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"Thou hast cleft my heart in twain."

In this context, what would change if instead of 'cleft' we'd read cleaved or cloven? Does the choice among the three past participle forms involve being more literary, poetic or old-fashioned?

According to Collins dictionary the verb can be found in all three forms when used to mean split or divide.

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  • 2
    In my 40 years in the kitchen, I've never heard this verb used in this context. (It's still a valid question, but I thought you and the rest of our learners should know that you are asking about a highly unusual usage. We generally cut butter with a knife, not cleave it.)
    – J.R.
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 9:37
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    @J.R. was about to post the same comment. I think our friend found "cleave" as a synonym for "cut" and might think it is used in the same way. It's not. When butter is rock hard you might try desperately stabbing at it with a knife, but you would not cleave butter, with any knife, let alone a cleaver, whether it was frozen solid or softened. Use a warmed knife next time, it's much easier.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 10:17
  • In this case, "cleft in twain" is a 'common expression [...] used in historical contexts' (jakubmarian.com/irregular-english-verbs-eave-to-eft). It's also used in fantasy fiction and role-playing games, btw. Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 10:58
  • cleave in twain is redundant.
    – Lambie
    Commented Aug 10, 2019 at 15:32

2 Answers 2

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The verb is almost never used in speech or writing, but the past participle form is often found as an adjective in the following pairings:

cleft chin
cleft palate

cloven hooves

You would NOT be able to change the word forms in the above phrases. Anyone know any others like this?

Because 'cloven' is most usually found alongside 'hooves', I personally associate a bit of a grotesque or beastly connotation to it, whereas 'cleft' has a more matter-of-fact descriptive connotation.

I'd recommend using 'cleaved' when functioning as a verb in the sentence, e.g. "She had cleaved it." It sounds more natural and modern than the other choices, which would stand out and sound outdated or overly formal.

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For simple past, it was usual to say:

The butter was cleaved/cleft/clove in two with a knife.

For use with the past participle:

The chef had cleaved/cleft/cloven the butter in two with a knife.

However, given that even the experts have long disagreed on the specifics, 1807 Grammar Book, and that the verb to cleave is approaching (or long past) obsolescence, I would be surprised if anyone would complain regardless what you chose to use. Personally, as you are cutting the butter with a knife and not a cleaver, I would recommend that you use 'cut'.

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  • I think the OP was asking which of the three forms is grammatically correct. Unless I'm mistaken, by putting them all together, you've skirted the main question.
    – J.R.
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 10:20
  • …was clove in two…(?)
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 10:21
  • @Mari-Lou Thank you. Yes, a bad example. I have amended the answer to show better usage of 'clove'.
    – James
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 10:45
  • @J.R. I felt that my answer demonstrated that 'cleft' and 'cleaved' were acceptable in the way the OP used them, but 'cloven' was not. However, in recognition of your long-standing experience on this site, I have amended my answer to more clearly spell out that 'clove' cannot be used in the way the OP did. Thank you for helping me improve my answer.
    – James
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 10:56
  • Thanks for your replies. My question was related only to the difference between the three past participle forms, not to which verb to use for the sentence. All the same, I admit I could have used a better example. I'm going to edit it and wait for some new answers.
    – Fra
    Commented Jun 29, 2018 at 11:40

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