Irregular verbs: Splitting from or clinging to old forms

A verb in a newspaper report sent me to the dictionary and usage books.

Presbyterian churches around Charlotte now face the same philosophical debates over Biblical authority and homosexuality that have cleaved other religions.

I wondered whether cleaved was the most accepted spelling for the past participle of cleave, meaning, in this case, to split apart. The tense in that clause is present perfect, which combines has or have with the past participle.

Cleave can also mean to cling to, as in the King James Version of Genesis 2:24 “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave until his wife …” These dual meanings for cleave arise from different root words in Old English, according to the Word Detective. ¬†The Grammar Girl has an new episode about “Janus Words: ‘Sanction’ and ‘Cleave.'”

Merriam-Webster and Webster’s New World give the past participle as cleaved but also cleft or cloven. We can recognize those forms in cleft palate and cloven hooves. The American Heritage and Collins give cleft first, then cleaved and cloven. The Compact Oxford English Dictionary lists¬†cloven, followed by cleft or cleaved. R.W. Burchfield in Fowler’s Modern English Usage says cleaved is most common in scientific usage. Garner’s Modern American Usage gives cleft as the preferred past participle and cleaved as “less good.” Bryan Garner differentiates between cleave to split and cleave to cling. For the cling use, the past participle is cleaved. That makes sense to me.

Not that it matters, perhaps, except as a mnemonic: Cleave rhymes with leave, and the past participle of leave is left. Leave-left, cleave-cleft.

Using the irregular conjugation of the verb would add a touch of poetry to the daily newspaper: Presbyterian churches around Charlotte now face the same philosophical debates over Biblical authority and homosexuality that have cleft other religions.