Consider the following sentence.

The blue page is stapled to the red page.

Although "stapled" is (apparently) past-tense, nonetheless the above sentence is clearly expressing something about the present. What gives? In particular, would it be wrong to label "stapled" as past-tense in that sentence?

(note: Er, actually the OP's question involves the difference between a passive construction and a construction with a predicative adjective -- F.E.)

  • 1
    Isn't this just a standard form of the passive construction? See englishpage.com/verbpage/activepassive.html Mar 23, 2014 at 6:00
  • Er, the "stapled" in your example is not a past-tense form of a verb. (Also, wait a bit before accepting an answer.) Someone will probably come by and explain the possibilities in your example -- if you give them time.
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 6:52
  • Oh, now I notice that the "acceptance" mark is gone. :) -- But I gotta go to bed now, way past my bedtime. Hopefully someone will write a solid post that'll explore both possibilities for your example sentence: "stapled" as a verb in a passive, and "stapled" as an adjective.
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 8:35
  • @F.E., yeah took your advice, also there had been some discussion that the accepted answer might not be entirely correct. Mar 23, 2014 at 14:28
  • Yes, this is a tricky topic: verbal passives versus adjectival passives. A reasonable post that would analyze your example sentence could take up a whole bunch of pages and time. There are 4 choices: a) verbal passive, b) adjective, c) both 'a' and 'b', d) neither 'a' nor 'b'. -- I would be hoping for posts that take the position of 'a' or 'b' or 'c', and where those posts discuss using "tests" to support their opinions. (Hint: it is relatively easy to make up an argument that supports the position that at least a verbal passive interpretation is feasible for your example sentence.)
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 18:03

7 Answers 7

  • The blue page is stapled to the red page.

In particular, would it be wrong to label "stapled" as past-tense in the above sentence?

Well, let's look at this a bit. First of all, your example sentence has only one tensed verb, and that is the verb "is" -- the verb "is" is present tense. There is no verb in your example sentence that is past tense.


The word "stapled" is either a past-participle form of a verb in a passive-voice construction, or it is an adjective in an active-voice construction, or the word could be ambiguous (where both possibilities of verb and adjective are acceptable).

I'm not sure how all interested you might be about this topic of "verbal passive versus adjectival passive", but that is a topic that can be rather lengthy and time consuming. I've already spent quite a bit of time on a recent lengthy post (about the pronoun "it"), so my fingers are a bit tired. But let me at least present to you some tidbits that could be used to support the idea that a passive interpretation for your example sentence could be reasonable.

(Note that no context for the example sentence was provided -- just an example sentence -- and so, that sorta means that we can create any reasonable context that we might want in order to support whatever it is that we're trying to prove.)

In general, if the "candidate" passive version has basically the same meaning as the active version, then that is usually good enough evidence to support the opinion that a passive interpretation is feasible.

And so, with that in mind: Imagine that we got a page of instructions. Those instructions could say something like,

"Customer staples A to B. Customer then staples C to D."

Those above instructions are in present-tense and in active-voice. Let's see what the candidate passive-voice version would look like,

"A is stapled to B. Then C is stapled to D."

Basically, that version has the same meaning as the active version (except that the active's subject info of "customer" is lost). This last version is also in present-tense, due to the verb "is". Here, the word "stapled" is a past-participle form of a verb, which is used in a passive construction.

And so, it seems that a passive construction interpretation -- where "stapled" is considered to be a past-participle form of a verb -- is reasonable.

(Aside: Passive constructions can also have an interpretation that has a stative meaning. That is, their interpretation is not required to have a dynamic meaning. But perhaps that topic is better for another day.)

In your example "The blue page is stapled to the red page": To compete with the passive construction (where "stapled" is a verb), it might be reasonable to consider an intransitive construction (where "stapled" is an adjective). In the intransitive construction, your example sentence might be a copular clause, where the word "stapled" is an adjective that has the function of predicative complement (and the predicand is the subject "the blue page"). Usually these types of constructions have an interpretation that describes a state.

But, what is important here is that, in both possible types of construction (passive and intransitive copular), the word "stapled" is NOT a past-tense verb form.

Hope this helps.

  • How do constructions like "I stapled A to B" fit?
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 12, 2020 at 8:44

Swan classes this usage as participial (and thus I'd say verbal):

Most past participles have passive meanings when they are used like adjectives or adverbs.

... [emphasis mine]

He lived alone, forgotten by everybody.

cf He is loved [by everybody].

One trouble with classifying 'loved' as an adjective is that it isn't commonly used attributively

?/* A loved man.

except in combinations such as 'much loved':

Nelson was a much loved and respected figure.

