What Is a Present Participle in English Grammar?

The '-ing' Forms in English: Present Participles and Gerunds

woman looking out window
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Things aren't always what they seem. For instance, although we've known for centuries that the sun doesn't move around the earth, we still use the expression "rising sun." And even though rise is ordinarily a verb, in this expression (with the -ing ending) it functions more like an adjective, modifying the noun sun. To top things off, we call rising a "present participle," yet present participles don't really tell us much about timepast, present, or future.

Leaving the astronomical issues to Neil deGrasse Tyson, we'll stick to English grammar, in particular the question, "What is a present participle?"

In one respect, the present participle is a simple, straightforward construction. Whether rising or setting, eating or drinking, laughing or crying, waking or sleeping, it's formed by adding -ing to the base form of a verb. No exceptions.

After that, however, it gets a little more complicated.

For one thing, the label is misleading. It's true that the present participle (in the following example, sleeping) sometimes seems to indicate present time:

He looks at the sleeping baby.

But when the tense of the main verb changes to the simple past, the time of the "present" participle appears to change right along with it:

He looked at the sleeping baby.

And when the main verb points to the future, the "present" participle again tags along:

He will look at the sleeping baby.

The truth is, the present participle really doesn't mark time at all. That job is reserved for the main verb and its auxiliaries (looks, looked, will look). And for this reason, among others, many linguists prefer to use the term -ing form rather than present participle.

The Multiple Personalities of Present Participles

We've already seen another peculiarity of the present participle (or -ing form): it has multiple personalities.

Though based on a verb, the present participle often works like an adjective. In our examples so far, the present participle sleeping modifies the noun baby. But that's not always the case.

Consider how the -ing words are used in this quotation, variously attributed to Confucius, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vince Lombardi, and American Idol veteran Clay Aiken:

Our greatest glory is not in never falling but in rising every time we fall.

Both falling and rising function here as nouns--specifically, as objects of the preposition in. When a verb plus -ing does the job of a noun, it reveals its secret identity as a gerund or verbal noun. (The term verbal, by the way, refers to any verb form that serves in a sentence as a noun or a modifier rather than as a verb.) 

Then again, when an -ing word is combined with a form of the auxiliary verb to be, it functions (once again) as a verb:

The price of oil is rising.

This construction is called the progressive, which in fact is the most common use of the present participle in English. The present progressive is made up of a present form of to be plus a present participle ("is rising"). The past progressive is made up of a past form of to be plus a present participle ("was rising").

And the future progressive is made up of the verb phrase will be plus a present participle ("will be rising"). 

But for the present, that's enough about the -ing form. If you're interested in learning more about this role-changing verbal, please see: