A participle is a form of a verb that is used in a sentence to modify a noun, noun phrase, verb, or verb phrase, and then plays a role similar to an adjective or adverb. It is one of the types of nonfinite verb forms.
The two types of participle in English are traditionally called the present participle (forms such as writing, singing and raising) and the past participle (forms such as written, sung and raised).
The Present Participle
Even though they look exactly the same, gerunds and present participles do different things. As we just learned, the gerund acts as a noun: e.g., “I like sleeping“; “Sleeping is not allowed.” Present participles, on the other hand, act similarly to an adjective or adverb: e.g., “The sleeping girl over there is my sister”; “Breathing heavily, she finished the race in first place.”
The present participle, or participial phrases (clauses) formed from it, are used as follows:
- as an adjective phrase modifying a noun phrase: The man sitting over there is my uncle.
- adverbially, the subject being understood to be the same as that of the main clause: Looking at the plans, I gradually came to see where the problem lay. He shot the man, killing him.
- more generally as a clause or sentence modifier: Broadly speaking, the project was successful.
The present participle can also be used with the helping verb to be to form a type of present tense: Marta was sleeping. (We’ll discuss this further in Advanced Verb Tenses.) This is something we learned a little bit about in helping verbs and tense.
The Past Participle
Past participles often look very similar to the simple past tense of a verb: finished, danced, etc. However, some verbs have different forms. Reference lists will be your best help in finding the correct past participle. Here is one such list of participles. Here’s a short list of some of the most common irregular past participles you’ll use:
|Verb||Simple Past||Past Participle|
Past participles are used in a couple of different ways:
- as an adjective phrase: The chicken eaten by the children was contaminated.
- adverbially: Seen from this perspective, the problem presents no easy solution.
- in a nominative absolute construction, with a subject: The task finished, we returned home.
The past participle can also be used with the helping verb to have to form a type of past tense (which we’ll talk about in Advanced Verb Tenses): The chicken has eaten. It is also used to form the passive voice: Tianna was voted as most likely to succeed. When the passive voice is used following a relative pronoun (like that or which) we sometimes leave out parts of the phrase:
- He had three things that were taken away from him
- He had three things taken away from him
In the second sentence, we removed the words that were. However, we still use the past participle taken. The removal of these words is called elision. Elision is used with a lot of different constructions in English; we use it shorten sentences when things are understood. However, we can only use elision in certain situations, so be careful when removing words! (We’ll discuss this further in Using the Passive Voice.)
Identify the participles in the following sentences, as well as the functions they perform:
- Tucker had always wanted a pet dog.
- Having been born in the 1990s, Amber often found herself surrounded by nostalgia.
- Rayssa was practicing her flute when everything suddenly went wrong.
- The past participle is wanted. In this case, it is used alongside the helping verb had to form the past tense.
- Having been born in the 1990s is a present participle phrase. It is used adverbially, and the subject is the same as the subject of the main phrase: Amber. Additionally, been is the past participle. It is used alongside the helping verb having to give a sense of the past tense.
- Practicing is the present participle. It, along with the helping verb was, create a sense of continuity or process.