I am doing an analysis on the verbal form "simple past". For this, I have used a book titled Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad from which I have extracted the following sentence. However, I have doubts about whether the verb form I have put in bold are a simple past or another verb tense. What tense the statement is in? Do you think it is simple past? Why? Or why not?

No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand.

I attach the context in case it can help the deduction of the verb tense:

I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.

  • You have to start with the speech, not the writing. Writing is just a way to ignore the sounds of sentences which would otherwise be disambiguated. If you don't start with the sounds, you don't have any data. – John Lawler May 8 '18 at 19:06

No hat

No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand.

In your example, neither of the two constructions closed by a period is a sentence, i.e., an independent clause. No hat is a noun phrase. The hat isn’t doing or being anything and nothing is explicitly being done to it: there is no verb. If it did, it would look something like this:

His hat was of black straw, except on duty in a procession, when he wore no hat. — Rosamund Cuthberson, 1837.

In the independent clause, hat is the subject of the verb was, while in the dependent when-clause, hat is the object of the verb wore, which agrees with the subject he. Both verbs are couched in the standard narrative tense: simple past.

Verbs that agree with a subject in person (I, you, she, we they…) and number (singular or plural) and are marked for tense are called finite verbs.

Hair parted, brushed, oiled

Are parted, brushed, and oiled finit verbs with hair as the subject? The hair, however, didn’t do the parting, brushing, or oiling. A finite verb is missing. Supply one and it will look something like this:

His hair was oiled and neatly parted, and his white suit had been brushed clean with immaculate care. — “Migration 17.8,”Worm: A complete web serial.

The verbs was and had are finite, agreeing with their subjects hair and suit in a passive construction. Oiled, parted, been and brushed, are non-finite verbs, specifically participles. Although we call these forms past participles to distinguish from present participles (parting, brushing, oiling) or perfect participles (having been parted/brushed/oiled), they are past, present, or perfect only in form. Only finite verbs have tense.

In your example, parted, brushed, oiled and held are also past partiples. As non-finite verb forms, they have no tense.

A sentence two paragraphs before your example shows a similar — but not identical — construction using participles:

Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.

Brought, lost, and fed all function like adjectives of they. The name “participle” means that these verb forms do not give up all their characteristics as verbs — no tense, but they can take subjects — but participate in the world of nouns, adjectives, and adverbs.

While these participles have no subjects unambiguously modifying they, the phrase hair parted, brushed, oiled actually does. Compare this sentence:

Look, it is my Yusif coming, his shirt starched and white, his hair oiled down, bringing his schoolwork to his Ma. — Marguerite Thoburn Watkins, Patterns in Henna, 2009, p. 19.

While bringing his schoolwork to his Ma is a garden variety participle, in this case a present participle, the constructions with subjects shirt and hair, describe Yusif as he is approaching. Another, more common way of expressing the same thing is by using the preposition with:

_With his hair oiled and his dark glasses in place, he is no longer the charming Neo-phyte of the first movie. — Review: The Matrix Reloaded, 14 May 2003.

Grammatically, this type of construction is termed an absolute construction, a free-standing element known in traditional grammar as a nominative absolute. It does not modify a single element in an independent clause, but the clause itself. Merely because Conrad chose to make the construction truly free-standing by ending it with a period does not change the basic structure.

under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand

Again, held is a past participle. It is not used as an absolute, but modifying parasol. If it were a finite verb marked for tense, it would look like this:

In her right hand she held a parasol. A yellow parasol. — Uday Prakash, The Girl with the Golden Parasol, 2013, p. 33.

But what about the entire prepositional phrase? I suppose one could parse it as an odd parallel to the hat, and of course if the accountant is standing under a parasol, then so is his hair. I would suggest, however, that the phrase is another example of an absolute construction. After all, the phrase ends a rather lengthy description of the accountant‘s unusual garb:

I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.

