What Is A Past Participle? Definitions & Examples

If you’re a grammar pro, you know that verbs are one of the major types of words that we use in our sentences and clauses. Verbs are interesting words that describe actions or states of beings. As cool as verbs are, we aren’t going to discuss them right now. No, instead we are going to look at participles. Participles look a lot like verbs and actually derive from them. However, participles have their own roles to play and can do a lot of different things in sentences. Right now, we are going to check out a specific type of participle called the past participle.

What is a past participle?

A participle is a type of word derived from a verb that is used for a variety of purposes, such as an adjective or to construct verb tenses.

Past participles are used as adjectives and to construct the perfect verb tenses. We’ll talk more about that soon, but to understand a past participle, it’s important to understand how they are formed from the root form of the verb. The root form is the form you will find if you look up a verb in our amazing dictionary. For example, jump is a root form of a verb.

Depending on the verb, there are several different ways we form the past participle:

  • For most verbs, the past participle is formed by adding -ed or -d to the end of the root form of the verb. For example, the past participle of jump is jumped and the past participle of excite is excited. Some verbs also use a -t variant, in which case they may change spelling slightly. For example, the past participle of burn is burnt and the past participle of sleep is slept.
  • If a verb ends in a consonant followed by a -y, we drop the -y and add -ied. For example, the past participle of fry is fried.
  • If a one-syllable verb ends in consonant-vowel-consonant, we double the last consonant. For example, the past participle of pet is petted and the past participle of slit is slitted.
  • If a one syllable verb ends in -w, -x, or -y, we don’t double the last consonant. For example, the past participle of flex is flexed, the past participle of skew is skewed, and the past participle of play is played.
  • For longer verbs, we only double the last constant if the verb ends in consonant-vowel-consonant and the last syllable is stressed. For example, the past participle of omit is omitted but the past participle of deposit is deposited.

Verbs that follow these rules are called regular verbs. The past participle of regular verbs is almost always identical to the simple past tense form of the verb. For example, both the past participle and simple past tense form of the regular verb approach is approached.

While regular verbs are relatively simple, there are many irregular verbs that don’t follow any of the above rules. For example, the past participle of the verb eat is eaten. With irregular verbs, the past participle may not be the same as the simple past tense. For example, the past participle of the irregular verb do is done but the simple past tense of do is did. Unfortunately, there are no general guidelines to use to know what the past participle of an irregular verb is. You will simply need to remember them as you learn them.

⚡️Examples of past participles

Here are some examples of past participles of regular and irregular verbs. In each example, the root form of the verb is followed by its past participle.

  • Regular: move, moved; close, closed; walk, walked; scoop, scooped; strut, strutted
  • Irregular: be, been; choose, chosen; catch, caught; run, run; get, gotten; swim, swum

How to use past participles

Okay, now we know how to turn verbs into past participles. So what do we use them for? In general, there are three major ways that we use past participles in sentences and clauses. Past participles can be used in participle phrases, as adjectives, and to form some particular verb tenses.

Past participles in participle phrases

A participle phrase, also known as a participial phrase, is a phrase that includes a participle and acts like an adjective in a sentence. A participle phrase includes a participle and other parts of speech, such as nouns, adverbs, and prepositional phrases. Like other participles, past participles can be used in participle phrases.

Learn more about adverbs and how they differ from adjectives.

Because they act as adjectives, participle phrases can only modify nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns. To avoid confusion, it is usually best to place the participle phrase as close to the noun/noun phrase/pronoun that it modifies as possible. The following sentences show examples of past participles used in participle phrases:

  • His cherished possession is a baseball signed by his childhood hero.
  • Macaroni and cheese covered in tomato sauce is my favorite dish.
  • She handed me a dirty rag splattered with oil.

We can also begin a sentence with a participle phrase. If we do, we use a comma to separate it from the main sentence. Again, it is a good idea to place the modified word/phrase as close to the participle phrase as possible.

  • Hopelessly confused by his trigonometry homework, Dennis asked his teacher for help.
  • Filled with rage, he tossed the losing lottery tickets in the trash.

When starting a sentence with a participle phrase, it is important that it is clear what word or phrase is being modified. Make sure to look over your sentences and rewrite them if a participle phrase is a dangling modifier that doesn’t seem to go with any word in a sentence.

  • Example of a dangling modifier: Exhausted by her terrible day, the train left.
  • Fixed sentence: Exhausted by her terrible day, Susanna watched the train leave.

