English English language Etymology Grammar Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

A sticky question

Q: The verb “stick” seems to have uses that don’t allow conjugation. You can say, “We got stuck in the elevator,” but not “The elevator sticks us.” Are there other verbs with one sense applicable only in the past tense?

A: In a clause like “We were stuck in the elevator” or “We got stuck in the elevator,” the word “stuck” is either a past participle or a participial adjective, depending on the meaning. In either case, “stuck” is a nonfinite verb form, one that isn’t inflected for tense.

When a state or condition is meant, “stuck” is usually a participial adjective in an intransitive clause. When an action is meant, “stuck” is usually a past participle in a passive transitive clause.

The “be” version is used for a condition or an action, while the “get” version tends to be used for an action.

You can expand the two elevator clauses above to make clear that the first refers to a condition (“We were stuck in the elevator all night”) and that the second refers to an action (“We got stuck in the elevator when the power failed”).

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language refers to the past participle in such uses as a “verbal passive” and the participial adjective as an “adjectival passive.”  Cambridge calls the two conditions “stative” and “dynamic.” It discusses “be” and “get” passives in more detail on pages 1429-1443.

The grammar’s authors, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, cite several examples of adjectives derived from past participles but with special meanings:

“She’s bound to win” … “We’re engaged (to be married)” … “Aren’t you meant to be working on your assignment?” … “His days are numbered” … “Are you related?” …  “I’m supposed to pay for it” … “He isn’t used to hard work.”

For readers who’ve forgotten the terminology, a verb is transitive when it needs a direct object to make sense (“Beverly raises calla lilies”) and intransitive when it makes sense without one (“The yellow ones died”).

A  verb is active when the subject performs the action (“Gertrude grows lupins”) and passive when the action is performed on the subject (“The lupins are grown by Gertrude”).

When an active transitive clause becomes passive, as in that latter example, the former direct object (“lupins”) becomes the subject, and the former subject (“Gertrude”) becomes the object of a prepositional phrase, though the prepositional phrase is not always expressed.

As for the etymology here, when “stick” was originally used to mean fix in place it was an intransitive verb spelled sticiað in Old English. The Oxford English Dictionary says transitive uses “are typically recorded later than their intransitive equivalents and chiefly occur in the passive, as to be stuckto get stuck, etc.”

The earliest intransitive example in the OED is from the Old English Boethius, a translation made in the late ninth or early tenth century of De Consolatione Philosophiae (“The Consolation of Philosophy”), a sixth-century Latin treatise by the Roman philosopher Boethius:

“Gesihst þu nu on hu miclum & on hu diopum & on hu þiostrum horoseaða þara unðeawa ða yfelwillendan sticiað” (“Do you see now in how great and in how deep and in how dark an abyss of sins men of evil vices stick”).

The dictionary’s first citation for “stick” used as a transitive passive is from a letter written on Oct. 4, 1635, by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, to the English statesman Thomas Wentworth:

“When he saw the man and his horse stuck fast in the quagmire.” (Here “stuck” is a participial adjective.)

The OED’s earliest “be stuck” example is figurative: “It is Natural to men in the wrong to persist, and believe they take Wing when they are deepest stuck in the Mire” (from The Portugues Asia, John Stevens’s 1695 translation of a work by the Portuguese historian Manuel de Faria e Sousa).

And the dictionary’s first “get stuck” citation is from the transcript of an 1899 case before the New York State Court of Appeals: “If the logs get stuck we keep men there with pevies and work them through.” A “peavey” (the usual spelling) is a hooked lumberjack tool.

Finally, we should mention that the verb “stick” took on a bloody sense in Middle English when it came to mean “to impale (a thing) on (also upon) something pointed.” The OED’s first citation is from an anonymous medieval romance:

“And Þe bor is heued of smot, / And on a tronsoun of is spere / Þat heued a stikede for to bere” (“And he beheaded the boar and stuck the head on the end of his spear so he could carry it”). From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun (circa 1300).

Two centuries later, the verb came to mean “to pin (a person) to a wall, the ground, etc., by running a weapon through his or her body.” The first OED citation is from the Coverdale Bible of 1535:

“And Saul had a iauelynge [javelin] in his hande, and cast it, and thoughte: I wyll stycke Dauid fast to the wall” (1 Samuel 18:11).

Help support the Grammarphobia Blog with your donation. And check out our books about the English language and more.

Subscribe to the blog by email

Enter your email address to subscribe to the blog by email. If you’re a subscriber and not getting posts, please subscribe again.