The prepositional phrase is also a free-standing element which, like Conrad‘s period, brings the long description — except for the penholder detail — to a close. The reader should be able to imagine the accountant under the green-lined parasol, in his odd ensemble and immaculately groomed hair, as a complete figure as Conrad goes on to talk about what it means to dress like this in the Congo.

  • You're the only one to (correctly) identify the use of "held" as passive. Since this is the crux of OP's question, it would be an improvement to start your answer off with a lede ("short answer" or "TL;DR" version) that introduces this. What's later in the text can be left as reinforcement. – Spencer May 8 '18 at 16:53
  • @Spencer Do you know if the following is a "passive construction" or definitely in the passive voice? I saw […] a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. Your reply would be most helpful. Thanks. – Mari-Lou A May 9 '18 at 6:13
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    I didn't say anything about the participle being passive except in the fleshed out sentence. Since all past participles can be treated this way, it shouldn't be necessary to stress the point. – KarlG May 9 '18 at 10:10

The confusion has to do with the fact that it is not several independent sentences. I don't know the official mumbo-jumbo, but "No hat." is a continuation of the sentence beginning with "I saw ...", as is the the following "sentence" "Hair parted, brushed, oiled ...".

Ie, it is the syntactic/semantic equivalent of "I saw a high starched collar... I saw no hat. I saw hair parted, brushed, oiled ..."

This is really no different from saying "I was fat, dumb, and happy", vs saying "I was fat. I was dumb. I was happy."

Yes, this sort of of construction is not in the freshman English textbooks, but it is not all that uncommon in literature by artistic and expressive authors.


Here is the text you are focusing on in its context. Your text is in bold.

I saw a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand. He was amazing, and had a penholder behind his ear.

The text you selected isn't a complete sentence.

You can take the "hair parted, etc." as additional items in the list of things that the narrator saw, or you can take them as a list of descriptors of the person in the high starched collar.

What's happening with held in your text? It is a past participle being used to modify parasol. It's not a simple past. Simple past would look something like this:

He held a green-lined parasol.

Compare this with the present tense:

He holds a green-lined parasol.

Do you see, now, how the simple past works? If not yet, then please check a textbook and/or some Q&A pages about simple past at English Language Learners StackExchange.

Note that the past participle might be familiar to you already as a component of the present perfect tense, and the past perfect tense. Examples of these would be

Have you ever held a hamster? (present perfect)

She had held my hand dozens of times but this time was different. (past perfect)

We saw that held was a past participle. Well, in a parallel construction, parted, brushed, oiled, and green-lined are, similarly, past participles, modifying, respectively: hair, hair, hair, and parasol.

I didn't understand whether you were assigned this specific text, and the word "held," to work with for your analysis, or whether you chose the text yourself.

Now let's take a look at a Spanish translation. I found one here, and it says:

Vi un cuello alto y almidonado, puhos blancos, una ligera chaqueta de alpaca, pantalones impecables, una corbata clara y botas relucientes. No llevaba sombrero. Los cabellos estaban partidos, cepillados, aceitados, bajo un parasol a rayas verdes sostenido por una mano blanca.

You wrote that in the Spanish translation:

these verbal tenses have been translated as passive clauses and as participles. An example of this is the following: Marlow sat cross-legged right aft, leaning against the mizzen-mast. | Marlow estaba sentado justo a popa, con las piernas cruzadas y respaldado en el palo de mesana.

There is no passive voice in either passage.

Did you know there is a StackExchange about the Spanish language? It's a place where you can ask questions in Spanish about grammar and linguistics! https://spanish.stackexchange.com/


"Held" here is not a simple past tense form

No hat. Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol held in a big white hand.

As other answers have said, these are sentence fragments, and "held" is not a finite verb form here, so it does not have a tense. It is definitely incorrect to call it a "simple past" form. It means approximately the same thing as "Hair parted, brushed, oiled, under a green-lined parasol that was held in a big white hand."

