At some time in the middle 1970s, Deirdre Wilson and I noticed that we had never seen the past participle of the verb stride anywhere. In fact we didn't even know what it was. When you stride off, what is it that you've done? How would it be described? Have you strided? Have you strode? Have you stroded? Have you stridden? Have you strodden? We realized that we hadn't a clue. None of them sounded familiar or even mildly acceptable to us as native speakers. And this odd gap had some potential for theoretical significance. Let me explain why. And then I'll tell you how the world's most distinguished English grammarian stumbled across a real-life sentence that seemed to clear up the mystery. And I'll fill in a bit of subsequently discovered history as well. But first, before you read on, write down what you think is the correct form for the past participle of stride in English as spoken by you.
If you simply haven't a clue what to write down, then that supports what Deirdre Wilson and I originally wanted to make out of this strange case of a defective paradigm. Let me explain why. There is a small way in which it could be theoretically important whether, in a language with verbs and participles, there can be some verbs that accidentally lack certain participles. You see, in the 1950s and 1960s it was standard to assume — following Charles C. Fries's The Structure of English (1952) and Noam Chomsky's Syntactic Structures (1957) — that modal auxiliaries — can, may, and will, etc. — are members of a special part of speech called ‘Modal’, quite distinct from Verb. But not all linguists believed that. Otto Jespersen (perhaps the greatest grammarian of the first half of the 20th century) had regarded the modals as anomalous tensed verbs. And by the 1970s various more recent linguists (John R. Ross, James D. McCawley, and Rodney Huddleston, to name but three) had published arguments that the modals should instead be treated simply as verbs. Deirdre and I thought this latter Jespersenian view was the correct one.
It cannot be disputed that the modals are highly irregular verbs, of course. They utterly lack the usual 3rd person singular -s of regular verbs (it's he may, not *he mays). And they have no plain forms or participles at all — none of what The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls secondary forms. The modal verbs have only primary (tensed) forms: a present tense form and a preterite form. Note, for example, the contrast between the regular verb can meaning "seal into airtight metal canisters" and the can we're talking about here, which means "be able to":
|LEXICAL VERB can||MODAL VERB can|
|PRESENT TENSE||We're proud that we can our own plums every year.||We're proud that we can take vacations in Europe every year.|
|PRETERITE TENSE||We were proud that we canned our own plums back then.||We were proud that we could take vacations in Europe back then.|
|PAST PARTICIPLE||We have often canned our own plums.||*We have often canned take vacations in Europe.|
|GERUND PARTICIPLE||Canning plums is very pleasant.||*Canning take vacations in Europe is very pleasant.|
So the notion that the so-called Modal items are really just irregular verbs might be thought to gain a tiny piece of extra support if there are ordinary lexical verbs lacking participles. It means you have to allow for verbs that have missing parts of their paradigms anyway, regardless of whether you include the modals among the verbs, so it makes the modals look not quite so special among the verbs. That would be the relevance of discovering a verb that simply didn't have a past participle, which is what stride seemed to be.
Deirdre and I made this point in a 1977 paper (Geoffrey Pullum and Deirdre Wilson, "Autonomous syntax and the analysis of auxiliaries", Language 53, 741-788). If stride doesn't have a past participle, then a verb without a past participle is not a hitherto unknown circumstance, and thus if the modals all lack past participles it doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't verbs.
Now, quite coincidentally, and unknown to us at the time, it turned out that the defectiveness of stride had been independently mentioned by Archibald A. Hill in an obituary for Albert Henry Marckwardt published in the very same journal as our paper, Language, the year before (52 , 667-681 — it appeared after our paper was in press). Hill had been asked about the missing past participle by Marckwardt some fifty years before. Said Hill: "I have been listening ever since for an example of this curiously non-existent form" (p. 668).
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and the inflectional morphology chapter of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (page 1605) said that the answer might be stridden but the form was "very dubious and may not occur". So various people had been unsuccessfully watching for the occurrence of this word form for at least 70 years. At Vocaboly a small amount of subsequent research was done on this by David Picton, who concludes that I have strode may be taking over from I have stridden.
Well, Rodney Huddleston, the world's most distinguished English grammarian, recently got back from his vacation in the Andes (his idea of relaxing in his seventies is to hike up to Machu Picchu), and was relaxing a couple of weeks ago by reading a detective novel by Elizabeth George (Careless in Red, 2008) when he suddenly came upon this (p.109):
Alan said he'd fetch someone at once to see what Cadan was meant to be doing. He'd stridden off after unlocking the front door, letting them both in, and pocketing the keys with the air of a man who knew exactly where his place was in the scheme of things.
After more than thirty years, Rodney had found a naturally attested example of stridden (settling the question of whether we were right to say in CGEL that it "may not occur" anymore: we were not right, it does sometimes occur).
There is hardly anything new under the sun, however. Unknown to Huddleston and Palmer, and to me until just the other day when a lucky Google hit turned it up on Jstor, an article had been published on the topic some 28 years ago as a follow-up to Hill's remark: "The past participle of stride" by H. B. Woolf (American Speech, 55 , 298-301). Woolf cites a number of other instances of past participle forms for stride that he was able to track down in Merriam-Webster's files. They confirm the existence of a certain amount of variation and uncertainty.
From 1902, Merriam-Webster had found a citation of Owen Wister in The Virginian writing "Illness had stridden upon him", but from 1936 they had found Rebecca West in The Thinking Reed writing "So from youth he had strode through the twenty-four hours at the pace of a Marathon race". From 1950 there is a Publishers' Weekly article with "had strode down the aisle", and from 1951 an essay by Robert Lynd with "had strode past her", but in 1970 they find Loren Eisley writing in Playboy "he had stridden up the stairs".
So the past participle suddenly noticed by Rodney Huddleston, as he sat reading on the back patio of his house overlooking the South Pacific at Noosa in Queensland, was not utterly without precedent. Stridden does naturally occur, just occasionally. And it is the commonest form: strode (universally accepted as the preterite tense form, of course) is somewhat rarer as the past participle according to Woolf (though if Picton is right this is slowly changing).
But even stridden is very rare. I myself had been waiting since the Ford administration to encounter an occurrence on the hoof, in naturally occurring speech or writing, and I still have never spotted or heard one in natural use myself. Nor have I heard have strode.
If one or both are to be counted as occurring in Standard English, there is a tiny little piece of potential support to be subtracted from the case for treating Modals as verbs (though it doesn't matter much: in my view there is a massive case for that analysis anyway).
But looking back, I see that it probably never was good enough evidence. As our colleague Frank Palmer pointed out to Huddleston and me by email, there is a difference between the modals and the verb stride. When you read something like He'd stridden off after unlocking the front door you find yourself thinking "Oh, so that's the past participle of stride", if you even notice it at all; but if you were to read *He'd mayed work from home since negotiating a telecommuting agreement several months before, you just think "Unh??". The former is very rare but we feel it is at least possible; the latter seems impossible. For modals like may, the participles are not just unusual but absolutely nonexistent and impossible.
If there are any lexical verbs that lack certain participles, it is merely by historical accidents of participles falling out of use. It isn't like that the case of the modals. They represent a special kind of verb that lacks participles completely, systematically, and irredeemably.