Uses of the Past Participle

By Maeve Maddox

Participle is a grammatical term I fling about quite often. A recent reader’s comment made me realize that not everyone is completely clear about what the word means.

Instead of trying to cover both participles in one post, I’ll focus on the “past participle” in this one and save the “present participle” for another time.

The word participle comes from Latin participium. The definition of the Latin term also applies to the English participle: “a non-finite part of a verb, having some characteristics of a verb and some of an adjective.”

The past participle is one of five basic verb forms called the “principal parts of the verb.” All the tenses are constructed from these five verb forms:

Infinitive: to write
Simple Present: write
Simple Past (preterite): wrote
Past Participle: (has) written
Present Participle: writing

Only two of these principal parts can be used “as is” in a sentence: the simple present and the simple past. They are fully functional verbs because they show tense (time). Because their forms contain the idea of time, they are called “finite verbs.”

The other three forms, including the past participle, do not show time.

Verb forms that do not show time are called “non-finite verbs.” Because they cannot function as complete verbs in themselves, they are called verbals, “words related to verbs.”

As a verbal, the past participle retains some functions of a verb while functioning as an adjective. In the following example, written is an adjective qualifying a noun phrase. At the same time, it is modified by prepositional phrases:

Written in code between 1660 and 1669, the diary of Samuel Pepys was first published in 1825.

The past participle of a regular verb is identical in form to the simple past: both end in -ed:

Infinitive: to live
Simple Present: live
Simple Past (preterite): lived
Past Participle: (has) lived
Present Participle: living

Here, drawn at random from one of the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters, are some examples of the adjectival use of the past participle:

FitzHamon’s marred face curdled into deeper purple.

Even thus, frustrated like a mewed hawk, she had a graceful gait.

Prior Heribert, shocked and dismayed, fell to prayer.

Bewildered and confused by so sudden a reversal, the prior confided and obeyed like a child.

He went out through the frozen garden to his herbarium.

A common error with this use of the past participle is the “misplaced modifier.” For example:

Stacked by the entrance to the stables, we made our delivery of hay bales.

This type of error can be avoided by rewriting the sentence to place the word being described by the participle closer to it:

We left our delivery of hay bales stacked by the entrance to the stables.

Stacked by the entrance to the stables, the hay bales showed that we’d made the delivery.

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8 Responses to “Uses of the Past Participle”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Well done, Maeve. Thank you for breaking this into chewable chunks.

    Some details for the ideas file:

    Does this mean that a preterite is not really a monk belonging to an order established by Saint Preter?

    When we say that non-finite verbs do not show time, that means that they don’t imply time by themselves; although they can when combined with helping verbs. Is that right?

    Have dictionary creators dumbed us down? I looked up some past participles to see how dictionaries treat them. Instead of identifying ‘frozen’ as a past participle, Merriam-Webster identifies it as an adjective.

    Speaking of which, do you have a favorite online dictionary?

    How did English come to require helping verbs? Isn’t that unusual among languages? How does it affect the difficulty of learning English?

    Challenge: Write a limerick that ends with ‘verbal’ (not nonverbal).

  • venqax

    That would be the Peterouts, who went extinct. Gradually. Their leader was the Peter-Principal, and he was not very good at it.

  • Maeve

    Rich,
    So many questions, so little time!

    One reason I don’t care for regular verbs is that my helpful tip about the past participle not showing time doesn’t really work with regular verbs because both the preterite and the past participle end in -ed.

    OED lists “frozen” as an adjective, but gives “past participle of ‘freeze'” for the etymology.

    My favorite online dictionaries? I subscribe to the OED and the M-W unabridged. Of the two, I prefer the OED. I use the Online Etymology Dictionary quite a bit. Sometimes it has information I don’t find in OED. I have OED and M-W dictionary apps on my iPhone. A good online site that is partially free is OxfordDictionaries.com/. It has both British and American sections.

    As for your other questions, maybe they’ll be answered in a post one of these days.

  • venqax

    Have dictionary creators dumbed us down?
    GOD Yes!! Fiske’s term “laxicographers” is very fitting. For evidence, just check out MW regarding anything you can think of that is marginally questionable and see their response. If MW did a math reference book with the same standards as its dictionary, you would be “informed” by something like this:

    2 + 2 /arithmetic problem/
    Also, //2 +2= 5 // 2= 4//, // 2 + 2= 17//

    Solution Discussion of 2 + 2

    Dissimilation may occur when a problem or equation contains two identical or closely related or completely unrelated numbers resulting in the change of one of them to completely different number or loss of one of them entirely. This happens regularly in 2 + 2 which is often solved as \5\ or as \2= 4\, the former arriving at 5 through Random Answer Selection and the latter dropping one of the 2s due to dissimilation. Pretty much all solutions to the problem 2 + 2 are in frequent use and widely accepted. Do not sweat it.

    Thanks, MW.

  • Maeve

    Venqax,
    Excellent analogy. If there were a “Like” button on your comment, I’d click it.

  • Tad Stevens

    Rich Wheeler Limerick Challenge accepted with apologies for treating something so dark with a limerick as well as tweaking the form a little. (Line 2 has a cramped first foot)

    There once was a Nazi named Goebbels,
    Who thought people no better than gerbils.
    He’d shout and berate,
    spewing fountains of hate,
    wih his bile both written and verbal.

  • Andy Knoedler

    You could carry the discussion of the two types of participle one level further by pointing out that the past participle packs passive overtones, while the present participle is definitely active.

    Past participle: “I’m interested in baseball movies.”
    Present participle: “Baseball movies are often interesting.”

    I point this out when students mistake the two participles, as in this sentence: *”I am interesting in space travel.”

  • Rich Wheeler

    Ten points for everybody!

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