However, this is possible:

_Dan is liked by all his new family.

_Oh? He told me that he thought wasn't really being accepted.

_No, no! He really is loved / popular.

'Popular' is obviously not a verb [form].

Sometimes, it is far easier than this to distinguish adjectival and verbal usages of -ed forms:

[On arriving back home, we saw that] the front window was broken. [adj]

The front window was broken by the ball Gayle hit over the main stand. [verb]

But in the sentence given, I'd agree it's ambiguous, though nearer the passive verb end of the continuum.

  • 1
    The fact that a question is answered differently by people who espouse different analyses doesn't license it being asked again. If a contributor believes that answers are insufficient or that further efforts should be made to clarify the best of competing analyses, the correct way to address this is to offer a bounty at the original/prototype (not always identical), and 'comment' to give the reason for this. Note that references are given in the standard of answers the Help Center requests. 'Most past participles have passive meanings when they are used like [not 'as'] adjectives or adverbs.' Apr 18, 2021 at 16:59
  • Got it. Thanks a lot for your reply. I thought my comment was rather poorly phrased, and so removed it. Hope you don't mind, @Edwin Ashworth.
    – user405662
    Apr 18, 2021 at 21:11

It's actually trickier than it looks.

The word is used as an adjective when describing a condition that already exists, as in When you open the file you get a surprise. The blue page is stapled to the red page.

But you might be describing a process: First, the blue page is stapled to the red page, then the yellow page is placed on top... Here, stapled is functioning as a true verb, but in the passive form.

The example given probably falls under the former heading, though you'd have to read it in context to be sure. The use of the past participle as an adjective is widespread in English, as I'm sure it is in most languages. The house is haunted: it's a haunted house. The pin is bent: it's a bent pin...

  • I don't see any difference between your first example, which you claim stapled to is being used as an adjective, and the second example, which might be describing a process. Both look identical to me.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Mar 23, 2014 at 16:15
  • @Mari-LouA, the former is like a state (it is that way, stapled). In place of "stapled to" one might have, say, "together with". The latter is something done (it is stapled), potentially right now even, as in, "Look! The blue page is being stapled to the red page by the clerk".
    – wwkudu
    Mar 23, 2014 at 16:34
  • Oooo, you be a brave soul! :) -- I usually enjoy watching a good debate, er, argument, er, discussion on topics related to verbal passives versus adjectival passives, especially on the internet. What makes it really interesting is that so much of the grammar info out there on this topic is misleading and/or faulty.
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 17:56
  • The classic example of this type of ambiguity is 'flying aeroplanes can be dangerous' where the word-class of 'flying' is indeterminate. It might be a participial adjective (contrast stationary aeroplanes) or it might be an -ing form along the verb - noun gradience (contrast taking gentle strolls). Similarly, 'I was annoyed' can be interpreted verbally (e.g. I was annoyed by their behaviour) or as an adjective (I was (or felt) very annoyed) or even as both (I was very annoyed by their behaviour). Read more here. Mar 23, 2014 at 18:53
  • Is "I stapled the red page to the blue one" active or passive?
    – nnnnnn
    Jan 12, 2020 at 8:47

It's easy. A participle is always being used as an adjective, since a "participle" is a verb which is being used as an adjective.

You can tell participles, which are not adjectives but rather verbs, from real adjectives by whether the -ing word can be modified by "very". Using that test on your example, "recording" and "shivering" are participles (not adjectives), but "willing" is an adjective (not a participle).

For every dedicated scientist patiently (*very) recording atmospheric pressure and wind speed while (*very) shivering at high altitudes, there is a carnival barker with a bevy of pretty girls (very) willing to dangle from a basket or parachute down to earth.

