What is a Participle?

In this article on what is a participle, I am going to deal also with two related questions which will help you understand participles.

These two other questions are:

  1. What are the various types of participles?

  2. How do we recognize them?
    (i.e., how do they look or what are the forms of each type?)

So here we go...

What is a Participle?

Look at these two sentences:

  1. The stranger ignored the barking dogs.
  2. I saw a boy riding a bicycle.

In sentence 1, the word barking...

  • is formed from the verb 'bark' and it also denotes an action;
    therefore it is a verb;

  • describes the noun 'dogs' and therefore it is like an adjective.

In sentence 2, the whole phrase riding a bicycle...

  • acts like an adjective. It describes the noun 'boy'. The whole phrase is called a participial phrase and the word 'riding' is called its head...and as the head it is mainly responsible for the adjectival function.

  • The word 'riding' acts also like a verb, because it has 'bicycle' as its object. Also remember that the phrase 'riding a bicycle' is an action-based description of the boy.

So then, what is a participle?

A participle is a verbal adjective.
It is by birth a verb,
but mostly serves nouns and pronouns as an adjective does.

Types of Participles

They are of three types:

  • the Present Participle
  • the Past Participle
  • the Perfect Participle

Is it possible to recognize each of these types?

Yes, you can...

  • from their morphology (i.e the form of the words)
  • and the syntax (i.e. the work they do in sentences).

The meanings the different types of participles convey are also different. An expert writer can use participles in subtle ways.

How many types? Two or three?

Sometimes you may hear or read that there are two (not three) types of participles. This is said because the Perfect Participle has no independent form, but one that depends on the form of the Past Participle.

It's up to you to classify the types as two or three. What is important is to know the answers to...

  • what is a participle?
  • what are its different forms and functions?

How Can We Recognize Participles?

They are sometimes difficult to understand or deal with; but it need not be so for you, if you go through the following carefully. Understanding the types is part of the original and larger question: what is a participle?

The forms of the three types of Participles are as follows:

The Present Participle

This non-finite verb can be recognized from its -ing ending (e.g. eating, playing, singing, studying, sleeping). However, this fact alone is not enough to recognize it for sure, because the gerund also has the same ending.

So then, how can you know for sure that an -ing word is a present participle?

Here's how...

A present participle does the work of an adjective, but a gerund does the work of a noun. Though both have the same form, they are different in the jobs they do.

These two examples will make this point clear to you...

  • I enjoy singing.
    ('singing' is the object of the verb 'enjoy' - being an object of a verb is the mark of a noun - therefore, 'singing' is a gerund.)

  • She is a singing girl.
    ('singing' describes the noun 'girl' - describing a noun is the function of an adjective - therefore 'singing' is a participle.)

So if you want to recognize a present participle you need to take into consideration not only its form but also its use in sentences.

The Past Participle

All past participles do not have one type of form. So they are harder to recognize. Here are some ways to help you recognize them...

  • They often have one of these endings: -ed, -d, -t, -en, -n (as in: developed, hoped, burnt, fallen, grown).

  • Sometimes they are formed by making an internal change in the basic form of the verb (e.g. sung from sing, won from win, bound from bind, met from meet).

  • A third way of forming the past participle is by not changing the form of the verb at all (as in verbs: put, cut, set).

The Perfect Participle

The form of this particular non-finite verb depends on that of the previous one, i.e. the past participle.

The form is:

the word 'having' + the past participle.
(e.g. having sung, having won, having met, having rested, having seen, etc).

Going Forward...

We have seen the important questions of:

  • What is a participle?
  • What are its types?
  • What are its forms it takes?

Further questions to deal with are:

  • What different jobs do the different participles do?

  • What different shades of meaning are associated with the different types of participles?

  • What are some of the problems we are likely to encounter (meet with) when we begin to use them?

You will find the answers if you follow the links in the page on Participles. You will see that each type of participle has some jobs in common with the others, and some specific to it.

For Further Reading and Study...

Related Pages

The Study of Verbals



The Study of Participles

What is a Participle?

Present Participle

Past Participle - Forms

Past Participle - Functions

For the Study of Verbs