The Past Participle: It's a Verb, It's an Adjective

Spanish for Beginners

broken window
La ventana está rota. (The window is broken.). Photo by Jussi; licensed via Creative Commons.

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

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 a fair number of 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"), puesto ("put," from poner, "to put") and visto ("seen," from ver, "to see").

Following are some of the ways past participles are used:

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 (again, haber and this usage of "to have" come from similar origins) and following it with the past participle.

(Note: If you're a beginner, the following examples may use some verb forms and tenses you haven't learned yet. You don't need to learn them to understand the examples; what is important now is to learn how the past participle is used.)

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

Forming 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.

  • Examples: 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.) 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.)

    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.

    • Examples: 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.)