What is the past participle? Check out our expert guide to this useful verb form and learn top tips and tricks to use it in your writing.
The past participle form of a verb is the form, in English grammar, that shows a completed action in the past. This verb tense can be an adjective, participle phrase, or verb. It requires using the auxiliary verb “have”, for example, has or had. Writers can use the past participles as adjectives in sentences.
Understanding and using this form will strengthen your skill as a writer using the English language.
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Definition of a Past Participle
A past participle is the perfect past tense of a verb. To form it with a regular verb, you will take the infinitive, which is the base form of the verb, and add -ed or -en to it. For example:
- Excite – Excited
- Learn – Learned
- Hide – Hidden
- Give – Given
- Ride – Ridden
- Write – Written
For past participles that end in -ed, the form is almost always the same as the simple past tense form. The only way to tell the difference is to see how the word appears in the sentence. If it has a helping verb, it is usually a past participle. If it is an adjective or the beginning of a participle phrase, it is also a past participle. If it is a simple past tense verb, it is not a past participle.
What Are the Most Common Past Participles?
Here are some of the most common past participles:
- Be – Been
- Begin – Begun
- Break – Broken
- Bring – Brought
- Buy – Bought
- Choose – Chosen
- Come – Come
- Do – Done
- Drink – Drunk
- Drive – Driven
- Eat – Eaten
- Fall – Fallen
- Feel – Felt
- Find – Found
- Get – Gotten
- Give – Given
- Go – Gone
- Have – Had
- Know – Known
- Make – Made
- See – Seen
- Show – Shown
- Speak – Spoken
- Take – Taken
- Write – Written
Uses of a Past Participle
The past participle has several uses in English, including both as a verb and as an adjective. Writers can also place it at the beginning of a participle phrase. For more, check out our guide to past participle examples.
Past Participles as Perfect Verb Tenses
One of the more common uses of the past participle is in perfect verb tenses. Perfect verb tenses use a form of the auxiliary verb “have” and pair it with the past participle form of the verb. This form of the verb forms the following verb tenses:
- Past perfect: had + past participle
- Present perfect: have/has + past participle
- Future perfect: will have + past participle
Writers form the past perfect when they pair the auxiliary verb “had” with the verb’s past participle. Here are some examples of past perfect verbs:
- She had asked for seconds on dessert, but her mom said no.
- The children had not finished their pizza yet when the bell for recess sounded.
- They had arrived too late to get the front-row seats.
Sometimes, writers will put the word “just” in the past perfect tense to show that the action finished not long before. Here are some example sentences using this:
- The door to the plane had just shut when the family arrived to check in for their flight.
- She had just started her shower when the phone rang.
- The delivery driver had just passed the intersection when he saw the crash behind him.
The present perfect tense of the verb applies to past actions that continue in the present time or continue to impact your life today. You will form this tense by pairing the auxiliary verb “has” or “have” with the past participle. In each of these example sentences, you can see that the action either continues to happen to the person or continues to impact them.
- She has been a blonde all of her life.
- The student has traveled to India on several occasions.
- Her Spanish has improved since her last trip to Mexico.
Finally, the past participle can be used in the future perfect tense. This verb tense refers to actions that will finish before a point in the future. It pairs the auxiliary verbs “will” and “have” with the past participle, like in these example sentences:
- By 10:00, she will have been in bed for at least an hour.
- You shouldn’t get hungry because we will have eaten dinner before the concert.
- The children will have enjoyed all of the ice cream flavors from the ice cream truck by the end of the summer.
Sometimes, looking at examples is the best way to understand a grammar concept. Read our guide to past participle examples to see more example sentences.
Passive Voice Construction
Sometimes the past participle is paired with a form of the verb “to be” to make the sentence passive. The passive voice is a sentence construction where the action of the sentence is being done to the subject. In contrast, the active voice occurs when the subject does the action.
Here are some passive-voice sentences:
- The students were scolded by their teacher.
- John was given a million dollars.
- The note was passed to the other students before the teacher caught them.
Changing these to active voice, which does not include the past participle, they would read:
- The teacher scolded the students.
- Someone gave John a million dollars.
- The students passed the note to each other before the teacher caught them.
Most of the time, writing in the active voice is the preferred way to write. Sometimes, however, passive voice is necessary. If the subject is unknown or the writer is intentionally vague, passive voice works. Whenever possible, however, strive for an active voice.
