I'd like to know how to use the irregular past forms of the verb 'to cleave' in the following sentences. It is a highly confusing verb when used in sentences referring to the past.

The wooden door had been _________ (cleaved?) in two.

Sheep and goats have _________ (cloven?) hoofs.

Being in a _________ (cleft?) stick means being in an awkward, difficult situation.

John _________ (clove?) to his romantic ideas.

How can I tell the correct form from the incorrect one in sentences like these? Is there an overlap between rarely used past forms and change in meaning?

  • Have you consulted a dictionary? There are two different verbs, with (optionally) different past tenses and ppts.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 30, 2018 at 14:30
  • The verb "to cleave" is largely obsolete except in some fixed phrases like "cleft palate" and "cloven hoof" or "cloven hooves," so my advice would be to forget "the word" completely. Note that in fact there are two different verbs here, with different etymologies. Germanic "to part / divide" with Past tense clove, clave, cleaved, cleft; Past participle cloven, clove, cleaved, cleft, and Old English "to stick / adhere" Past tense cleaved, clave; Past participle cleaved. Oct 30, 2018 at 14:35
  • For the record, the full OED lists dozens of different forms and spellings for the OE verb with the sense "adhere or cling to": OE clífan, clifian, ME–15 cliue(n, clyue(n, (ME clyuy), 15 clive, OE clio-, cleofian, ME cleou-, ME cleuien, ME–15 cleue(n, ME cleuy, clefe, cleeue, cleve, 15 cleeve, 15– cleave ( cleaue), OE clif-, cliof-, cleofede, ME clivede, ME–15 clevede, 15– cleaved, 16 cleft, ME claf, ( claif), ME–16 claue, 16– clave, ME clef, ME clof, 16–18 clove, OE clifod, cleofod, ME–15 cleued, 15 clyued, 15–18 cleaved, ME ycliue, 16 cleft, 16 clave, clove. Oct 30, 2018 at 14:42
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    The first one is definitely cleaved, as an action verb. //all those OED definitions confuse the issue and it's not helpful to post them like that. What is an OP to do with them anyway?
    – Lambie
    Oct 30, 2018 at 15:06
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    @Tashus Yes, cleaved as the transitive verb. cleft and cloven as PP are used adjectivally only, a cleft palate, a cloven hoof.
    – Lambie
    Oct 30, 2018 at 16:08

1 Answer 1


There are actually two verbs with the same spelling here.

Cleave (meaning split) is quite rare and has three possible past participles "cleft, cloven and cleaved" When being used in the perfect tense, or in passive you can choose. I'd choose the regular "cleaved" in most cases.

In some idioms, only one form is used "cloven hoof" and "cleft stick" and "cleft palate" are examples.

The second verb is Cleave (meaning stick together) it has only one past participle: "cleaved". This verb is now very rare in modern English, though you might find it Shakespeare and other poetry. Avoid this word, unless you want to sound like you are imitating Shakespeare.

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