Stink vs. Stank vs. Stunk: What's the Difference, and When Should I Use Each One?

Relationships can sometimes stink.
Relationships can sometimes stink. / megaflopp/iStock via Getty Images

When talking about dirty clothes, wet dogs, or bad movies, the words stink, stank, and stunk come up often. But what’s the difference? When does something stink, when did you believe something stank, and when might it have stunk?

Grammarist has a helpful tutorial for this olfactory confusion. Stink is easy enough. It’s a present-tense verb best deployed when something is actively noxious. “You stink,” you might tell someone returning from the gym. A baby’s diaper stinks. Public access television stinks. And so on.

Stank is simply a past tense form of stink. Someone watching the Game of Thrones finale today might mutter, “This stinks.” Someone who watched it when it aired in 2019 may recall that it stank. If something is not actively and presently emitting an odor, figuratively or otherwise, then it stank.

What about stunk? It’s a past participle of the conjugated stink, meaning it’s associated with an action or sequence. Instead of saying your last birthday party stunk, you might say it stank because the cake was too dry.

Have, had, and has are all helpful verbs in this context and typically used with stunk. "The party had stunk after the cake was brought out." Or, "My birthday has stunk for years because I’m old."

Essentially, stink refers to the present, while stank expresses that something was smelly. Stunk expresses why.

[h/t Grammarist]