Grammar What Is a Past Participle? |
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What Is a Past Participle?

English grammar has its share of technical terms, so unless you regularly teach or study the language, you might furrow your eyebrows if you hear things such as present perfect tense or infinitive verb. Many of us may use such components in our writing and speech without being fully aware of what they are.

That brings us to today’s topic: past participles. While they might seem complicated at first, the core idea really isn’t complex.

Past Participles

A past participle is a verb form that communicates an action completed in the past. You will typically recognize a past participle as a conjugated verb, such as walked or tried. You might also notice that past participles can resemble the simple past tense of verbs (i.e., I walked to school.).

The difference between past participles and the simple past is that past participles will appear in perfect tenses (I have walked), with the passive voice (the distance was walked by me), or as adjectives (the walked distance). In each case, the action represents something started and finished in the past.

Past Participles: Perfect Tenses

The perfect tense has three forms: the past perfect, the present perfect, and the future perfect. The perfect tenses of the verb walk in the first person would be:

I had walked. (past perfect)

I have walked. (present perfect)

I will have walked. (future perfect)

In each form, walked is a past participle.

Let’s look at a few other examples of perfect tenses including past participles:

They had exercised their right to an attorney. (past perfect tense, main verb exercise, past participle exercised)

You have slept for almost twelve hours. (present perfect tense, main verb sleep, past participle slept)

She will have shattered the record in the 400-meter dash. (future perfect tense, main verb shatter, past participle shattered)

Past Participles: Passive Voice

The passive voice is a construction in which an object is made into the subject of the sentence. In many cases, the subject becomes the object in a prepositional phrase beginning with by.

For example, a sentence such as he threw the ball is in the active voice because the subject is performing the action on the object. To make it passive, we make the object the subject: The ball was thrown by him. In this verb phrase, thrown is a past participle paired with the auxiliary was to convey the passive action.

Let’s look at some other examples of past participles in the passive voice:

The bell was rung by the monk. (main verb ring, past participle rung)

Songs were written by many people for this album. (main verb write, past participle written)

Water was drawn from the well in order to test it. (main verb draw, past participle drawn)

Past Participles as Adjectives

A verb’s past participle form is often used as an adjective describing a noun, as in I’ve never seen Jane look so exhausted. Exhausted is the past participle of the verb exhaust (“to deplete” or “to tire out”). However, in this sentence, it is serving as an adjective to describe Jane as being physically worn out.

Let’s look at another example:

I waited an hour for a table only to be served an overcooked omelet.

In this sentence, the word overcooked is the past participle of the verb overcook, and it is acting as an adjective describing the omelet.

Understanding Past Participles in Grammar

For some of us, making a habit of identifying past participles in everything we read may not be practical or necessary. At the same time, it’s good to be aware of grammatical fine points such as this one. Understanding what past participles are and how they work helps us communicate more precisely.

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