Using German Participles as Adjectives and Adverbs

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Past Participles

As in English, the past participle of a German verb may be used as an adjective or adverb.

In English, stolen is the past participle of the verb to steal. The word stolen can be used as an adjective, as in: “That's a stolen car.” Similarly, in German the past participle gestohlen (fromstehlen, to steal) can also be used as an adjective: “Das ist ein gestohlenes Auto.”

The only significant difference between the ways that English and German use the past participle as an adjective is the fact that, unlike English adjectives, German adjectives must have an appropriate ending if they precede a noun.

(Notice the -es ending in the example above. More about adjective endings in  Lesson 5 and Adjective Endings.) Of course, it also helps if you know the correct past participle forms to use.

A past participle such as interessiert (interested) can also be used as an adverb: “Wir saheninteressiert zu.” (“We watched interestedly/with interest.”)

Present Participles

Unlike its English equivalent, the present participle in German is used almost exclusively as an adjective or adverb. For other uses, German present participles are usually replaced by nominalized verbs (verbs used as nouns) — das Lesen (reading), das Schwimmen (swimming) — to function like English gerunds, for instance. In English, the present participle has an -ingending. In German the present participle ends in -endweinend (crying), pfeifend (whistling),schlafend (sleeping).

In German, “a sleeping child” is “ein schlafendes Kind.” As with any adjective in German, the ending must fit the grammatical context, in this case an -es ending (neuter/das).

Many present participle adjective phrases in German are translated with a relative clause or an appositive phrase in English. For example, “Der schnell vorbeifahrende Zug machte großen Lärm,” would be, “The train, which was quickly passing by, made a tremendous noise,” rather than the literal, “The quickly passing by train...”

When used as adverbs, German present participles are treated like any other adverb, and the English translation usually places the adverb or adverbial phrase at the end: “Er kam pfeifend ins Zimmer.” = “He came into the room whistling.”

Present participles are used more often in writing than in spoken German. You'll run across them a lot when reading books, magazines, or newspapers.