This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.
Skip to main contentAccess keys helpA-Z index
You are in: Home > Grammar, Vocabulary & Pronunciation
Learn It
participles as adjectives
Tutul Rahmen from Bangladesh writes:
  I am confused as to when I can use participles as adjectives. Let me give you an example. I can say: I saw a barking dog. Here the present participle barking is used as an adjective. But I can't say: I saw a barked dog, using the past participle as an adjective. Why not? Thanks.
Roger Woodham replies:
barking dogs [ yes ] barked dogs [ no ]
There are not very many adjectives formed from verb participles, Tutul, that can be used in both -ed and -ing forms.
You can often get a sense of what works and what doesn't by transforming the participial adjective into a participial clause.
If it doesn't make sense as a participle in a clause, it is unlikely to make sense as a participle adjective. Consider the following:
The barking dogs kept me awake all night.
The dogs that were barking kept me awake all night.
The barked dogs kept me awake all night.
The dogs that had been barked kept me awake all night.
Barking works in the first pair of examples because -ing forms when used as adjectives have similar meanings to active verbs.
Barked doesn't work in the second pair of examples because most past participles have passive meanings when they are used as adjectives. Dogs can be washed, dried, combed, brushed, fed and walked, but they can't be barked. That is something they do themselves.
abandoning child [ no ] abandoned child [ yes ]
Abandon (meaning to leave someone when you should stay with them) is commonly used in passive structures. For this reason, abandoned works as an adjective, but abandoning does not. Compare the following:
The abandoned child cried for three days without stopping.
The child that had been abandoned cried for three days.
The abandoning child was so unhappy she cried for three days.
The child which was abandoning was so upset she cried for three days.
Abandoning doesn't work because children cannot abandon themselves, though the unfortunate ones are sometimes abandoned by their parents.
There are a few participial adjectives that can be used in both -ing and -ed forms, but note the differences in meaning, depending on active or passive use in these examples below.
broken hearts [ yes ] breaking waves [ yes ]
She is suffering from a broken heart
Her heart has been broken by his cruel behaviour.
The breaking waves pushed the surfboard further out to sea.
Huge waves breaking on the beach pushed the surtboard out to sea.
alarmed houses [ yes ] alarming reports [ yes ]
Alarmed houses afford some protection against burglary.
Houses which are alarmed afford some protection against burglary.
Alarming reports are coming in that refugees are being racially abused.
Reports are coming in that refugees are being racially abused. This alarms me.
A small number of verbs have past participles that can be used as adjectives before nouns with active meanings. Note with these examples there may not be so much change in meaning between the -ing and -ed forms:
falling/fallen [ yes ] advanced/advancing [ yes ] developing/developed [ yes ]
The falling leaves covered the path and made it quite slippery.
The leaves that were falling covered the path and made it slippery.
The fallen trees blocked the road and only pedestrians could get through.
The trees that had fallen blocked the road and made it quite impassable.
When we think of countries that are still developing and countries that have developed, it is true to say that:
a) developing countries need as much help as they can get.
b) it is the developed nations which should provide it.
This class is appropriate only for advanced students.
It is suitable for students who have advanced beyond level five.
The advancing army surrounded the city and cut off all its supply lines.
The army, which was advancing rapidly, had cut off the city by nightfall.

Noun-verb agreement

Situation, position, condition
  Third conditional
  Animal idioms
  no = not a / not any
  Learnit Archive