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What’s a Participle? (Present Participle vs. Past Participles)

Participles are part verbs and part adjectives (by sometimes modifying nouns) in sentences.

This article is on the participle; which, to put it bluntly, are a linguistic (and philological) doozy. Take your time because participles are a difficult concept in grammar to grasp. Let the lesson marinate, folks.

What’s a participle?

In a nutshell, participles are part verbs, and part adjectives (by sometimes modifying nouns) in sentences. They get their name, the participle, by partaking in numerous parts of speech: hearing, thinking, walking and talking are all examples of the present participle in the formation of perfect tenses:

I am working. (present continuous tense)

He was singing. (past continuous tense)

They are walking. (present continuous tense)

Present participles are formed by adding an –ing to the end of the base verb (e.g., working, singing and walking), and pair with auxiliaries in constructing more dynamic verb tenses, such as the perfect or progressive tenses in grammar. If we take a look at the examples above, notice how they show the sentence’s action either as ongoing, in progress, or imperfect (as in not yet complete). These tenses allow for a more dynamic representation of how actions in the past or present unfold, and can show the actions as they occurred or as they had occurred in the past.

To review, we use the present participle with the auxiliaries am, was and are to form the present continuous and past continuous tenses. The present continuous tense indicates the action is happening right now, in the present moment, e.g., ‘I am working‘, ‘They are walking‘.

The past continuous tense is formed with the past tense of the verb ‘to be’ (was/were) and the present participle verb form ending in -ing, e.g., ‘I was writing my paper all night‘. We write in the past continuous to show a continuous action that began in the past.

I was waiting for the cab when I met Raj.

The children were shouting when the teacher came in.

It was midnight when it was raining.

In these examples, see how pairing the auxiliary was + present participle depicts the action as being ongoing or in-progress up until another point in the past.


What’s the past participle?

The past participle is the form of the verb that pairs auxiliary verbs in the construction of perfect tenses, such as the past perfect, present perfect and future perfect tenses. We also form the passive voice in grammar with the past participle plus the auxiliary had, (that’s to say, to write in the passive voice use the past perfect tense or aspect).

  • The formula for the past perfect tense is auxiliary [had] + the past participle verb [written].

  • The past participle form of regular verbs end in -ed (e.g., worked, talked, laughed, studied), and look the identical to the simple past tense verb conjugation.

  • The past participle form of irregular verbs end in something other than -ed (e.g., bitten, frozen, written).

Take a look at these sentences in the past perfect tense:

I had caught ten fish before my dad caught one.

They had eaten lunch already, so they weren’t hungry.

He had written three books and he was working on another one.

W‍e write in the past perfect tense to more effectively communicate when past actions or events occurred up until another point, also in the past. It’s especially helpful when we want to clarify the order in which multiple past actions took place, and the correct order these past actions occurred in.

To write in the present perfect tense, we pair the past participle + appropriate form of the auxiliary verb have (in the present tense). See examples of sentences in the present perfect tense:

We have worked as teachers for two years

He has worked as a teacher for two years

They have worked as teachers for two years.

Learn more about verbs


  1. High School English Grammar and Composition, P.C. Wren.

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