Participles used as Adjectives

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Some learners of English struggle with the two participles used as adjectives. In the continuous and perfect verb structures, the main verb occurs in one of the never-changing forms called participles. To give some examples:

  • We are eating out in a restaurant this evening.
  • He is running in a 10K on the weekend.
  • I am working from home today.

The auxiliary BE is inflected for ‘person’, thus different in all three cases. The main verbs are all in -ing form, the so-called ‘present participle‘.

  • We have already eaten lunch today.
  • She had lived there her whole life (before she finally decided to move).
  • I have worked from home ever since.

In cases of sentences in ‘perfect’ structures, we have an inflected form of the auxiliary HAVE and the main verb is again in participle form, called ‘past participle‘.

In the examples above, none of the verb participles have meanings that would make them likely to be used as adjectives. So let’s look at some other examples:

  • The noise is really disturbing us. The noise has disturbed us ever since construction began.

Here disturbing and disturbed function as participles in verb structures. However, we could also say:

  • The noise is disturbing.
  • The noise has been disturbing ever since construction began.

Here, the meaning or function of disturbing is that of an adjective: disturbing noise.

Side note: Some might argue that we could still classify disturbing as a verb participle. (That’s what the noise has been doing: disturbing – more verb. On the other hand: That’s what the noise is being: disturbing – more adjective). However, disturb as a verb would always be used with an object, i.e. identifying it as a transitive verb and further distinguishing its use from that of an adjective. Additionally, being able to add an adverb like very (The noise is very disturbing) tells us that it is indeed rather an adjective. Still, sometimes the edges between classifications seem fuzzy, or the analysis not always so clear. But these are technicalities more interesting to linguists or grammarians. More important for the learner of English is the distinction between the two different participles when used as adjectives.

Let’s look at some more examples.

  • This presentation is boring.
  • The food is disgusting
  • The weather is depressing.
  • The new film is exciting.

Task: Try to change the sentences in such a way that the participles function as verb participles instead of adjectives. How do the sentences change?

Below some examples using the second (or ‘past’) participle as adjectives:

  • We are bored (by the presentation).
  • We are disgusted (by the food).
  • We are depressed.
  • The shops are closed.
  • They are terrified.
  • She is worried.

Another note on the side: In several of the cases above you could argue that they are actually passive structures, so the past participle is used as a verb participle forming the passive. This just shows you how similar adjective and verb structures in English can be. If you can add …by something or someone you would probably classify the sentence as being in passive voice. However, this should not concern us as a problem here. (The distinction between passive sentence and adjective construction might have interesting repercussions for the teaching of the passive, seeing it to be so similar to simple adjective constructions.)

Take a look at the list below and try to come up with examples for all words. Take only a few at a time. I did this in a one-to-one session and it really helped clarify things. It was a simple exercise with minimal material. I believe we were able to link the various adjectives with special situations of use and thereby, hopefully, boost the memorization process.

I did not provide the analysis from above, but some learners might be interested and benefit from an additional theoretical approach. For that it is necessary that students are familiar with the language – words and expressions – used to describe language.

Below you find some questions from a little worksheet I used to use in class. Should also work online, and you can always add questions. The ones below are especially good for getting to know each other e.g. when you have new participants. The question about the news might have to be handle with care or left out depending on your participants.

Bored or Boring?

Complete the adjectives with either –ing or –ed

  1. What’s the most fascinat…city you ever visited?
  2. What’s the most bor….film you have ever seen?
  3. What’s the most interest…book you have ever read?
  4. What’s the most terrif…thing you have ever done?
  5. Are you tir…at the moment?
  6. What’s the most shock…news you’ve heard over the last few days?
  7. Which sports are you interest…in?
  8. What is the most disgusting thing you have ever eaten?
  9. At which time of the day do you usually feel most relax…?
  10. What’s them most exhiliarat… thing you have ever had?
  11. What’s the most embarrass… thing you have ever done?
  12. What do you find confus…about learning a foreign language?
  13. What is the most excit…thing you are looking forward to doing?

Adapted from Photocopiable Timesaver Activities by Peter Maggs and Jon Hird

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