Modern English verbs have two participles:
- The present participle, also sometimes called the active, imperfect, or progressive participle, takes the ending -ing, for example doing, seeing, working, running. It is identical in form to the verbal noun and gerund. The term present participle is sometimes used to include the gerund; and the term gerund–participle is also used.
- The past participle, also sometimes called the passive or perfect participle, is identical to the past tense form (ending in -ed) in the case of regular verbs, for example loaded, boiled, mounted, but takes various forms in the case of irregular verbs, such as done, sung, written, put, gone, etc. In addition, various compound participles can be formed, such as having done, being done, having been doing, having been done.
The present participle, or participial phrases (clauses) formed from it, are used as follows:
- to form the progressive (continuous) aspect: Jim was sleeping.
- 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.
- similarly, but with a different subject, placed before the participle (the nominative absolute construction): He and I having reconciled our differences, the project then proceeded smoothly.
- more generally as a clause or sentence modifier: Broadly speaking, the project was successful.
Past participles, or participial phrases (clauses) formed from them, are used as follows:
- to form the perfect aspect: The chicken has eaten.
- to form the passive voice: The chicken was eaten.
- as an adjective phrase: The chicken eaten by the children was contaminated.
- adverbially: Eaten in this manner, the chicken presents no problem.
- in a nominative absolute construction, with a subject: The chicken eaten, we returned home.
Both types of participles are also often used as pure adjectives.
Here present participles are used in their active sense ("an exciting adventure", i.e. one that excites), while past participles are usually used passively ("the attached files", i.e. those that have been attached), although those formed from intransitive verbs may sometimes be used with active meaning ("our fallen comrades", i.e. those who have fallen).
Some such adjectives also form adverbs, such as interestingly and excitedly.
The gerund is distinct from the present participle in that it (or rather the verb phrase it forms) acts as a noun rather than an adjective or adverb: "I like sleeping"; "Sleeping is not allowed."
There is also a pure verbal noun with the same form ("the breaking of one's vows is not to be taken lightly").
Sometimes this identity of forms can lead to ambiguity, as Noam Chomsky pointed out in his well-known example:
- Flying planes can be dangerous.
When the meaning is "The practice of flying a plane is dangerous", flying is a noun and can be called a gerund; when the meaning is "Planes which fly" or "Planes when they are flying", flying is being used adjectivally or adverbially and can be called a participle.
The main uses of this participle, or of participial phrases introduced by it, are as follows. (Uses of gerunds and verbal nouns, which take the same -ing form, appear in sections below.)
For present participle constructions with perfect aspect (e.g. having written), see below. In progressive and perfect progressive constructions, as described in the relevant sections above:
- The man is fixing my bike.
- We had been working for nine hours.
- As an adjective phrase modifying a noun:
- the flower opening up
- the news supporting the point
As an adjectival phrase modifying a noun phrase that is the object of a verb, provided the verb admits this particular construction. (For alternative or different constructions used with certain verbs.)
- I saw them digging a hole.
- We prefer it standing over there.
As an adverbial phrase, where the role of subject of the nonfinite verb is usually understood to be played by the subject of the main clause. A participial clause like this may be introduced by a conjunction such as when or while.
- Looking out of the window, Mary saw a car go by. (it is understood to be Mary who was looking out of the window)
- We peeled the apples while waiting for the water to boil.
More generally, as a clause or sentence modifier, without any specifically understood subject
- Broadly speaking, the project was successful.
In a nominative absolute construction, where the participle is given an explicit subject (which normally is different from that of the main clause):
- The children being hungry, I set about preparing tea.
- The meeting was adjourned, Sue and I objecting that there were still matters to discuss.
Present participles may come to be used as pure adjectives.
Examples of participles that do this frequently are interesting, exciting, and enduring.
Such words may then take various adjectival prefixes and suffixes, as in uninteresting and interestingly.
In a passive use, an object or preposition complement becomes zero, the gap being understood to be filled by the noun phrase the participle modifies (compare similar uses of the to-infinitive above).
Uses of past participles and participial phrases introduced by them are as follows.
In perfect constructions as described in the relevant sections above (this is the chief situation where the participle is active rather than passive):
- He has fixed my bike.
- They would have sung badly.
In forming the passive voice:
- My bike was fixed yesterday.
- A new church is being built here.
As an adjectival predicative expression used in constructions with certain verbs:
- Will you have your ear looked at by a doctor?
- I found my bike broken.
As an adjective phrase directly modifying a noun:
- The bag left on the train cannot be traced.
Used adverbially, or (with a subject) in a nominative absolute construction:
- Hated by his family, he left the town for good.
- The bomb defused, he returned to his comrades.
The last type of phrase can be preceded with the preposition with: With these words spoken, he turned and left.
As with present participles, past participles may function as simple adjectives: "the burnt logs"; "we were very excited". These normally represent the passive meaning of the participle, although some participles formed from intransitive verbs can be used in an active sense: "the fallen leaves"; "our fallen comrades".
Lack of Contrast Between Past and Past-Participle Verb Forms
In standard English, there are three derivational forms of the verb: non-past, past and past participle, as in go, went, have gone, though not all verbs distinguish all three (for example, say, said, have said). However, a great many English speakers only distinguish two of these, using the same form for the past and past participle with all verbs. For most verbs, it's the past-tense form that's used as the participle, as in "I should have went" for "I should have gone". With a very few verbs, such as do, see and be, it's the past-participle form that is used for the simple past, as in "I seen it yesterday" and "I done it".