The Versatile Past Participle

Verb Form Can Also Be Used as Adjective or Noun

fried chicken
Pollo frito. (Fried chicken.). Photo by Stu_spivack; licensed via Creative Commons.

You don't have to look far to see the close relationship between English and the various languages derived from Latin. While the similarities are most obvious in vocabulary, English also includes some key aspects of its grammar that have analogs in Latin-based languages, including Spanish. Among them is the past participle, an extremely useful type of word that can be used, in English as well as Spanish, as either part of a verb form or as an adjective.

Past participles in English aren't always as obvious as they are in Spanish, because they often take the same form as the past tense, in that they usually end in "-ed." In the verb form, you can tell when an "-ed" verb is functioning as a past participle in that it is combined with some form of the verb "to have." For example, "worked" is a past-tense verb in the sentence "I worked" but a past participle in "I have worked." Less commonly, a past participle can also be used in the passive voice: In "The play is produced," "produced" is a past participle.

Spanish past participles typically end in -ado or -ido, thus bearing a vague similarity to the English equivalents. But their form is distinct from the past tenses.

Both Spanish and English have numerous irregular past participles, especially of common verbs. In English, many, but far from all, end in "-en": broken, driven, given, seen. Others don't follow that pattern: made, hurt, heard, done.

In Spanish, nearly all of the irregular past participles end in -cho or -to: dicho, from decir; hecho, from hacer; puesto, from poner; and visto, from ver.

As mentioned earlier, the other similarity between English and Spanish is that past participles are frequently used as adjectives. Here are a few examples that the two languages share:

  • Estoy satisfecho. (I'm satisfied.)
  • Los Estados Unidos. (The United States.)
  • El hombre confundido. (The confused man.)
  • Pollo frito. (Fried chicken.)

In fact, while it often is awkward to do so, most verbs in either language can be converted to adjectives by using the past participle.

Because they function as adjectives in such Spanish usages, they must agree in both number and gender with the nouns they describe.

The same is true in Spanish when the past participle follows a form of either ser or estar, both of which are translated as "to be." Examples:

  • Los regalos fueron envueltos. (The gifts were wrapped.)
  • Las computadoras fueron rotas. (The computers were broken.)
  • Estoy cansada. (I am tired.)

It also should be noted that in Spanish, many past participles can also be used as nouns, simply because adjectives can be freely used as nouns when the context makes their meaning clear. One sometimes seen in news stories is los desaparacidos, referring to those who have disappeared due to oppression. Frequently, adjectives used as nouns are translated using the English "one" as in los escondidos, the hidden ones, and el colorado, the colored one.

The other major use of the past participle — in fact, it is usually considered its major use — is to combine with the verb haber (or, in English, the verb "to have" — note the similarity of the two verbs, which appear to have a common origin) to form the perfect tenses. Generally speaking, the perfect tenses are used to refer to some sort of completed action:

  • He hablado. (I have spoken.)
  • Habrá salido. (She will have left.)
  • ¿Has comido? (Have you eaten?)

As you can see, the past participle is one of the ways that verbs in both Spanish and English gain their versatility and flexibility. Watch for uses of the past participle in your reading, and you may be surprised to see how often the word form is put to good use.