I had a hard time thinking of a similar sentence fragment that uses a different word that would not have the same form as the simple past tense. Here is my best shot:

A line of firetrucks, under an American flag flown from a firetruck's ladder.

(Modified from the text of "Firefighters Pay Their Respects To “Boch”", by Alex Haglund, The Nashville News)

"Held" could be a participle or an adjective (it's not totally clear to me)

I don't know for sure whether "held" in the quote is a participle (a non-finite verb form that behaves somewhat like an adjective, but is not considered to be an adjective according to most grammatical analyses) or a departicipial adjective (which is a word that has the form of a participle, but that is an adjective and not a verb). Distinguishing these is somewhat complicated and many of the tests only give a definite answer in certain circumstances. (For example: in a grammatical sentence where the word "very" modifies a word ending in -ed, as in "They seem very annoyed", we know for sure that the -ed word is an adjective. But this test doesn't work in reverse: when the word very does not or cannot come before a word ending in -ed, the -ed word might be an adjective, or it might be a verb.)

I don't know if prior answers have gotten downvoted for saying it is one or the other; Edwin Ashworth left a comment suggesting that there is "gradience" but he also says "grammarians are divided over this", and I certainly have read grammars that don't treat the verb/adjective distinction as a gradient phenomenon.

Is it passive? That's also not totally clear to me, but in any case, that's not related to the question of tense

Other answers and comments on this have brought up the idea that this could be seen as a passive form or a passive construction. It may be, but I actually don't think it's clear that "passive" is an applicable term. And in any case, the passive voice is not a tense, so this is really a side issue.

The main issue as I see it is the participle vs. adjective question brought up in the previous section of this answer. If "held" is an adjective, it's not clear to me whether it is correct to use the label "passive".

According to Geoff Pullum's guide to "The passive in English", the term "passive" in English is typically applied to a construction containing a verb in the form of a participle. It's certainly possible for "held", as a past-participle form, to be used in a passive construction; I'm just not sure about how to prove that any particular use of "held" is a past participle in a passive construction rather than a departicipial adjective used with the copula "be".


According to this article from RHL School, verbs can become adjectives, depending on context and usage, as in the case of held in your example sentence.

Sometimes the past participle form of a verb becomes an adjective...

Held is the past participle form of the verb, hold; and in this case, it was used by the author as an adjective to describe the parasol.

Such adjectives are sometimes called participle adjectives.

Of participle adjectives, Albert C. Baugh said:

For some reason the past participle of strong verbs seems to have been more tenacious than the past tense...the strong participle are still used, especially as adjectives.

History of the English Language, c.1935 (p.202 -- or in the 2nd ed., p.197)

  • 'A caterpillar becomes a butterfly' means that the specimen is no longer a butterfly, but 'Jane became a mother' does not mean that Jane was no longer Jane. Which sense of 'become' is this? / Does 'use X as a Y' always mean that there is now no X, but only Y? (In other words, is this a gradience ('held is both a verb and an adjective in this example') or zero conversion ('here, what was once a past participle is now a true adjective instead')? If the latter, OP's title question must be considered unacceptable. – Edwin Ashworth May 6 '18 at 11:05
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    @Edwin: "The answer is that it is not a verb, and so has no tense" (which I might post if I can dig out some references) is an answer, not a close vote reason. – Tim Lymington supports Monica May 6 '18 at 12:32
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    @Edwin: not sure what point you are trying to make. If you think it is a verb, you would downvote my putative answer, but the question is an both on-topic and important. If the status is unclear, OP deserves at least an explanation of that point. – Tim Lymington supports Monica May 6 '18 at 14:18
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    The big problem is the presupposition that every word, or every use of every word, has one and only one "part of speech" by which it can or must be labelled. Nothing could be farther from the truth of English; we have varying degrees of nouniness, for instance, as well as verbiness. And to say opinion is divided on adjectives is an understatement; there appear to be languages with adjectives acting like nouns, ones with adjectives acting like verbs, and some with adjectives belonging only to a small closed class that produces compound adjective phrases. – John Lawler May 8 '18 at 19:03
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    That's right. Words in a sentence have valence. And a part of speech is always contextual. It is not an entry in a dictionary whose meaning is fixed. – Lambie May 12 '18 at 19:10

I think one has to parse the English based on the most likely reading by a "model reader", and take into account the purpose of the exercise.

