What Are Past Participles?

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Past Participles

A past participle is a word that (1) is formed from a verb, (2) is used as an adjective or to form verb tense, and (3) probably ends with "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n." For example:

past participle examples


Let's look at the verb to whisper:
  • Here's the past participle: whispered
    • Here it is used as an adjective: The whispered word
    • Here it is used to form a verb tense: She had whispered him the answer.
There are two types of participles:
  • The Past Participle
  • (Past participles usually end with "-ed," "-d," "-t," "-en," or "-n.")
  • The Present Participle
  • (All present participles end with "-ing.")
Participles are non-finite verbs. (A non-finite verb is a verb that, by itself, does not show tense. This means if you look at just a participle, you cannot tell if you're dealing with the past tense, present tense, or future tense.)

Examples of Past Participles Being Used As Adjectives

Here are some examples of past participles being used as adjectives:
The VerbThe Past Participle
To swellswollen eyes
To breakbroken plate
To ruinruined cake

More Examples of Past Participles Used as Adjectives

Here are some more examples of past participles (shaded) being used as adjectives:
  • Here is a laminated copy to replace your torn one.
  • Stuffed deer heads on walls are bad enough, but it's worse when they have streamers in their antlers because then you know they were enjoying themselves when they were shot. (TV host Ellen DeGeneres)
  • A torn jacket is soon mended, but hard words bruise the heart of a child. (Poet Henry Longfellow)
  • Scandal is gossip made tedious by morality. (Poet Oscar Wilde)
  • The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he's on. (Author Joseph Heller)

Past Participles in Participle Phrases

Past participles can often be found in participle phrases. A participle phrase acts like an adjective. In the examples below, the participle phrases are shaded and the past participles are in bold:
  • The boy taken to hospital has recovered.
  • (The participle phrase "taken to hospital" describes "the boy.")
  • I have a heart wracked with sorrow.
  • (The participle phrase "wracked with sorrow" describes "a heart.")
  • Battered by the wind, John fell to his knees.
  • (The participle phrase ""Battered by the wind" describes "john.")
  • Finally broken , Lee lowered his gloves.
  • (The participle phrase "Finally broken" describes "Lee.")
Read more about participle phrases.

Past Participles Used in Verb Tenses

As well as being used as adjectives, past participles are also used to form verb tenses. Here are the verb tenses (past participles shaded):
The 4 Past Tenses Example
simple past tense I broke
past progressive tense I was breaking
past perfect tense I had broken
past perfect progressive tenseI had been breaking
The 4 Present Tenses Example
simple present tense I break
present progressive tense I am breaking
present perfect tense I have broken
present perfect progressive tense I have been breaking
The 4 Future Tenses Example
simple future tense I will break
future progressive tense I will be breaking
future perfect tense I will have broken
future perfect progressive tense I will have been breaking

More Examples of Past Participles Used in Verb Tenses

In these examples, the past participles are shaded.
  • I had crossed the line. I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom. I was a stranger in a strange land. (Political activist Harriet Tubman)
  • I had seen birth and death but had thought they were different. (Poet T S Eliot)
  • I phoned my dad to tell him I had stopped smoking. He called me a quitter.
  • Don't take the wrong side of an argument just because your opponent has taken the right side.
  • Poets have been mysteriously silent on the subject of cheese.
  • Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen. (British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli)
  • I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me.
  • By September, Jenny will have taken over that role.
  • I hope that, when I leave this planet, I will have touched a few people in a positive way. (Actor Will Rothhaar)

Forming the Past Participle (Regular Verbs)

If it's a regular verb, the past participle is the same as the simple past tense. In other words, it is formed like this:

Add "ed" to most verbs:
  • jump > jumped
  • paint > painted
If a verb of one syllable ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], double the final consonant and add "ed":
  • chat > chatted
  • stop > stopped
If the final consonant is "w," "x," or "y," don't double it:
  • sew > sewed
  • play > played
  • fix > fixed
If last syllable of a longer verb is stressed and ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], double the last consonant and add "ed":
  • incur > incurred
  • prefer > preferred
If the first syllable of a longer verb is stressed and the verb ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], just add "ed":
  • open > opened
  • enter > entered
  • swallow > swallowed
If the verb ends "e," just add "d":
  • thrive > thrived
  • guzzle > guzzled
If the verb ends [consonant + "y"], change the "y" to an "i" and add "ed":
  • cry > cried
  • fry > fried

Forming the Past Participle (Irregular Verbs)

If it's an irregular verb, the past participle is formed in all sorts of different ways. Here are some examples:
  • arise > arisen
  • catch > caught
  • choose > chosen
  • know > known
You just have to learn them.

Read more about irregular verbs (includes a list of the most common irregular verbs).

Why Should I Care about Past Participles?

If you're learning or teaching English, then it is essential to have a good understanding of participles (past participles and present participles) because adjectives and verb tenses are fundamental building blocks when learning a language...any language.

As a rule, native speakers are good at using participles, i.e., they do not cause too many writing errors. However, the same cannot be said for participle phrases, which are responsible for a reasonably common error called a misplaced modifier.

It's not all bad news with participle phrases. They also offer a benefit.

Here are two good reasons to think a little more about past participles (specifically, past participles in participle phrases). Let's start with the benefit.

(Benefit 1) Use a fronted participle phrase to say two things about your subject efficiently.

Participles can be used to create a sentence structure that allows you to say two or more things about your subject efficiently. For example:
  • Imbued with both common sense and enthusiasm, Patrick is always quick to find a cost-effective solution.
  • (This example features a past participle (bold) in a participle phrase (shaded).)
This structure is particularly useful when writing staff appraisals. It allows the writer to shoehorn in an extra observation about the subject in a single sentence.

Read more about the benefits of using participles on the "non-finite verbs" page.

(Trap 1) Beware misplaced modifiers and dangling modifiers!

When using the sentence structure in "Benefit 1," writers must be careful not to write an ambiguous sentence by failing to put the participle phrase next to the word it's modifying. For example:
  • Imbued with both common sense and enthusiasm, senior managers routinely praise Patrick for his ability to find a cost-effective solution.
  • (In this example, the participle phrase (shaded) could be modifying "senior managers" instead of "Patrick." This is called a misplaced modifier.)
A misplaced modifier makes your sentence ambiguous or wrong. You can avoid a misplaced modifier by placing your modifier next to whatever it's modifying. Let's fix the example.
  • Imbued with both common sense and enthusiasm, Patrick routinely receives praise from senior managers for his ability to find a cost-effective solution.
  • (The participle phrase is now next to "Patrick." The ambiguity has gone.)
Occasionally, writers create a mistake known as a dangling modifier. With a dangling modifier, the word being modified isn't present in the sentence. For example:
  • Imbued with both common sense and enthusiasm, senior managers routinely offer praise for his ability to find a cost-effective solution.
  • (In this example, the participle phrase (shaded) has nothing to modify. "Patrick" isn't even mentioned. This is called a dangling modifier.)
Read more about misplaced modifiers.
Read more about dangling modifiers.

A Video Summary

Here is a video summarizing this lesson past participles.

Interactive Exercise
Here are three randomly selected questions from a larger exercise, which can be edited, printed to create an exercise worksheet, or sent via email to friends or students.

See Also

What are adjectives? What are present participles? What are participle phrases? What are adjective phrases? What are verbs? What are verb tenses? Try a test on verb tenses. What are gerunds?