Understanding Present and Past Participles

child running in dirt
The following sentence contains both a present participle ( whispering) and a past participle ( abandoned): The whispering breeze scattered dust and seeds across the abandoned fields. Eric Lafforgue/Art in All of Us /Getty Images

In traditional English grammar, a participle is a verbal that typically ends in -ing (the present participle) or -ed (the past participle). Adjective: participial.

By itself, a participle can function as an adjective (as in "the sleeping baby" or "the damaged pump"). In combination with one or more auxiliary verbs, a participle can indicate tense, aspect, or voice.  

Present participles end in -ing (for example, carrying, sharing, tapping). Past participles of regular verbs end in -ed (carried, shared, tapped). Past participles of irregular verbs have various endings, most often -n or -t (broken, spent).

As linguists have long observed, both of these terms—present and past—are misleading. "[B]oth [present and past] participles are used in the formation of a variety of complex constructions (tenses) and can . . . refer to past, present, or future time (e.g., 'What had they been doing?' 'This must be drunk soon'). Preferred terms are -ing form (which also includes gerund) and -ed form/-en form" (Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2014).

From the Latin, "share, partake, participate"

Examples of Present Participles

  • "Ahead of Perenelle, a crowd gathered around a young man with a dancing bear." (Stephen Leigh, Immortal Muse. DAW, 2014)
  • "Newport harbor lay stretched out in the distance, with the rising moon casting a long, wavering track of silver upon it." (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852)
  • "Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing." (Robert Benchley)
  • "The ducks come on swift, silent wings, gliding through the treetops as if guided by radar, twisting, turning, never touching a twig in that thick growth of trees that surrounded the lake."(Jack Denton Scott, "The Wondrous Wood Duck." Sports Afield, 1976)

Examples of Past Participles

  • "During the thunderstorm, the frightened cat hid under the bed.
  • "[T]he clock, its face supported by plump cupids of painted china, ticked with a small busy sound." (Robert Penn Warren, "Christmas Gift." The Virginia Quarterly Review, 1938)
  • "The new home stood beside the macadamized 'new' road and was high and boxlike, painted yellow with a roof of glittering tin." (Elizabeth Bishop, "The Farmer's Children" Harper's Bazaar, 1949)
  • "One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. (Willa Cather, O Pioneers! 1913)
  • "The Bible's Jezebel came to an ugly end. Thrown from a balcony, trampled by horses, and devoured by dogs, the middle-aged queen has had few good days since." (Review of Jezebel: The Untold Story of the Bible’s Harlot Queen by Lesley Hazleton. The Week, November 29, 2007)
  • "I believe in broken, fractured, complicated narratives, but I believe in narratives as a vehicle for truth, not simply as a form of entertainment." (Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. W.W. Norton, 2004)

Source of the Terms Present and Past

"[There is] an apparent contradiction in our selection of terminology for the present and past participles. We have described the participles as 'non-tensed,' and yet we have used the terms 'present' and 'past' to distinguish them. These terms, in fact, derive from the most characteristic uses of the participles, in constructions such as:

  1. Sue has made a sponge cake
  2. Sue is making a sponge cake

In (1) the making of the cake is located in past time and in (2) it is located in present time. Note, however, that it is not the participles themselves that suggest this difference, but rather the total contructions. Consider:

Sue was making a sponge cake

Here the making of the cake is certainly not located in the present but rather, as was indicates, in the past. We thus wish to retain the traditional terms on the grounds that they relate to the characteristic uses of the two forms, but at the same time insist that the forms are tenseless: there is no tense contrast between them." -(Peter Collins and Carmella Hollo, English Grammar: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Palgrace Macmillan, 2010)

Examples of Present and Past Participial Phrases

"Leaking from restaurant walls, beamed into airports as they landed and automobiles as they crashed, chiming from steeples, thundering from parade grounds, tingling through apartment walls, carried through the streets in small boxes, violating even the peace of desert and the forest, where drive-ins featured blue musical comedies, music at first overwhelmed, then delighted, then disgusted, and finally bored them" (John Updike, "The Chaste Planet." Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism. Knopf, 1983)

Participles as Quasi-Adjectives

"As modifiers of nouns, present and past participles of verbs function very much like adjectives. Indeed, they are sometimes regarded as adjectives when they modify nouns. A present participle attributes a quality of action to the noun, which is viewed as undertaking the action, as retreating of legs in [109]. A past participle views the noun as having undergone the action expressed by the participle, as prefabricated of buildings in [110].

[109] . . . the cripple's envy at his straight, retreating legs
[110] various prefabricated buildings

Thus, the present is an 'active' participle and the past is a 'passive' participle."
(Howard Jackson, Grammar and Meaning. Longman, 1990)
Participles as Verbs and Adjectives

"Participles occupy an intermediate position between verbs and adjectives. Like verbs of a clause, participles may function as predicates and take complements and adjuncts, in fact they refer to situations. Since they are atemporal, they can, like adjectives, also function as modifiers of nouns."
(Günter Radden and René Dirven, Cognitive English Grammar. John Benjamins, 2007)

Participles as Sentence Openers

"When the participle is a single word—the verb with no complements or modifiers--it usually occupies the adjective slot in preheadword position:

Our snoring visitor kept the household awake.
The barking dog next door drives us crazy.

". . . While the single-word participle generally fills the preheadword adjective slot, it too can sometimes open the sentence—and with considerable drama:

Exasperated, she made the decision to leave immediately.
Outraged, the entire committee resigned.

You'll notice that both of these openers are past participles, rather than the -ing present participle form; they are, in fact, the passive voice." -(Martha Kolln, Rhetorical Grammar. Pearson, 2007)

Pronunciation: PAR-ti-sip-ul

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Present and Past Participles." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/participle-verb-form-1691586. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Understanding Present and Past Participles. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/participle-verb-form-1691586 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Present and Past Participles." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/participle-verb-form-1691586 (accessed June 4, 2023).