Past Participle as an Adjective
A verb’s past participle form can sometimes appear as an adjective. When used like this, the word is no longer a verb, but the form stays the same. Here are some examples:
- The excited siblings were ready for Christmas morning, but the tired parents wanted to seep in.
- The broken vase became beautiful again when the potter added some gold to the cracks.
- The burnt toast made the whole kitchen smell bad.
In each of these sentences, the adjective, such as “excited,” “tired,” “broke,” and “burnt,” are all directly in front of the nouns they modify. Many English readers gloss over these and don’t even register that they’re a verb form because they sound so natural when used in this way.
The final way a past participle can show up in a sentence is in a participle phrase. A participle is a verb that acts as an adjective to modify a noun in a sentence. A participle phrase includes that participle and some additional words that are related to it. Commas often set the participle phrase apart from the rest of the sentence.
Participle phrases can start with a past participle. If the participle is the simple past tense of the verb, then it falls into this category. Here are some examples:
- Confused by the instructions, the students did poorly on their homework.
- The car stolen from my neighbor’s yard showed up as “for sale” in the classifieds.
- Soaked from the sudden downpour, the couple ran into a nearby cafe to finish their date.
One common mistake when creating sentences with participle phrases is to leave a dangling participle. This happens when the writer uses a participle phrase but omits the noun it modifies in the sentence, leaving the reader guessing. It also occurs when the noun and the participle phrase are not close to watch other. Here are some examples of this mistake:
- Covered in mustard, I found the burger distasteful.
In this sentence, it sounds like the speaker is covered in mustard. While technically the modified noun, in this case, “burger,” is in the sentence, it’s unclear who or what is covered in mustard. It should read:
- Covered in mustard, the burger was distasteful to me.
Here, the phrase “covered in mustard” clearly modifies the pronoun “burger.” You could also change it by moving the participle phrase, as in:
- I found the burger covered in mustard distasteful.
Misplaced modifiers can make sentences almost dangerous. For example, consider this one:
- Equipped with product knowledge and enthusiasm, the senior sales team often praised Samantha for her abilities.
Here, the senior sales team seems equipped with product knowledge and enthusiasm. While you could assume that the senior sales team has these things, the sentence is clearly speaking of Samantha. It should read:
- Equipped with product knowledge and enthusiasm, Samantha regularly received praise from the senior sales team.
Here is another example:
- Tired of the rigorous pace, the climb back down the mountain seemed impossible.
Here, there is nothing for “tired of the rigorous pace” to modify. It should read:
- Tired of the rigorous pace, the mountain climbers felt the climb back down the mountain was impossible.
Common Irregular Past Participles
While the past participle is usually constructed using the -ed or -en ending, not all verbs fall into this category. Irregular verbs have irregular past participles that do not end in -ed or -en. These may end in -n, -ne, or -t. There may also be other endings for irregular verbs, but these three are the most common. Here are some examples:
- Arise – Arisen
- Awake – Awoken
- Be – Been
- Build – Built
- Bring – Brought
- Catch – Caught
- Choose – Chosen
- Deal – Dealt
- Draw – Drawn
- Drink – Drunk
- Forget – Forgotten
- Freeze – Frozen
- Get – Got or Gotton
- Go – Gone
- Lay – Laid
- Lose – Lost
- Pay – Paid
- Sweep – Swept
- Swim – Swum
- Understand – Understood
A few irregular past participles do not change at all. The only way to tell that they are past tense is to look at the context of the sentence. Here are some of them:
This list is not exhaustive. As you learn about past participles, you’ll discover other irregular past participles. These words don’t follow regular rules, so you must practice using them correctly. Make sure you study the irregular verbs as you work to include more past participle structures in your writing.
A Final Word on Past Participles
As an English speaker, you use past participles almost whenever you talk. Yet this verb conjugation is often misunderstood. Understanding participles and their uses will also help you choose the right part of speech when you find a verb in a sentence that doesn’t appear to be a simple past tense verb. In addition, understanding past participles and their uses will help you avoid common writing errors, such as dangling participles. You might also be interested in these dangling participle examples.
As you strive to become a better writer, thoroughly knowing all verb tenses, including the past participle and their uses, will be a valuable skill. Looking for more? Check out our guide to English grammar clauses!
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