What Is a Participial Adjective?

Try This Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms for Easier Learning

In English grammar, participial adjective is a traditional term for an adjective that has the same form as the participle (that is, a verb ending in -ing or -ed/-en) and that usually exhibits the ordinary properties of an adjective. Also called a verbal adjective or a deverbal adjective. In the text "English Grammar: A University Course" (2006), Downing and Locke use the term pseudo-participial adjective to characterize the “increasing number of adjectives [that] are coined by adding -ing or -ed not to verbs but to nouns.” Examples include enterprising, neighboring, talented, and skilled.

Comparative and superlative forms of participial adjectives are formed with more and most and with less and—not with the endings -er and -est.

Present-Participial Adjectives

  • “The present participle can be used as an adjective. Known as a participial adjective, it replaces verb clauses:"
the show that annoys methe annoying show
a story that moves hera moving story (Marcel Danesi, Basic American Grammar and Usage. Barron’s, 2006)
  • “What kind of a man was he to fall in love with a lying thief?”
    (Janet Dailey, “The Hostage Bride.” Bantam, 1998)
  • “She gave the passersby a fetching tune, a ballad soft as down, and gathered a crowd.”
    (Owen Parry, “Honor’s Kingdom.” Stackpole Books, 2002)
  • “Bruce Catton believed that the removal of Johnston and the appointment of Hood in his place was perhaps the gravest mistake made by either administration during the entire war. This is a sweeping judgment.”
    (Charles Pierce Roland, “An American Iliad: The Story of the Civil War,” 2nd ed. University Press of Kentucky, 2004)
  • “Borge’s boastful remarks were disturbing in a context where women were under attack.”
    (Ilja A. Luciak, “After the Revolution: Gender and Democracy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.” Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

Past-Participial Adjectives

  • Participial adjectives end in -ed because they are derived from past participles of verbs. ...The meanings of participial adjectives depend on the participle they come from. The -ing adjectives (boring, interesting, amazing, exciting, following) have a progressive or active meaning. The -ed adjectives (advanced, alleged, bored, complicated, excited, exhausted) have a completed or passive meaning.” (Barbara M. Birch, “English Grammar Pedagogy: A Global Perspective.” Routledge, 2014)
  • “[Johannes Kepler] was such a wonderfully interesting and complicated character, with genius, neurosis, comedy, tragedy, and triumph intertwined throughout a life set against a background of the tumultuous times of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.”
    (Rocky Kolb, “Blind Watchers of the Sky: The People and Ideas That Shaped Our View of the Universe.” Basic Books, 1996)
  • “These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two.”
    (George Orwell, “A Hanging.” Adelphi, August 1931)
  • “Like an excited child playing with his favorite toy, twenty-nine-year-old Emil stroked the wheel of the white Cadillac with his strong hands.”
    (Ram Oren, “Gertruda’s Oath: A Child, a Promise, and a Heroic Escape During World War II.” Random House, 2009)
  • “With his hair short like that his head looked too small for his body, so all summer he walked around with a shrunken head.”
    (Richard Yancey, “A Burning in Homeland.” Simon & Schuster, 2003)

How Participial Adjectives May Reference Time

“As regards the time reference of participial adjectives in general, [Otto] Jespersen (1951) was probably one of the first grammarians to caution us against the common assumption that the present participial adjective always refers to the present time and the past participial adjective to the perfective time. In the same vein, he also questioned the common belief that the present participial adjective has an active voice reading and the past participial adjective a passive voice reading. To remove these common errors, Jespersen introduced the terms ‘first participle’ and ‘second participle’ in the place of present (active) participle and past (passive) participle.”
(K.V. Tirumalesh, “Grammar and Communication: Essays on the Form and Function of Language.” Allied, 1999)

Participial Adjectives Can Be Gradable or Verbal

  • Participial adjectives are typically gradable, e.g.,
very loving parents (Compare: They are loving every minute of it; verb + object)
very exciting times
very alarming thoughts

However, the attributively used participles of some verbs are best analyzed as being verbal. For example, an escaped prisoner is "a prisoner who has escaped," a changing culture is "a culture that is changing," and a knitted jumper is "a jumper that has been knitted." Such participles cannot be modified by very:

*a very escaped prisoner
*a very changing culture
*a very knitted jumper

However, modification by an adverb is possible in many cases:

a recently escaped prisoner
a rapidly changing culture
a deftly knitted jumper

In some contexts, the status of a participle-like form is ambiguous. Thus, I was annoyed can be interpreted verbally (e.g., I was annoyed by their behavior) or as an adjective (e.g., I was very annoyed), or perhaps even as both (I was very annoyed by their behavior).”
(Bas Aarts, Sylvia Chalker, and Edmund Weiner, The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2014)

Usage Example: Proved and Proven

  • "Although proved, as the participle, is the preferred form in written English, proven is widely used in the spoken language and cannot be set down as incorrect or improper. Even in the written, more formal language, proven is frequently used as the participial adjective preceding a noun, as in ‘a proven oil field’ or a 'proven fact.’”
    (Theodore M. Bernstein, “Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.” Macmillan, 1971)
  • “I have nothing against people of proven talent, but sometimes there may be no one in that category who is right for the part.”
    (Stanley Kubrick, quoted in “Stanley Kubrick: Interviews,” ed. by Gene D. Phillips. University Press of Mississippi, 2001)

Histories of Adjectives Melted and Molten

  • “The modern English verb melt is the reflex of two different Old English verbs. One was a strong verb, meltan, and was intransitive, with the meaning ‘to melt, become liquid’ (e.g., ‘the butter melted’). ... The other was a weak verb, ... and it was transitive, with the meaning ‘to melt (something) liquid’ (e.g. ‘the heat of the sun melted the butter’). ...
  • “Gradually in the course of the Middle English period (if not earlier) the strong verb melten (Old English meltan) ‘to become liquid’ began instead to show weak inflections. This is a pattern shown by many originally strong verbs which gradually moved over to the numerically much larger class of weak verbs. ... [T]he result in modern English was a single verb melt, with both intransitive and transitive meanings, and with regular, weak inflections ... although the originally participial adjective molten is still found in specialized semantic use designating liquefied metal or glass.”
    (Philip Durkin, The Oxford Guide to Etymology. Oxford University Press, 2009)
  • “After a certain volume of feedstock has been melted, the molten metal flows over the wall of the hearth into the water-cooled copper crucible where it is heated from above with a second plasma torch.”
    (Fritz Appel et al., “Gamma Titanium Aluminide Alloys: Science and Technology.” Wiley, 2011)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Participial Adjective?" ThoughtCo, Feb. 10, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-participial-adjective-1691486. Nordquist, Richard. (2021, February 10). What Is a Participial Adjective? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-participial-adjective-1691486 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Participial Adjective?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-participial-adjective-1691486 (accessed February 4, 2023).