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If I say, "The cat ate the fish," then that's in the active voice and the past simple tense (I think).

If, however, I say, "The fish was eaten by the cat," then that's in the passive voice, but I have been told that the participle can't be said to be in the past tense.

Is this true? If so, why? I know it's not a true verb, but it is a "past" participle, so how can it not be said to be in the "past" tense? There's a present participle, so don't present and past participles differ from each other in terms of tense? I am happy to have it confirmed that I'm wrong - but I would at least like to understand why!

Thanks in advance for any assistance.

  • This is like the (nonsensical) argument that "you can't end a sentence with a preposition because 'preposition' means 'placed before'". Language and grammar exist whether we describe them or not, and the names we give grammatical elements are just that: names. They're usually given original for good reasons, but that doesn't mean that the name captures everything there is to say about the element. One of the functions of "past participles" in English is forming perfect tenses: that is not the only function. – Colin Fine Mar 9 '16 at 16:53
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The past participle is connected with the "past", but it is not a tense. Not all past things are tensed. It's as simple as that. Similarly, a present participle is "present", but it's not a tense.

It is true, though, that there is a strong connection between the past tense and past participles: they both often refer to a situation in the past. But not always. Sumelic has already given an example of the past participle used in a sentence that does not refer to the past and does not use the past tense. Only finite verbs carry a tense anyway, so, even if past participles always referred to the past, a participle still wouldn't be tensed.

Similary, the present participle can be used in sentences that are about the past:

She was living in Moscow.

Beatrice, living in Moscow, had never seen the sea—not until she moved to St Petersburg.

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The real reason is that we just don't define tense that way. You could, but no one I know of does.

If you want a way to make sense of it, though, here's an example that might help: the "past" participle can be used in sentences like "the fish is being eaten by the cat" which refer to a situation in the present. So it doesn't make sense to say that the participle is in the past tense.

The "past participle" and the -ing participle don't just differ in tense. They actually have several differences:

  • We can use the auxiliary "have" with the "past" participle, but not with the -ing participle
  • The "past" participle usually has a "passive" meaning, while the -ing participle usually has an "active" meaning (I'm using "passive" and "active" strictly in terms of grammatical voice)
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In your example, 'eaten' is the past participle of the verb 'to eat' and its use is perfectly correct.

Wikipedia has an excellent article under 'Participle' from which the following extract is particularly relevant to your question:

Modern English verbs [...] have two participles:

The present participle, also sometimes called the active, imperfect, or progressive participle, takes the ending -ing. It is identical in form to the gerund (and verbal noun); the term present participle is sometimes used to include the gerund, and the term "gerund–participle" is also used.

The past participle, also sometimes called the passive or perfect participle, is identical to the past tense form (ending in -ed) in the case of regular verbs, but takes various forms in the case of irregular verbs, such as sung, written, put, gone, etc.

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