Present participles and past participles - what’s the difference?
When teaching grammar, a lot of focus tends to be put onto past participles. These forms of verbs appear in many structures such as present perfect tenses and the passive voice. However, verbs do have another, less-studied form: the present participle. So what is the difference between these two forms?
What is a participle?
Essentially, a past participle is the verb in its ‘third’ form - we often present verbs (especially irregular verbs) in three forms: the infinitive, the past simple and the past participle. In regular verbs, past simple and past participle forms look the same (both ending in -ed), but irregular verbs do not change their form in the same ways:
walk - walked - walked
touch - touched - touched
pick - picked - picked
eat - ate - eaten
begin - began - begun
put - put - put
Present participles, on the other hand, are an -ing form of a verb, which are used in continuous tenses (as in ‘I am walking’ / ‘I was walking’). These are participles because they do not directly communicate time, which is taken up by the auxiliary ‘was’, but show that the aspect of the tense is continuous.
Present participles carry an element of meaning which equates to ‘at the time’. In present continuous tenses, ‘at the time’ means ‘now’. In past continuous tenses, ‘at the time’ means ‘at a specific point in the past’. The point of ‘at the time’ interrupts the continuous action before it has finished, meaning that the action is/was/has been in progress at the specific time (now or then).
Another use of present participles is in participle phrases, which can add an action to a clause or sentence by communicating that this thing was also happening at that time, as in:
Whistling happily, the man walked down the street.
In this sentence, the ‘whistling’ is happening at the same time as the walking, again showing an ‘at that time’ concept using a present participle.
Past participles can also be used in ‘extra action’ participle phrases, as in:
Bored by the lesson, the student stared into space.
Here, instead of communicating ‘at that time’, the past participle is communicating a result of something that happened ‘before that time’. In the above example, something happened before the staring into space to have that effect.
Participles can also be used as adjectives to describe someone or something according to what is happening or what has happened to them. A broken window, for example, uses the past participle of ‘break’ to show the result of that action beforehand. Similarly, ‘a smiling face’ or ‘a shining star’ use the present participles of the verbs ‘smile’ and ‘shine’ to describe the nouns ‘face’ and ‘star’ according to their qualities at that moment.
It’s worth noting that these -ing forms are very different from gerunds (which also end in -ing), as they function as verbs, not subjects of objects of sentences.
In summary, past and present participles are most commonly seen in tense structures, but can also be used to add action-based or descriptive content to another idea, as participle adjectives or add-on participle phrases.
Tom Garside is Director of Language Point Teacher Education. Language Point delivers the internationally recognised RQF level 5 Trinity CertTESOL in an entirely online mode of study, and level 6 Trinity College Certificate for Practising Teachers, a contextually-informed teacher development qualification with specific courses which focus on online language education or online methodology.
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