Using Spanish Past Participles: They’re Both Verbs and Adjectives

Regular past participles end in ‘-ado’ or ‘-ido’

woman looking at Machu Picchu
Perú te ofrece vistas hermosas. (Peru offers you beautiful views.).

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In both Spanish and English, past participles can come in handy. Not only can they be used as verbs, and not just for speaking about the past, they can also be adjectives and even nouns.

Past Participles Behave Similarly in Spanish and English

The past participles in the two languages have similar origins, so they are not only similar in function, but also vaguely similar in the way they are formed. In English, the past participle for regular verbs is formed by adding "-ed" to the end. In Spanish, the past participle for regular verbs is formed by adding -ado to the stem of -ar verbs or -ido to the stem of -er or -ir verbs.

To use a few examples of words that are similar in both languages, the past participle of "to select" is "selected," and the past participle of seleccionar is seleccionado. The past participle of "to exert" is "exerted"; the Spanish equivalents are ejercer and ejercido. And just as the past participle of "to comprehend" is "comprehended," the past participle of comprender is comprendido.

Unfortunately for the learner, both languages have irregular past participles that don't always seem logical, and these need to be learned individually. (Examples of irregular English participles are "broken," "said," and "gone.") Among the common Spanish irregular participles are abierto ("opened," from abrir, "to open"), dicho ("said," from decir, "to say"), escrito ("written," from escribir, "to write"), hecho ("done" or "made," from hacer, "to make" or "to do"), and puesto ("put," from poner, "to put"),

Using Past Participles To Form Perfect Tenses

As a verb form, the most common use of the past participle in the two languages is to form what are known as the perfect tenses (they are called "perfect" because they refer to actions that have been or will be completed). In English, the perfect tenses are those formed by using a form of the auxiliary verb "to have" and following it with the past participle; in Spanish, they're formed by using a conjugated form of haber (haber and this usage of "to have" come from similar origins) and following it with the past participle.

  • He ido. (I have gone.)
  • Habrá salido. (He will have left.)
  • Había estado enferma. (She had been sick.)
  • Habría trabajado. (I would have worked.)

Using Past Participles To Form Adjectives

As in English, many past participles can be used as adjectives. As adjectives, they agree with the nouns they describe in both number and gender; plurals have an s added, and in the feminine form the final o is changed to a. Because of differences in which participles can be used as adjectives, the Spanish participles can't always be translated directly to English as an adjective.

  • Hay tres personas heridas. (There are three wounded people.)
  • La oficina tiene dos puertas abiertas. (The office has two open doors.)
  • Estamos cansados. (We're tired.)
  • Compré la casa renovada. (I bought the renovated house.)
  • Espero que el bebé está dormido. (I hope the baby is sleeping.)
  • Los viajeros llegados fueron al restaurante. (The passengers who had arrived went to the restaurant. The arriving passengers went to the restaurant.)
  • La ventana está rota. (The window is broken.)

Using Past Participles as Nouns

Because Spanish adjectives, especially those that are used as descriptive terms, can fairly freely be used as nouns, past participles are frequently used as nouns in Spanish. Past participles sometimes can became feminine nouns, thus ending in -a, when they become nouns. (The same thing can happen in English, but less frequently.)

Usually, the meaning of the noun can be easily predicted from the meaning of the verb. For example, the past participle of desaparacer (to disappear) is desapracido (disappeared). So a desaparacido or desaparacida is someone who has disappeared or a missing person. Similarly, pintar means to paint something, so a pintada is the act of painting.

Sometimes the noun has a meaning related to the verb's meaning but isn't readily predictable out of context. For example, the past participle of ver (to see) is the irregular visto (seen). A vista is a view, especially a scenic one. Similarly, vestir is the verb for getting dressed, and vestido can refer to some types or clothing or mean "apparel."

Using Past Participles for Passive Sentences

Just as the passive voice in English can be formed by following "to be" with a past participle, the same can be done in Spanish by using a form of ser followed by the past participle. This construction should not be overused, as it is much less common in Spanish than in English, and it is even less common in speech than in writing. As the examples below show, the passive voice is a way of showing that a noun was acted upon without directly saying who or what performed the action.

In such sentences, the past participle functions like an adjective in that it agrees with the subject in both number and gender.

  • Fue descubierto. (It was discovered.)
  • Fueron descubiertos. (They were discovered.)
  • El libro será publicado. (The book will be published.)
  • La canción será grabada. (The song will be recorded.)
  • Los niños serán vistos. (The children will be seen.)
  • Las niñas serán vistas. (The girls will be seen.)

Key Takeaways

  • In both English and Spanish, past participles are a type of word that has characteristics of both nouns and adjectives.
  • Regular Spanish past participles end in -ado for -ar verbs and -ido for -er and -ir verbs.
  • When serving as adjectives, Spanish participles must match the nouns they refer to in number and gender.