The purpose is not so much to characterize the English grammar but to figure out how that English grammar can be "read" in terms of what is left out of sentence structure for literary effect.

It does not matter what you call "was + past participle" grammatically speaking, it matters how one can fill in the blanks of what is implied by the structure.

In terms of translating this into Spanish:

Below I have given what I see as the implied text a reader fills in "unconsciously" or without thinking about it. That said, a translator does have to "fill in" the words in a conscious effort to understand the text for purposes of translation.

Parsing in preparation for translation:

I saw [a person in] a high starched collar, white cuffs, a light alpaca jacket, snowy trousers, a clean necktie, and varnished boots. [the person had] No hat. [His] Hair [was] parted, brushed, oiled [by him or someone else, implied], under a green-lined parasol [that was] held in a big white hand.

Now, I think what you may have interpreted as simple past can be shown to be passive tenses for purposes of translation. Please note: that does not necessarily imply that every X + was + past participle will necessarily be X + estaba + past participle in Spanish.

Parted, brushed, oiled, all go with the verb "was": was parted, oiled and brushed and refer back to the person who was seen by the narrator.

The translation will depend on whether you feel it necessary to introduce a person in Spanish or not. There are several different ways to do this.

I think one can safely say here that "[was] parted, brushed and oiled" are not simple past tense at all but are necessarily describing the hair that "was parted, brushed and oiled" [by someone]. The agent is not important here, it is merely given for purposes of my reading.

  • @Mari-LouA Somebody had a case of sour grapes. It's truly unbelievable to me the bad faith some people deploy. After tons of comments and five answers, someone downvotes the question. When, in fact, it is a perfect example for discussing "the model reader" and how she might fill in "gaps" to create "full sentences". There can be more than one reading of course. I provided mine. – Lambie May 7 '18 at 13:10
  • I agree with you that it's not necessary to do a sophisticated grammatical analysis in order to answer OP's question. // Your "model reader" technique looks intriguing. I wish you had explained it more comprehensively, for the uninitiated. – aparente001 May 8 '18 at 4:35
  • @aparente001 Right, well, I guess that reveals me as an unconditional fan of Umberto Eco. Here's a succinct and well-written introduction to the idea, originally from Pierce and then developed by Eco:signosemio.com/eco/textual-cooperation.asp In matters literary, this is how I tend to roll (sorry, that sounds terrible...:) I think those of us who use more than one language on a daily basis have a different view than those who do not, even if one's spelling sucks. – Lambie May 8 '18 at 13:30
  • I'd say "this is how I roll" -- I don't think you need the "tend." I'm used to hearing that expression a lot in the Tourette world -- it's a pun on the classic Tourette head roll, and it has to do with people's process toward self-acceptance and progress with self-advocacy. So, in my opinion, no apology necessary for that. // Re spelling: A couple of weeks ago I discovered that I can tell my Opera browser to spellcheck English and Spanish simultaneously! Unfortunately I haven't found a solution in my email program (Thunderbird). – aparente001 May 8 '18 at 13:44
  • I looked at your link. Is the article itself a translation? Is it written by non-native speakers of English? I didn't read the whole thing but I looked at the beginning of Application I. I read the excerpt and wondered what language it was originally written in. There was no indication. There was no mention of an original title or a name of a translator. I googled. I discovered the work was originally in French. This was a plus, since I had feared it was in Italian, which I don't know. I reread the excerpt. Knowing it was originally – aparente001 May 8 '18 at 13:50

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