Past participles as adjectives

It is also possible to use past participles on their own as adjectives. In this case, past participles are usually placed immediately before the word/phrase that they modify, just as is done with other adjectives. Here are some examples of past participles used as adjectives:

  • The carpenters fixed the damaged wall.
  • The students turned in their completed essays.
  • The enraged crowd shouted angrily at the politician.

Just like other adjectives, past participles can also be a complement that is connected to the subject by a linking verb.

  • Henry was tired.
  • The audience was amazed by the magician’s incredible tricks.

Past participles as verbs

Past participles can (sort of) be used as verbs when we use sentences in the passive voice. A passive voice sentence has the subject of the sentence act as a receiver of an action rather than a performer. For example, the sentence Dinner was made by me is a sentence that uses the passive voice.

The passive voice uses the basic structure of a subject followed by the verb be followed by a past participle. When using the passive voice, only the verb be is conjugated and it must obey subject-verb agreement. The past participle is used regardless of what tense the verb be is in. For example:

  • The concert is being performed by a local band. (present)
  • The concert was performed by a local band. (past)
  • The concert will be performed by a local band. (future)

Regular verbs

You need to make sure a sentence actually uses the passive voice and calls for a past participle. If a sentence doesn’t use the passive voice, it may need a different verb tense. For example:

  • Passive voice: The tango will be danced by my wife and me. (past participle)
  • Active voice: My wife and I will dance the tango. (not a past participle)

Irregular verbs

As they often do, irregular verbs make things trickier. The passive voice specifically uses a past participle, which may be different from the past tense form when dealing with an irregular verb. It is important to check what the past participle of an irregular verb is so you use the correct word. For example,

  • Incorrect: Breakfast was ate by me.
  • Correct: Breakfast was eaten by me.

Remember that only the passive voice uses a past participle. If a sentence is not in the passive voice, it needs a verb and not a participle:

  • Passive voice: Breakfast will be eaten by me. (past participle)
  • Active voice: I will eat breakfast. (not a past participle)

Verb tenses that use past participles 

Past participles are especially important when it comes to verb tenses. Past participles of verbs are used to form the perfect tenses. When used this way, the past participles are not used on their own but are used with the helping verb have/has/had. The following sentences show examples of the three perfect tenses:

Additionally, the past participle of the verb be (been) is used in the perfect continuous verb tenses:

Review all twelve verb tenses here.

Why past participles matter

Past participles look identical to the simple past tense of verbs—besides those pesky irregular verbs—but they can do a lot of useful things that verbs can’t. Past participles, as well as the other types of participles, are important because they allow us to create more complex sentences by acting as modifiers. If you can imagine a world without adjectives (horror!), you can understand how important past participles are. Not only that, past participles are needed in order to use the perfect and perfect continuous verb tenses. Without past participles, English grammar would definitely be missing a lot of useful tools that we can build complicated sentences with.

What to be cautious of when using past participles

While adjectives don’t typically cause many problems, past participles are a little bit tougher to use. As mentioned earlier, a common mistake people make with past participles is putting participle phrases in the wrong place or accidentally using them as a dangling modifier. When using a participle phrase, make absolutely sure it is modifying the correct word and that it is clear in the sentence what word the phrase is supposed to be referring to. The following sentences show examples of a correct use of a participle phrase as well as a participle phrase used incorrectly as a misplaced and dangling modifier.

  • Correct use: Determined to win the race, Stacy ran as fast as she could.
  • Misplaced modifier: Determined to win the race, the audience watched as Stacy ran as fast as she could.
  • Dangling modifier: Determined to win the race, her legs moved like lightning.

Past participle vs. past tense

Because they often look identical to simple past tense verbs, the past participles of regular verbs can be confused with verbs used in the past tense. However, there is a major difference between the two. Past participles are used as modifiers or are used with a helping verb to form perfect verb tenses. Past tense verbs are not. As their name suggests, past tense verbs are verbs. Verbs are used in the predicates of sentences and clauses and are not used as modifiers. Verbs are used to describe actions and states of being, not to modify nouns (or pronouns or noun phrases). Of course, past tense verbs are also completely different from perfect tense verbs.

When it comes to regular verbs, separating these two concepts only really matters when it comes to identifying a word in a sentence. However, knowing the difference between the two is important when it comes to irregular verbs, because their past tense form and past participle may not be identical. Let’s look at an example of this as shown in two different sentences:

  • Past tense verb: The children flew kites by the lake.
  • Past participle: Flown by happy children, the kites danced in the wind. 

In this case, neither sentence would make sense if the past participle and past tense verb were switched with each other. When using irregular verbs, it is crucial to know how and when to use past participles and past tense verbs.

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Looking for more grammar? Take a look at this article on determiners.

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