'Macbeth is written by Shakespeare', is a valid, grammatically correct sentence. But curiously it contains the verb 'to be' in the present tense, with a past participle. We can recognise that the sentence is in the passive voice, but what is the tense of the verb(s). Is 'written' working as a verb, or as another part of speech?

Now we can also use 'is' and 'written' in the same sentence, but in separate clauses, such as in:

'Written by Shakespeare, Macbeth is a masterpiece'. How has the role of the verbs changed?

  • Natural language is not 'compositional', that is the meaning of sequences of words is not equivalent to the sequence of meanings of the individual words. I think that's all that can be said here. Also, words mean and act differently in different contexts.
    – Mitch
    Feb 5, 2014 at 20:57
  • As F.E. said, participles are tenseless and nonfinite. (The past participle is not the past form of the present participle.) One of the two participles is conventionally known as the "past participle". It has also been called the "perfect participle" and the "passive participle", but neither name is perfect. Ideally it would be called the "perfect and/or passive participle", but that's too long. We could go for "participle II".
    – rjpond
    Sep 9, 2017 at 16:27

1 Answer 1

  • 'Macbeth is written by Shakespeare'.

  • 'Written by Shakespeare, Macbeth is a masterpiece'.

How has the role of the verbs changed?

The verb form "written" is a participle that happens to be named past participle. It has no tense: no present tense nor past tense. This also holds for the other participle verb form that happens to be commonly known as the present participle (also known as gerund-participle).

(Aside: It so happens that the past participle could be connected to a secondary past-tense when it is used in a perfect construction. But that is due to the perfect construction.)

If a participle is used in a non-finite construction, then a "tense" could be borrowed from a superordinate clause. The role of the verbs in both of your examples haven't really changed much at all. In both examples, the "tense" of the verb is is being borrowed by the clause that is headed by the verb written when the written clause is being interpreted. (Syntactically there are differences between the two sentences, but I don't think you are asking about those differences.)

Here's a way to parse the two sentences, with a clause in brackets "[ ]", and with the head verb of each clause bolded:

  • [ Macbeth is [ written by Shakespeare] ].

  • [ Written by Shakespeare ], [ Macbeth is a masterpiece ].

If you want a traditional grammar type of explanation, well, er, someone else can give you one of those. :)

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