with power,” “I felt drunk with happiness.”

The noun version of drunk refers to a person who habitually drinks excessive amounts of alcohol. “Her dad is a drunk.” “I hate passing the drunks who stand in front of the liquor store on my way to the bus stop.”

Dictionaries, like Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, stated that drank and drunk were always swappable and OED acknowledged the same since the 16th century. Some articles note that drunk can be used as a simple past tense or that the two words are interchangeable in speech. A blog on Merriam Webster mentions that these usages are dialectal. In different British dialects, in places like Cornwall, Lancashire, Nottingham, and Glamorgan, Wales, words that change the /a/ in the simple past tense (such as sang, rang, and drank) into /u/ in the past participle (sung, rung, drunk) are used interchangeably in a pretty even manner. Our fellow English speaker can say, “I drunk all the milk last night,” “We had drank the loveliest Cabernet last night,” and “She drunk from the river.”

In writing, however, they can’t be used as freely. That is the beauty of language is it not? That words and phrases can be acceptable verbally, yet not on paper and vice versa. And who knows? Maybe that will change in the next century. Perhaps Britain’s dialectal usage will make its way to the United States in the way of music, films, or literature and our descendants will use Drank vs. drunk as synonyms and not different parts.


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