This seems to be some type of present tense, but guides to verb tense only give the following two options: present progressive tense and present perfect tense. Present progressive tense uses a present participle "I am breaking", and present perfect tense uses the past participle, but with "have", e.g., "I have broken".

Wikipedia tells me that "I am broken" is a stative passive sentence construct. That is, "broken" is an ordinary adjective derived from a past participle and denotes a state. But it seems to me that "breaking" and "broken" can both be states that serve the same function in English. For instance, the state of breaking can be used to describe something (at least in engineering) that is progressively deteriorating. "The car's suspension is breaking" could be used when the car still drives but it is a poor ride.

So why is it that "breaking" is treated a participle that forms a new verb tense and "broken" is a participle that just functions as an adjective? This distinction seems like convention rather than logic.

Any help is appreciated.

  • But "breaking" and "broken" are not "states that serve the same function in English". You might as well say that I am pleased is the same as I am pleasing. There's a big difference between active and passive use of verbs. Sep 28, 2018 at 11:58
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    I would agree with BillJ - "broken", in the example, is serving as an adjective describing the state of being of the subject (I). It is not a verb here, so the only verb used (am) is just the present tense of "to be".
    – user22542
    Sep 28, 2018 at 12:44
  • Thank you for your comments. I guess you are saying if there is no direct object, then "breaking" is an adjective in a stative passive sentence, not a present progressive sentence...and it's just an unfortunate example because of the multiple meanings.
    – KMoravec
    Sep 28, 2018 at 12:50
  • "Breaking" cannot be an adjective. It can only be a verb, so a direct object is required to complete the verb phrase, e.g. "I am breaking the record".
    – BillJ
    Sep 28, 2018 at 14:28
  • Break is most often used in transitive clauses as a causative, with an agent subject and patient object, but it can also occur as an intransitive inchoative with patient subject, as in breaking news. That's still a verb form, though, not an adjective. Sep 28, 2018 at 15:09

2 Answers 2


Present tense.

It is a basic sentence. Subject (I, a pronoun), verb (to be) first person, present tense, and a predicate adjective (broken, a description). Different meaning than "I am broke." The former, depending on the context, e.g. run down, tired, depressed, etc. The latter specifically means "out of money."

Moreover, there is also a past participle 'broken', but not in this case. The verb 'to be' is followed by a predicate nominative or predicate adjective. A past participle follows ‘to be' in the past as a description (the preterite tense). A past participle follows ‘to be' in the preterite tense to form the passive voice, presumed to be present with a “perpetrator.”

Some predicate adjectives are homophones, therefore homonyms, to a past participle, as in this case. The two 'brokens' are related, but different parts of speech. "I am broken," is similar to "I was broken." However 'am broken' only describes 'me,' and does not indicate BY WHOM. Whereas, I was broken by him, her, or myself (I broke myself is better grammar), states that I became broken and by whom in the passive voice).

"I was broken' with a different preposition that does not state 'by whom,' would form the plu perfect tense, e.g. "I was broken with nasty words."

The status is current (present); however, the past participle without a 'perpetrator' indicates that I WAS (simply) broken (the preterite tense).


The distinction between verbal participles and adjectives (there are various alternative terms) is one of the most complicated areas of English grammar.

(There are similar complications for some other languages, but I know even less about those.) Nevertheless, the distinction is not just arbitrary or conventional. There are real arguments for classifying certain constructions one way, and other constructions another way.

"Broken" can be either a "verbal" participle or an adjective (it might be more common as an adjective)

"I am broken" actually has two possible meanings that can be distinguished in English, although one of them is pretty unlikely.

  1. eventive — "At this moment, something breaks me." This interpretation is usually not salient for the exact sentence "I am broken", but in certain contexts it would be more likely: e.g. "Suddenly, I am broken." In this context, "broken" could be a so-called "verbal" participle, like "breaking" in "I am breaking".

  2. stative — "In the past, I broke (or something broke me), and now I am in the resulting state."

The "stative" passive construction is typically analyzed as containing a "true" adjective rather than a participle because of how it performs on a few tests that are thought to distinguish adjectives from participles.

  • very test: -en words that are being used in a stative passive construction can often be modified by the word very, which doesn't modify verbs. We can't say *"The car's suspension is very breaking" or *"It very broke" but we can say "It is very broken".

  • seem test: We can use seem with a predicative adjective ("It seems helpful") but not with a verbal participle (*"It seems helping"). "It seems broken" is grammatical, which implies that "broken" can be an adjective.

"Breaking" is almost always a "verbal" participle, but it might sometimes be an adjective

Some comments by BillJ and John Lawler have suggested that breaking is never used as an adjective, but I'm not sure that is entirely correct. It's clear that there are a number of adjectives ending in -ing, e.g. exciting and annoying. Even though breaking doesn't seem to be commonly used as an adjective, we can find some examples where it seems that it passes an adjective test or fails a verb test:

  • There's a difference. "Exciting" and "annoying" can be modified by "very" and hence are adjectives in "An exciting/annoying guy". But we can't say *very breaking", so in, for example, "breaking news" it is a VP modifying "news" in the same way as "sleeping" is in "a sleeping child", where again we can't say a *a very sleeping child".
    – BillJ
    Oct 4, 2018 at 7:54
  • @BillJ: did you see my ""It's very breaking news" quotation? It sounds a bit weird to me, but it seems like some speakers may analyze "breaking" as an adjective in this context.
    – herisson
    Oct 4, 2018 at 8:48
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    Yes, but it's non-standard. I wouldn't want to base the rule on a nonce-form like that.
    – BillJ
    Oct 4, 2018 at 8:57

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