Hanged vs. Hung: What’s the Difference?

There is a good amount of confusion surrounding the verb hang and its various tenses. Is hanged or hung correct? Are they interchangeable? If not, what is the difference between the two?

In this post, I want to go over some basic tenses of the verb hang, illustrate them to you with example sentences, and give you a few tips to remember when to use which one for the future.

After reading this post, you shouldn’t have any trouble picking the correct tense to include in your writing.

When to Use Hang

Hang, of course, is the present tense form of the verb. Hang has a few different uses and meanings.

For example,

  • To fasten from above with no support from below; suspend – Will you hang this picture on the wall?
  • To hold or decline downward; let droop – Don’t hang your head in shame.
  • To pay strict attention – He hangs on my every word.
  • To cling tightly to something – Hang on to the rope.

When to Use Hanged

hang vs hung grammarHanged is the past tense and past participle of hang only when used in the sense of “put to death by hanging.”

For example,

  • The traitor was hanged for treason.
  • The criminal was hanged in the public square for his crimes.

It’s important to remember that hanged has a very specific use. We only use hanged when we are referring to the killing of a human being by suspending the person by the neck. With all other past tenses of hang, you will want to use hung.

And if death is not intended or likely, or the person is suspended by a body part other than the neck, use hung.

For example,

  • They hung him out to dry.
  • He was hung upside down as part of the prank.
  • They hung him by his arms and beat him.

When to Use Hung

hanged versus hung definition Hung is the regular past tense of hang. For example, the past tense of all of the beginning examples would use hung.

  • I hung the picture on the wall.
  • He hung his head in shame.
  • He hung on every word.
  • He hung on to the rope.

All inanimate objects, such as paintings, shelves, or Christmas ornaments are hung.

  • Last night we hung the lights on the Christmas tree.
  • I hung this shelving unit last week.

Can Hanged and Hung Be Used Interchangeably?

Some will say that these two words, hanged vs. hung, can be used interchangeably, even in the sense of “put to death by hanging,” and this is corroborated by some usage guides such as Fowler’s, stating that it isn’t necessarily erroneous to use hung in the case of executions, just less customary in Standard English.

However, I highly advise against using these words interchangeably. The vast majority of writing professionals object to the use of hung in execution contexts. The 2008 American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel Survey showed 71 percent of experts objected to hung used in this sense. The Panel’s opposition has remained strong since the survey began in the 1960s.

The Chicago Manual of Style and The AP Stylebook both prescribe the traditional distinction, so it is probably in your best interest as a writer to do the same.

The AP Style entry on hanged vs. hung states,

One hangs a picture, a criminal or oneself.

For past tense or the passive, use hanged when referring to execution or suicides, hung for other actions.

History of Hanged and Hung

It’s good to know when to use which word, but you might be wondering, “Why in the first place is there two different past-tense forms of the same word?” There actually is a pretty neat history as to why.

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage Guide, in Old English there were actually two different words for hang (hon and hangen), and the entanglement of these words (plus an Old Norse word hengjan) is why we have two past-tense forms for the same word in modern English.

Remember the Difference

A good mnemonic to remember the difference is the following sentence,

  • Curtains are hung and people are hanged.

This echoes what I said above, to use hung with inanimate objects like curtains, but to use hanged to refer to death by hanging.

Summary

The two words, hung vs. hanged, are both the past tense of hang but have different uses in a sentence.

Hanged refers to death by hanging, whether it be suicide or execution.

Hung is used is all other references.