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I've read that the -ed suffix usually indicates a "past participle" (as in "I was trapped"), but:

  1. I'm not sure what part-of-speech "trapped" functions as in the phrase.
  2. Indicating present state using something called "past participle" seems odd. (sources indicate this is a legitimate form though).
  3. If trapped is a verb here, isn't this a compound tense due to the verb chain "is trapped"?

Edit: To clarify, I am asking for general help in making "grammatical sense" of this phrase and not just "tense" specifically, as hinted at by my listed bafflements.

Edit: If it helps to disambiguate sense: "He is trapped!"

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There is only one tensed verb in:

He is trapped.

Since is is the present tense third-person singular indicative of to be, this sentence is in the present tense.

As for trapped, it is an adjective. You may call it a participial adjective if you’d like. But it is not a verb, and therefore it is not a past participle.

Note that English has two sorts of productive -ed suffix for making adjectives. One is used for making adjectives out of verbs, but the other is used for making adjectives out of nouns.

  • A horned lark is a lark with horns, not a lark that somebody horned. Horn is a noun, not a verb.
  • A beached whale is a whale that is been stranded on the beach, not one that somebody beached. Beach is a noun, not a verb.
  • A berried wood is a wood with berries in it, not one that somebody berried. Berry is a noun, not a verb.

Those are all just adjectives; they have no verb that they were derived from.

In the case of trapped, it could go either way here since trap is both a noun and a verb. But it was likely derived from the verb, which makes it a participial adjective. It stopped being a verb when it stopped being used as a verb.

For it to be considered a past participle, it has to start functioning as a verb again, and it is not doing that here. Transitive verbs take objects and can be turned into passives by putting the subject trailing behind it with a by to indicate where it went. If a bear pursued Antigonus then he might exit pursued by a bear. If Blackadder punches Shakespeare’s nose, then the nose punched by Blackadder might well begin to bleed.

Those are both past participles. But neither a pursued Sicilian nor a punched Bard involves any past participles, only adjectives, even though they started out life as verbs. To be part participles, they must continue to function as verbs, and here they do not — unlike in the previous paragraph.

You cannot test whether it is a verb merely by checking whether it comes in front of the noun or is instead used predicatively. A person who attends a costume party dressed as a devil would likely come horned. You would say that they are horned. But no one horned them; they are only wearing horns. So that is still an adjective, not a verb.

If someone takes a nap, then they are rested. Rested is just an adjective. It is not a past participle — nor can it be made into one in a passive construction since rest is intransitive. Nobody rested that person, but they are still rested, and presumably a well rested person.

In contrast, if you say that they have rested, rather than that they are rested, then rested is a past participle because it is a verb again, since it is being used in the present perfect construction. But you cannot make it a passive, since you cannot rest somebody.

You can say the same about someone who is gone versus someone who has gone. If they are gone, then gone is an adjective. If they have gone, then gone is a verb. But you cannot go somebody, so it is not passive nor can it be made such, not even things gone by the wayside, since waysides cannot go anyone.

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    Are you quite sure "rested" is never a past participle? A web search finds this: "The head was rested on the manger for a time, and was then held near the ground for some minutes, after which it was raised to the normal position." Also this: "The rest of the skeleton was covered with the ragged remains of whatever the poor soul had been wearing when it fell or was rested on the ground." – Greg Lee Mar 16 '15 at 23:16
  • Can a past participle always fulfill the role of a predicative adjective, as a general rule? is there a counterexample? – Sven kilgard Mar 16 '15 at 23:17
  • @Svenkilgard, not always. "Killed" is a participle with no corresponding adjective. – Greg Lee Mar 16 '15 at 23:19
  • @GregLee Rested can be a past participle: “I have rested all day long.” If you rest your head, that is an active use, but you don’t really rest people: rather, people rest. Someone who is rested is not someone that somebody else rested somewhere. Instead, they themselves merely rested. – tchrist Mar 16 '15 at 23:25
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    @tchrist "not a whale that somebody beached. Beach is a noun, not a verb." - A beached whale has beached itself. "Beach" is a transitive verb: "to pull or force a boat, etc. out of the water onto the land" from dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/beach – Chuckk Hubbard Apr 15 '18 at 8:07
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That term "past participle" is the very worst piece of terminology that linguistics has inherited from traditional grammar. It has nothing to do with the past at all, at least in current day English. It ought to be called "passive participle", and in your example "He is trapped", even if "trapped" is interpreted as a participle, there is no past tense involved.

The interpretation that comes first to mind, out of context, for "trapped" is that it is an adjective, not a participle (as Lawler says in a comment). However, it could be a passive participle here, if the interpretation is that getting trapped is something that often or habitually happens to him.

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  • I'm in the awkward position of seeking help about grammar and having to adjudicate the correct response. I've looked at Ian's links and he convinced me. Are such questions susceptible to multiple valid answers? – Sven kilgard Mar 16 '15 at 16:53
  • @Svenkilgard, I see no conflict. I decided to add my answer to what had been said, because I thought the source of confusion about the original example "He is trapped" had not been squarely addressed. And that confusion is using the term "past participle" for a construction that does not have any past tense in it at all. – Greg Lee Mar 16 '15 at 17:28
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    But calling was trapped the "Past continuous" is simply incorrect. Was trapping or Was being trapped would be past continuous active and passive, respectively. There's enough chaos and confusion in ELU about "tense" and terminology already without adding a completely gratuitous name for predicate adjective that actually refers to something else. – John Lawler Mar 16 '15 at 17:32
  • @JohnLawler: I was commenting on "He is trapped", which I take to be ambiguous between a reading with "trapped" as an adjective and a reading as a passive construction with "trapped" as a participle. If it's a passive, then it has to be read as a present habitual or an historical present. I thought the previous comment about "present continuous" probably meant what I mean by "present habitual" (but even if so, "present continuous" is not the best term). – Greg Lee Mar 16 '15 at 17:42
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    Yes, @John, generic is a good term, too. You know, I didn't use "continuous" in referring to the passive reading. What do you want from me? I just said I thought I understood it. And it's not true that generic/habitual has no special syntax -- it's what you get with the simple present of a non-stative verb. – Greg Lee Mar 16 '15 at 18:54

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