Uses of the Past Participle
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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