The Grammarphobia Blog

Are you riven about “rived”?

Q: A recent article in the NY Times says northeastern Nigeria “has been rived for years by attacks from Boko Haram.” Shouldn’t that be “riven”?

A: In that May 6, 2014, article in the Times about the kidnapping of schoolgirls by the terrorist group, the reporter paraphrased a comment by a UN official:

“Manuel Fontaine, Unicef’s regional director for West and Central Africa, said in a telephone interview that the information had been obtained from the agency’s contacts for the area, which has been rived for years by attacks from Boko Haram.”

Is this use of “rived” as a past participle OK? It depends.

The Oxford English Dictionary says the past participle of the verb “rive” is “riven” in British English, but it’s either “riven” or “rived” in American English.

Standard dictionaries in the US generally list “riven” as the usual past participle, but include “rived” as a less common usage.

Information in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), for example, indicates that the use of “rived” as a past participle is a “standard usage” that “occurs appreciably less often” than “riven.”

A search of the New York Times archive finds that both “riven” and “rived” are used as past participles, though “riven” is far more common at the paper.

The verb “rive,” meaning to tear apart or split, first showed up in The Chronicles of Britain, a Middle English poem written in the late 12th or early 13th centuries by the poet-priest Layamon, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

Chambers says English borrowed the term from Scandinavian sources (in Old Icelandic, for instance, rifa meant to tear apart), but it ultimately comes from an ancient Indo-European root that also gave English the word “rift.”

The OED says the verb “rive” is now “somewhat” archaic or literary in standard English, except when used for splitting people into opposing sides, or (in the US) splitting wood or stone.

Here’s an example of the divisive usage from the Sept. 22, 1998, issue of the Guardian: “The avenging, evangelical prosecutor seems never to give a thought to how his relentless chase is riving the nation.”

And here’s an example about wood being split, from the June 1991 issue of the American Woodworker: “The ax rives the wood by following the grain.”

Finally, the adjective “riven,” which showed up in the early 1300s, is still being divisive, as in this example from The Rise and Fall of Class in Britain, a 1999 brook by David Cannadine: “The image of Ireland as a riven society was no less misleading.”

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