The boat lies half-sunken in the bay.

Sunken is an adjective, right? But in the previous sentence, it seems to be acting as adverb modifying lies.

Should the sentence be:

The boat lies half sunk in the bay.

  • 1
    I think both are correct. – Shaona Bose Aug 11 '13 at 17:40
  • sunken is an older form of the past participle of sink, now more commonly sunk. Both are acceptable. I can't explain why, but half-sunken sounds better to my British ears in that context. – TrevorD Aug 11 '13 at 17:48
  • 1
    @TrevorD It’s because it’s an adjective. Sink and drink can both be fit into a four-form inflection model, where the fourth version is reserved for adjectival use. See my answer. – tchrist Aug 11 '13 at 17:49
  • For variant inflections of the similar drink and shrink, see also english.stackexchange.com/q/81223 and english.stackexchange.com/q/70343. – tchrist Aug 11 '13 at 18:03

You seem to be asking two different questions.

Of Copular Complements

The first is how an adjective like half-sunken can apply to a verb in your sentence. The answer is that it doesn’t, because lie is here functioning more like a copula. It just serves to link the subject with a predicate description of that subject. Some writers prefer the term “semi-copula” for the verbs other than be that work this way, especially since many of them can also work as non-copulas. But here are similar examples of verbs that take (or can take) adjectives in their complements:

  • The milk had gone bad already.
  • He’s sittin’ pretty.
  • Make sure it lies flat.
  • That seems unlikely.
  • That looks pretty good.
  • They left still hungry.
  • In the end it proved impossible.
  • I ended up looking pretty good.

So the use in your cited sentence is perfectly correct as an adjective complement of lie.

Of Shrunken Heads

Your second question appears to revolve around whether the past participle of sink is sunken or sunk. The answer is that either will serve. Like many strong verbs, sink has enjoyed a range of possible historical inflections, and there still remains some ambiguity today.

In general, sink inflects like drink and shrink, which all enjoy, or can enjoy, a four-fold paradigm:

  • drink, drank, drunk, drunken
  • sink, sank, sunk, sunken
  • shrink, shrank, shrunk, shrunken

Where the fourth form is reserved for adjectival uses, as in a drunken man, a sunken ship, or a shrunken head.

That’s the way I myself personally inflect those verbs, but that’s just one model, and different speakers say different things at different times. In one common alternate model, we see this progression instead, which lacks an -ank form in the preterite and does not distinguish verbal from adjectival uses of the last form:

  • drink, drunk, drunken
  • sink, sunk, sunken
  • shrink, shrunk, shrunken

For drink, that alternate model is now considered non-standard, but for the other two, the case is less clear, and both models have some currency and acceptance. Think of the movie title Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, or the old boardgame’s commercial’s “You sunk my battleship!” That shows that the alternate model still lives for shrink and sink, even though saying “I *drunk a lot last night” is now considered thoroughly non-standard, as too is “I hadn’t *drank much that night.”

For sink, the OED gives the past tense as either sank or sunk, and the past participle as either sunk or sunken. It gives sinken as a vestigial dialect use of an older form, and reports that the weak inflection sinked was also sometimes found, albeit rarely except in one now-obsolete circumstance.

In some speakers, there may be a difference in transitive and intransitive uses:

  • The ship sank off the coast of Galicia.
  • He sunk his own ship rather than allow pirates to board it.
  • This is a truly interesting answer. I'm led to wonder if choosing the inflection is at all influenced by the verb's transitivity. That is, "to sink" has transitive and intransitive uses; think of "I sank/sunk into the water" versus "You sank/sunk my battleship." I'm also curious if British and American versions of the Battleship commercials might have used different forms. Time to check YouTube! – bubbleking Feb 6 '18 at 16:22

The OED states that ‘In present usage [sunk] in adjectival use tends to be restricted to senses implying deliberate human agency’.

As we don’t know that that is the case in your example, sunken seems appropriate.

  • 5
    There are three strong -ink verbs in English: drink, sink, shrink. In modern use, the -unken forms for these tend only to be used as adjectives, not as verbal past participles. So we still sometimes have drunken men even though we would never now say that they *had drunken. Similarly for sunken ships and shrunken heads. – tchrist Aug 11 '13 at 17:59

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