I'm writing a 3rd person story in the past tense. I'm asking the above question because I noticed Roald Dahl used present particles instead of past particles in The BFG.

The BFG, with Sophie sitting on his hand, hurried into the cave and put on those brilliant blinding lights that seemed to come from nowhere.

Could someone explain the reasoning behind this?

Here is a sample from my story;

Walking down the street, I spotted a brown suitcase covered in mud.

Would I be correct in using the present particle of walk - walking - in this sentence, even though my story is written in the past tense?

2 Answers 2


There's a handy explanation of this here, but the salient takeaway point is that present participles do not determine tense.

In these passages, the present participle is determining the form, which points out that the subject was performing that action during the past action specified: in the first case, while the BFG was hurrying into the cave, he had Sophie sitting on his hand.

Here are another couple of helpful paragraphs from the link above:

Any Usage Works

By the same token, the other usages of present participles are perfectly appropriate in past-tense narratives. In non-finite clauses, present participles are verbs in a dependent clause that joins to an independent clause: "Sitting alone, I am perfectly content." Change the main verb, and it's just as easily past tense: "Sitting alone, I was perfectly content." Even used as nouns or adjectives, they are appropriate in past tense: "That was good thinking on her part" and "The sinking sun was beautiful."

Present Participles Work Anywhere

A writer can successfully use present participles in past-tense narratives, as long as he remembers that the word "present" in the "present participle" is its form, not its tense. A present-tense sentence that uses a present participle becomes the past tense through the main verb of the sentence, not through the participle that accompanies it as auxiliary verb, verb-into-noun or modifier.

In conclusion, the sentence in your story is perfectly fine.

  • Yes, and, one might add, the "past" of the term "past participle" does that mean that a past participle is in the past tense.
    – Greg Lee
    Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 11:14
  • You could add that present participle is a dumb name, and that participles don't have tense in any language, including, as Greg points out above, the so-called past participle. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:27
  • I could, @Araucaria, but I didn't make up the terms of grammar. :) Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:28
  • @JohnClifford Maybe why they're dumb? Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:29
  • @Araucaria I dunno, they'd probably still be dumb if I'd invented them. Commented Mar 29, 2016 at 14:31

The names present participle and past participle are unhelpful. This, of course, is because participle forms in English have no tense. We understand the time referred to from the context or from the tense of the preceding auxiliary verb, if there is one:

  • She is waving. (talking about present)
  • She was waving. (talking about past)

  • She is applauded. (talking about present)

  • She was applauded. (talking about past)

In the sentences above we see the present participle used when discussing both present and past time. Similarly, we see the past participles used to talk about not only the past but the present. We can of course use both of them when talking about the future too:

  • She will be waving.
  • She will be applauded.

In the Original Poster's example we understand the times referred to in the participle clauses because of the past tenses of the verbs hurried and spotted in the respective main clauses.


Participles have no tense. We can use the past participle in present tense sentences and the present participle in past tense sentences.

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