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How to spot a participle adjective: The trick that will train your brain 

 April 5, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

Learning how to spot a participle adjective is one of the more confusing parts of English language grammar. Even editors sometimes mistake them as an active verb. (Let's not talk about the day I realized I had been using a participle adjective as an example of a strong verb... for five years.)

In this article, I'll walk you through a few examples to demonstrate what a participle adjective looks like, how they can accidentally introduce passive voice, and why it looks like a verb but actually isn't. Then I'll share a quick trick to help you spot a participle adjective (almost) every time.

So, uh, Sue? Why do we care about participle adjectives?

Because there is transformational power in truly understanding grammar, for yourself and for your story.

And someday, you may need to justify your phrasing choices to an editor. Editors aren't perfect. We make mistakes. We don't know everything about grammar (even if we usually know more than the authors we edit for, since being the expert on grammar is part of a copyeditor's job). 

Style is an essential element of your writing voice, and you may want to use some fancy phrasings to set your work apart. But "style" is not an excuse to break the rules of grammar. We can bend them, but some of these rules exist for rock-solid reasons, and we need to understand how a phrase works and why a rule exists before we start getting creative with them.

What is a participle adjective?

So what is a participle adjective?

You may already understand how sentence structure works with all the parts of speech, but I'm about to throw some terms around, so let's do a quick review of the basics.

Henry ate lunch.

The subject of this sentence is "Henry", the verb is "ate", and the predicate is "lunch". Easy enough. 

Now let's look at a participle form of the verb—just this one example, to keep things moving.

Henry was eating a healthy lunch.

The verb participle is "was eating" (past continuous). "Healthy" is an adjective that describes the predicate, "lunch". What kind of lunch? A healthy one.

I won't go into the various types of participles here, so just know that participles are useful for showing when something is happening in real time or happened at the same time as something else. 

Okay, great! Now we're all caught up on the grammatical basics, let's talk about participle adjectives.

A participial adjective is the participle form of a verb when it is used as an adjective

That sounds like a "duh", right? Should be simple to spot, right? Ugh, not always. (That's why I use my trick, and I'll show you below.)

Let's look at an example of a participial adjective. 

Julian was captivated.

"Captivated" is the past participle form of the verb captivate. Here, it is used to describe the subject's (Julian's) emotional state, so "captivated" here is a participial adjective. "Was" is the linking verb (a state of "to be") that connects the description ("captivated") to the subject ("Julian"). 

This sentence tells us how Julian is feeling, how he is being affected... but by what? Here's where it gets tricky.

In the above version of the sentence, Julian is merely feeling captivated. It's a state of existence. The sentence doesn't give us any additional detail about this state of being, so we assume it's a general experience. This sentence is perfectly healthy, style-wise, and grammatically correct.

But the sentence above could become passive voice just by adding a prepositional phrase. That's something you should avoid, since passive voice is widely considered a poor stylistic choice.

Risking passive voice

How can you tell when a participial phrase introduces passive voice?

Consider this new version of our example.

Julian was captivated by the merfolk.

Now we've introduced passive voice. I'll resist going off on yet another tangent to explain the ins and outs of passive voice here—you're welcome, brain!—but the takeaway from this new example is this: 

Instead of "captivated" describing a general emotional state, it is now a specific situation. And that situation is introduced by and controlled by another noun, "the merfolk". Which means that "Julian" is now the predicate of this sentence because he is the one being acted on rather than simply being described. This is what it looks like in subject-verb-predicate order:

The merfolk captivated Julian.

If you want to avoid introducing passive voice, don't place prepositional phrases that start with "by" after the participle form of a verb (especially if it would otherwise act as an adjective). 

A participle is not a verb

So when is a verb not a verb?

The purpose of everything we just talked about is to help you understand that a participial adjective does not act as a verb in a sentence. Because it modifies the subject, it is an adjective.

When a word that we typically consider a verb is used as an adjective, it is not actually doing the work in the sentence; it merely functions as a description. 

Hang with me for one more quick example and I'll show you the simple trick for spotting those pesky participle adjectives.

How to spot the difference between a participial adjective and a regular adjective

So far, we've only looked at verb forms of adjectives that follow linking verbs:

Julian was captivated.

But what if we used an adjective that is not a conjugated verb?

Julian was there.

Julian was alive.

Julian was happy.

Woah. Okay, now it's getting tougher to tell the difference. All of these, including the original, are examples of predicate adjectives (not to be confused with participle adjectives). Don't worry, I'm not going to break your brain with even more definitions. Just know that every sentence above has the same structure: 

[subject] + [linking verb] + [adjective].

The new set of examples uses words which cannot be verbs. Earlier I mentioned how it's not okay to break (many of) the rules of grammar for stylistic purposes. Participle misuse is one of the most common mistakes I see in my fiction editing work, and it's usually done in the name of "style". 

If you're not sure what an ISA is—Improbable or Impossible Simultaneous Actions—or aren't sure you can identify one every time, then it is especially important for you to be able to spot a verb participle and understand what it modifies and how

So let's finally take a look at that trick I've been promising you. 🙂

The technique

The trick to spotting a participial adjective

Try to conjugate the adjective and stick it directly back in the sentence as a verb (replace the "to be" linking verb). If the sentence still makes sense, that adjective is a participle. If the new sentence is nonsense, the adjective cannot also function as a verb and is therefore not a participle. (Since only verbs can be participles.)

  • Julian was captivated.   —>   Julian captivated. Julian captivates. Julian will captivate.
  • Julian was there.   —>   Julian thered. Julian theres. Julian will there.
  • Julian was alive.   —>   Julian alived. Julian alives. Julian will alive.
  • Julian was happy.   —>   Julian happied. Julian happies. Julian will happy.

Some of those look pretty ridiculous, right? If we're going to break our brains with grammar, at least we can get a little dopamine hit as a reward. 🙂 

This trick won't work with irregular verbs, so if a verb has a conjugated form that doesn't follow the same -ed -ing etc format, you probably can't use this trick. Here's a partial list of irregular verbs for reference, but a dictionary is always your best bet. 

Leave a comment

Did my trick help? Do you still have questions?

Leave a comment below and let me know!

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

You only get one chance to make a memorable first impression, so make it count!

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