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    i'm confused, sorry. i thought a participle could be used for e.g. the present continuous tense, and then that it isn't being used as an adjective
    – user99677
    May 22, 2016 at 0:37
  • Hmmm. Exactly what user3293056 says above. Nearly everyone who believes in a difference between participles and gerunds recognises swimming in He's swimming to be a participle, don't they? May 22, 2016 at 1:07
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    You contradicted yourself, Greg. First you say that "A participle is always being used as an adjective" and then say "You can tell participles which are not adjectives but rather verbs ...". And that is precisely what happens when you cling on to this archaic view of participles. It simply doesn't hold water. The simple fact is that for the most part participles are verb-forms, but occasionally they have adjective forms (participial adjectives). For example, "entertaining" is indisputably a verb in The clown was entertaining the children, but an adjective in The show was entertaining.
    – BillJ
    May 22, 2016 at 6:09
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    To say "so it is used as an adjective, even though it is not an adjective" is highly confusing and is precisely why the term 'modifier of' was introduced some years ago. Importantly, in a tree diagram, each word is assigned 2 labels; a category label and a function label, so In the NP a sleeping child, the word "sleeping" is assigned the category (part of speech) label ‘verb’, and the function label ‘modifier’, thus it is a VP functioning as pre-head modifier of "child". Likewise in a large house, “large” is assigned the category label ‘adjective’ and the function label ‘modifier’.
    – BillJ
    May 22, 2016 at 7:31
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    @BillJ, I agree about 90% with what you say. It is confusing for sure -- just read over this discussion! However, confusing is not the same as wrong. I don't think I'm confused -- people just need to learn to distinguish between a masquerade and a conversion. A verb can masquerade as an adjective (then it's a participle) or a noun (then it's a gerund) without being converted to an adjective or a noun. // Your observation about how the term "category" is used is wrong. Maybe "lexical category" is used the way you think "category" should be used.
    – Greg Lee
    May 22, 2016 at 16:42

Substitute stapled with any similar meaning VERB in the past participle and you get:
"The blue page is glued/stuck/fastened/joined/sellotaped/clipped/stapled to the red page"

The construction is in the passive voice and the verb be is in the present tense. It is the same as saying:

Navel and Valencia oranges are grown in California (plural)


Coffee is harvested in Guatemala from December to March (singular)

Adjectives that precede the noun are called attributive

Blue/red/cheap/expensive paper.

However, we can also use verbs to describe nouns using the -ed ending e.g. "a folded red page" and "a stapled blue page". If the verb is irregular its past participle form is used e.g., "a written yellow page".

A glued / sellotaped / clipped / stapled blue page.

The words ending in -ed are called past participial adjectives because they are derived from past participles of verbs. (Emphasis mine)

The -ed adjectives (advanced, alleged, bored, complicated, excited, exhausted) have a completed or passive meaning.

"These were the condemned men, due to be hanged within the next week or two." (George Orwell, "A Hanging." Adelphi, August 1931)

If the past participle is placed before the noun, it's clear it functions as an adjective. In the OP's example

The blue page is stapled to the red page.

I would argue that the sentence is typically constructed in the passive voice; somebody or something stapled the two pages together. Using a different linking verb such as: become, seem, appear, feel, look, sound makes it clearer that the past participle is functioning as an adjective.

The blue page looks stapled to the red page

  • I love your thorough answer, but don't you think additional context is required to reach a conclusion? We can't tell in this case whether the emphasis is on what is done to the page (in which case I would go for passive interpretation), or a descriptive attribute of the page (along the lines of looks, etc., in which case the adjectival interpretation seems more valid). Without knowing which was meant, it remains ambiguous, albeit between two well-explained options.
    – wwkudu
    Mar 26, 2014 at 3:38

"Stapled" in this sentence is not a verb: it is an adjective. The verb in the sentence is "is".

Consider this sentence: "I carried the stapled pages to the filing cabinet." Here, I think it is clear that the verb is "carried". "Stapled" is an adjective describing the pages that were carried.

When verbs are used as adjectives, we often use the past-tense version of the verb, regardless of when the action happens. We say, "Yesterday we painted the whole building green. The building is now painted." "Tomorrow we will paint the upstairs rooms. The painted rooms will not have any furniture." Etc.

Other times we have a special version of the verb when it is used as an adjective. "I broke my pencil. The pencil is broken." A common error by children and foreigners learning the language is to say -- WRONG -- "The pencil is broke."

  • I think it's a verb. It's just the passive form. If it were "the blue page stapled to the red page is mine" then it would be an adjective.
    – Noah
    Mar 23, 2014 at 6:16
  • "When verbs are used as adjectives, we often use the past-tense version of the verb," -- Er, is that true?
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 6:48
  • What about "The blue page is falling to the floor."?
    – Neil W
    Mar 23, 2014 at 7:25
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    The answer is partly correct. 'Stapled' is being used as an adjective. +1. What you leave out is that 'stapled' is a 'past participle' of the verb, which is often used as an adjective. That is the difference between 'broke' and 'broken', the former is the past tense, the latter the past participle. Both past and present participles (...ing form) can be used as adjectives in this way. e.g 'a stapled page', 'a walking stick', 'a frying pan'
    – WS2
    Mar 23, 2014 at 7:51
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    @WS2 Er, why are people up-voting this answer? There are way too many errors in it.
    – F.E.
    Mar 23, 2014 at 8:04

Loved is still a verb, but it's the past participle, so plays a similar role to an adjective.

This sentence uses the passive voice.

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