Past Participles: When and How to Use Them

Past ParticiplesTo say the English language is complicated would be a gross understatement. If you grew up speaking English, the use of certain verbiage and tenses come naturally. For the most part, you can probably speak correctly without having to think about why you are choosing your words.

However, when you study grammar, it is often  confusing to identify the various elements of a sentence– especially with inconsistencies in patterns and structure. Taking some time to become better acquainted with grammar will make you a better speaker, writer, and overall communicator. In addition, familiarizing yourself with the various parts of speech and their functions will also help you tremendously if you are trying to learn a foreign language.

For an introductory overview on all tenses of English grammar, explore this course.

What is a Past Participle?

A past participle is the form of a verb that represents (you guessed it) the past.

Past participles have three uses in the English language.

  1. Perfect Tenses
  2. The Passive Voice
  3. As Adjectives/Descriptors

Since participles are forms of verbs, in order to use them correctly, you need to recognize that there are two types of verbs – regular and irregular.

For regular verbs, the past forms (both simple and perfect) are simply the verb with ed added to the end.

Present Verb       Simple Past         Past Participle

help                            helped                       (have) helped

stop                           stopped                     (have) stopped

play                            played                       (have) played

Irregular verbs do not follow a rule or pattern. They simply need to be learned and memorized. Below are some examples:

Present Verb       Simple Past          Past Participle

run                             ran                              (have) run

go                                went                          (have) gone

am                              was                            (have) been

give                            gave                           (have) given

Irregular verb usage is something that many struggle with when learning English. Udemy offers the course: Focus on ESL Skills: Phrasal Verbs to help English language learners with phrasal verbs — another  common obstacle when learning English.

Past Participles in the Perfect Tense

The perfect aspect is when you are describing something that occurred in the past, but it is linked to another time. In the perfect tenses, a past participle is used with the helping verbs has, have or had.

The following are some examples that show the use of past participles with the different perfect tenses. The past participles are italicized.

Present Perfect [has/have + past participle]

  • The contractors still haven’t finished the renovation.
  • The detective has not found the jewelry thief.

Past Perfect [had + past participle]

  • Jessica aced her test because she had studied all night.
  • They took the dog to the vet because he hadn’t eaten for days.

Future Perfect [will have + past participle]

  • You will have mastered the basics of algebra after completing this course.
  • Will you have completed your homework by the time I get home?

Conditional Perfect [would have + past participle]

  • If it wasn’t for the bad call, he would have won the basketball game.
  • I would not have succeeded if it wasn’t for your help.

Past Participles in the Passive Voice

There are two types of forms you can use when writing or speaking: active and passive. When using the active form, the thing doing the action is the subject and the thing receiving the action is the object. Most of the time, people speak and write this way. It is more direct and usually is more action oriented. Check out this course to improve  your writing skills through the study of grammar essentials.

When using the passive form, the thing receiving is the subject of the sentence. The thing doing the action is included near the end of the sentence. Passive form is sometimes used if you want to emphasize the thing receiving the action. In all passive forms, past participles are used with helping or auxiliary verbs. These helping verbs are the forms of would, like, have, do, or will.

Below are examples of the passive form. These sentences are passive because subject is not doing the action.

  • The little girl was bitten by the dog. (girl is the subject)
  • The bill was paid by the generous stranger. (bill is the subject)

In the active voice, the sentences would read:

  • The dog bit the little girl. (dog is the subject)
  • The generous stranger paid the bill. (stranger is the subject)

In the active voice, the subject is performing the action.

Past Participles as Adjectives

Past participles can also be used as an adjective to describe a noun. Below are some examples:

  • You should walk cautiously on the frozen pond.

The past participle form of “freeze” describes the pond.

  • The exhausted athlete needed take a break and recharge.

The past participle of “exhaust” describes the athlete.

 Commonly Misused Past Participles

There are many irregular verbs with past participles that are often used incorrectly. Below is a list of commonly misused past forms so you do not make the same mistakes and feel confident about your word choice.

Verb       Past Tense    Past Participle     Example Using Past Participle

swim         swam               swum                       She had swum the entire length of the pool.

dive          dived/dove      dived                        He had dived perfectly and scored a ten.

ring           rang                  rung                         You are late if the bell has already rung.

spit           spit/spat          spat                          The crying baby had spat out his milk.  

lie              lay                    lain                           She had lain outside to try to get a tan.

lay             laid                   laid                          The librarian laid the book on the table.

hang         hung                hung                        She had hung her photos on the wall.

hang        hanged             hanged                    The sheriff had hanged the criminal.

Whether you are studying grammar, or learning to speak English, it is important to be able to recognize how words function within a sentence. If you will be taking the SAT’s, check out this course to improve your scores on the grammar and essay sections. Continuing to study grammar and explore how thoughts and sentences are pieced together, will help to improve your writing and speaking skills. You will become a better communicator whether you are engaging in a simple conversation or showcasing and executing your ideas in the professional world.