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In the past, I was taught (in an overly-simplified way) that past participles modify people whereas present participles modify things. For example:

  • He is bored
  • School is boring

I understand there are exceptions (e.g. 'He is boring' is correct but has a different meaning), but today I saw the following:

  • After repeated complaints, the landlord...

Although I know this usage is correct, I can't explain why 'repeated' is used instead of 'repeating'.

Any help would be much appreciated!

  • 2
    Think about it like this : The complaints were repeated or The complaints were repeating ? – Irhala Nov 17 '16 at 10:17
  • In the first example both participles are being used as adjectives, but in quite opposing senses. He is bored means that he is the one who is bored. But in the next one, it is not the school which is bored. It is boring others. If you said school is bored it would have the nonsensical meaning that the building was suffering boredom. – WS2 Nov 17 '16 at 10:18
  • In the phrase after repeating complaints, the word repeating can take the sense of retelling or reporting, as opposed to something happening iteratively. For example, a tenant might complain about the reticulation and the landlord can rephrase the complaint, repeating it 'back' to the tenant. This is different from saying that the tenant complained repeatedly about the reticulation. – Lawrence Nov 17 '16 at 16:51
  • What @Irhala said. – Drew Nov 17 '16 at 18:44
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The "people" vs. "things" distinction strikes me as unhelpful. It kind of works for the specific example given of "boring" vs. "bored" (actually, it doesn't work all that well for "boring", as has been pointed out) but really it is much simpler to consider the syntax of the related verb:

  • Participles ending in -ing almost always "modify" something that could be the subject of the corresponding active verb. "School is boring" is approximately equal to "School bores [people]".

  • Participles ending in -ed or -en usually "modify" something that could be the object of the corresponding active verb. "I am bored (by something)" is approximately equal to "[Something] bores me." (This holds if the participle is derived from a transitive verb—the -ed/-en participles of intransitive verbs sometimes can be used with a non-passive voice meaning.*)

So, the question is, do you want to talk about "repeating complaints" (= "complaints that were repeating" = "complaints that repeated") or "repeated complaints (="complaints that were repeated (by someone))?

Either one is technically grammatical. But usually, we think of complaints as things that are repeated by people, rather than things that repeat on their own. So "repeated complaints" is more common than "repeating complaints".

Here is an example of the latter wording:

However, other than the ever repeating complaints that certain predators, for example whales, seals, and dogfish sharks, were responsible for declines in fisheries, ecological studies were not thought to be required to provide the advice needed for managing fisheries.

(Scaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855-1955, by Tim D. Smith, p. 332)

One particular reason why the phrase "repeating complaints" may be avoided for the most part is that the -ing form of a verb can be used in a number of other ways, which may cause ambiguity. In the example sentence from the question, replacing "repeated" with "repeating" would make possible the incorrect intepretation that the landlord was making the complaints:

After repeating complaints, the landlord...

(could mean "After he took the action of repeating complaints, the landlord...")


*: such as fallen

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Repeated complaints could be complaints of same or different contents or topic/subjects. It is more of emphasizing the plurality in number of complaints. However, repeating complaints would imply several instances of complaints with similar or identical content/subject. This phrase emphasizes the same content that is repeated (i.e. the particular person/thing that is subjected to criticism) in the repeating complaints themselves. I could be missing something, but definitely there can be certain instances where usage makes a difference.

  • I can't agree with this. To me, repeated would mean there are "several instances of complaints with similar or identical content/subject", while repeating would mean a single complaint is repeating the same content again and again – Irhala Nov 17 '16 at 15:19
  • isn't that what I said? – quanie Nov 17 '16 at 21:12
  • "a single complaint is repeating the same content again and again" would be several instances of the same content of complaint. – quanie Nov 17 '16 at 21:14
  • Not exactly. In a single complaint, there's only one complaint. – Irhala Nov 18 '16 at 8:13

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