Verbs' present and past participles can be used as adjectives, such as "devastating" and "devastated". Does this rule apply to all verbs or some verbs?

  • Kushoma. Are you maybe asking about the participles devastating and devastated? These participle forms seem to be similar to adjectives. Participles don't have any tense though! So we can use --ing participles to speak about the future, the past and so forth. The same with participles like drunk. Think about "I will have drunk 4 bottles of coke". Notice as well that we cannot use past tense, in other words past simple forms like this! * "The man was drank" <--- That's ungrammatical :-) Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 9:47
  • @araucaria. The drunk woman (adverb); the inebriation of the drunk (noun). Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 10:55
  • @kuromusha All verbs would be stretching it, some is a bit on the careful side. Many might be a good in-between answer. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 11:05
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    There, I changed the question to use the right terminology. Every verb (except modal verbs) has a present participle form, ending in -ing, and a past participle form, frequently ending in -ed like the past, but often enough having a different form (sang/sung, was/been, came/come, etc). These participles are used in forming other constructions (the progressive uses the present participle form and the passive uses the past participle form, for instance). One way they're used is as adjectives, as noted. A verb designed to be used as an adjective is a pretty good description of Participle Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 14:04
  • At least potentially. There are some verbs it's hard to find used as adjectives, like attempting. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 15:03

1 Answer 1


A canonical adjective (e.g. sad) fulfils four grammatical criteria. It can:

  1. follow a copula (predicative use): The news was sad ...
  2. precede a noun (attributive use): The sad news ...
  3. be premodified: The news was very sad ...
  4. have a comparative/superlative form: The saddest news ...

There are many verbs whose pairs of present and past participles fulfil these conditions (most commonly those associated with mental states and what causes those states). Some examples:

-ing form

  1. The teacher was surprising / disappointing / shocking / confusing ...
  2. The surprising / disappointing / shocking / confusing teacher ...
  3. The very surprising / disappointing / shocking / confusing teacher ...
  4. The most surprising / disappointing / shocking / confusing teacher ...

-ed form

  1. The teacher was surprised / disappointed / shocked / confused ...
  2. The surprised / disappointed / shocked / confused teacher ...
  3. The very surprised / disappointed / shocked / confused teacher ...
  4. The most surprised / disappointed / shocked / confused teacher ...

Numerous other verbs however do not have both present and past participles that fulfill each of the four criteria. For example: take the verb to like. We can construct acceptable phrases with the -ed form:

  1. The teacher is liked.
  2. She is a liked teacher.
  3. She is a much liked teacher.
  4. She is the most liked teacher in the school.

But I cannot conceive of an acceptable use of liking in similar constructions: ?the teacher is liking, ?the liking teacher, ?the very liking teacher, etc.

Conversely, we can use the -ing form of to sleep in a couple of the adjectival constructions: the sleeping child, the soundly sleeping child, but it is hard to conceive of an acceptable adjectival use of the past participle: ?the night is slept, ?the slept child.

Note that several verbs already have different adjectival forms whose meaning corresponds to the -ing adjective. In such cases the -ing adjective will typically not be used. So, for example, a destructive (?destroying) bomb, injurious (?injuring) behaviour.

And finally, even with verbs of feeling (mental state) the -ing form is not always acceptable. We can talk about a pleased child and a pleasing child, and also a delighted child, but not ?a delighting child. It needs to be delightful.

So, the answer to the question is a clear no. Not all verbs have acceptable adjectival uses of both their present and past participles.

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    As to the like/sleep dichotomy, it is perhaps worth mentioning that this strongly correlates to the verb’s valency. The active (=present) participle of purely monovalent verbs like sleep (ignoring the transitive sleep, which has a different meaning) works fine as an adjective, while the passive (=past) participle does not; this is related to how intransitives cannot be passivised. Conversely, the passive participle of mandatorily polyvalent verbs (like like) work fine, but active participles do not, since the mandatory predicate cannot be expressed for an adjective. Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 18:25
  • (And then there are verbs like seem whose active participles can be used as attributive adjectives, but cannot be modified, compared, or used as copular adjectives: “her seeming indifference” is okay, but “her indifference was seeming”, “her highly seeming indifference”, and “the more seeming indifference” are all ungrammatical.) Commented Aug 2, 2015 at 18:28
  • @Janus. Thanks, this is a useful addition to my answer. I agree that the acceptability of the present or past participle adjectival form seems to depend heavily on the transitivity of the verb from which it is derived. And yes, whether or not the participial adjective can fulfill all four of the grammatical conditions appears highly idiomatic. It would be good if someone could point to any exploration of this issue.
    – Shoe
    Commented Aug 3, 2015 at 8:08

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