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Concourse 2

Participles: the essentials

going gone

There are two sorts of participles in English.


Present participles

Present participles are the words here in red:
    I am spending more time on it
read the book, I returned it to the library
    After opening the door, he crept silently in
the museum, he was filled with awe.

Present participles in English are always regular.  They all take an -ing ending (but not all words ending in -ing are participles).
The only issue is that we drop the -e at the ending of verbs such as choose when we make it choosing.
These are often simply referred to as -ing participles.


Past participles

Past participles are the words here in black:
    I have spent the cash
    The window was broken
I got the car repaired.
    She hadn't been to New York before

Past participles of regular verbs such as repair are formed by adding -d or -ed.  Irregular verbs such as break make the participle in a variety of ways, as broken, in this case.  For more, see the guide to lexical or main verb forms, linked in the list of related guides at the end.
These are often referred to as -ed participles or -en participles (to reflect that fact that some, such as broken are irregular.  On this site, we often call them -ed / -en participles.

Both types of participles in English are what is known as non-finite forms.  That means that they do not change to show tense, number or person and are not tied to a particular view of time.


The other -ing form

A phenomenon in English which causes learners a good deal of difficulty is the fact that the -ing form of the verb is not always a participle at all.  It often forms a noun derived from a verb and acting as a noun.  In this case, it is called a gerund (and there's a guide to gerunds, linked below).  The form is exemplified in:
    I hate standing in a queue
    Fishing is something I have never really understood
    Who is doing the welcoming?

In fact, this two-way division between an -ing form performing the functions we listed above as a participle and acting as a noun is not quite as simple as it seems.  The in-service guide to catenative verbs has more on this but that will do for now.


Present participle functions

Present participles have the following main functions:

To show that an action is progressive He is writing a new document
She's out swimming at the moment
To provide a background She was sitting in the garden when it began to rain
To show that two actions occurred simultaneously I heard John laughing
He caught me stealing apples
I spend too much time travelling
To show that one action followed another very quickly Putting up his umbrella, he left the restaurant
As adjectives The lecture was unbelievably boring
It was a fascinating story
To explain a reason Having no money for the fare, he walked to the party

Some notes:

  1. If you have followed the guide to Tense and Aspect, linked below, then the first row is familiar to you.  Other examples include progressive perfect forms such as
        They will have been driving for hours
  2. The third and fourth rows are very similar in meaning and it's often only our knowledge of the world that tells us whether an action was simultaneous or subsequent.  In
        Opening the door, he crept in
    the creeping clearly has to follow the opening but in
        Arriving at the party, he saw me
    the sense could be that he arrived first and saw me shortly afterwards in the party itself or that he arrived and saw me outside at the same time.
  3. When -ing participles are used as adjectives they cause some confusion for learners.  More later on this.
  4. The final row contains examples many feel are rather formal or literary and it's true that they are infrequently used in spoken language.  We might prefer something like
        Because he had no money ...


Past participle functions

Past participles have the following three main functions:

To show that an action is in the perfect aspect He has written a new document
She's had swum the
To show that an action is in the passive voice (in all tenses) The window has been broken
The car is being towed away
The match was abandoned
As adjectives The students were unbelievably bored
The fascinated listeners were on the edge of their seats
, he left early.

Participles as adjectives

Compare these:

The book is interesting I'm interested in ancient history
Everyone is depressed It's a depressing story
It was an exciting film The children got over-excited

think Can you make a rule for the meaning of -ed / -en adjectives and -ing adjectives?  Click here when you have one.

One thing to note here is that it is often not possible or it is difficult to distinguish between a passive form and a past participial adjective.  When we put the adjective before the noun, it's easier:
    The passenger was frightened by the flight (passive use)
    The frightened passengers hated the flight (adjectival use)
But this cannot always be done so we have, e.g.:
    The play was applauded
but we cannot have
    *The applauded play
Last note: it doesn't matter how many syllables these adjectives have, they never take the -er or -est endings so we have most bored, not *boredest and more boring not *boringer etc.

Participle vs. gerund

A gerund, simply put, is a verb acting as a noun.  For example
    I enjoy reading
a gerund: the verb read is acting as a noun vs.
    I enjoy books (plural noun)
A problem in English is that the language uses the -ing ending for both participles and gerunds.  It is sometimes important to know which is which but the story is quite complicated.  There is a separate guide to gerunds and infinitives, linked below.

Test your understanding.

Related guides
lexical or main verbs for a guide to how main verbs operate in English
gerunds for a guide focused on this form and its relation to the infinitive
the infinitive an essential guide to this related form
tense and aspect to help you understand how participle verb forms work
adjectives for a much more technical (and much longer) guide to adjectives in general, including a section on participles as adjectives