Are gerunds and present participles that function as adjectives considered non-finite? I understand that they aren't but I'm not so sure

for example:
The frightening tiger has eaten the scared doe.

I understand that "have" is the finite verb and "eaten" is non-finite.
While "frightening" and "scared" are mere adjectives.
But a friend told me that all frightening, scared and eaten are non-finite so I'm confused.

Thanks in advance.

  • 4
    All participles -- past and present -- can be used as adjectives. When they lose their verbal properties (like being able to take a direct object), the question of finite or non-finite ceases to be relevant. When they are being used as main verbs in clauses, however, they're certainly non-finite. So you're right and so is your friend. What puzzles me is why people ask their friends grammar questions; would you ask them a physics question? Dec 10, 2018 at 3:14
  • When a gerund-participle is used as an adjective, it is bleached of its verbal properties so the matter of finiteness does not arise. I disagree with JL’s asserion that 'all participles can be used as adjectives', for there are a great many participles that can't. For example, “sleeping” in "a sleeping child" is not a participial adjective but a verb phrase. Similarly, in “an approaching train” and "the retreating army". “Sleeping”, “approaching” and “retreating” don’t have the distinctive properties of adjectives and hence must belong in the verb class.
    – BillJ
    Dec 10, 2018 at 13:40
  • @BillJ Ermm . . well that's the sources. Yes, thank you for that.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 10, 2018 at 18:26
  • John Lawler, BillJ and Nigel j Thank you for your answers, but I'm still a little bit unclear. If we only focus on the given example, the frightening tiger has eaten the scared doe, would the words frightening and scared be considered non-finite? or would they only be considered as adjectives? Dec 11, 2018 at 12:25

1 Answer 1


The frightening tiger has eaten the scared doe.

They are adjectives:

[1] They can be modified by "very", which can't modify verbs.

[2] They can occur as complement to complex-intransitive verbs like "become": "It became quite frightening" / "He became quite scared".

[3] They can occur as complement to complex-transitive verbs like "find": "I found it quite frightening"/ "I found the boy scared and shivering".

But not all participles can be used as adjectives. The present participles of the verbs "sleep", "approach" and "retreat", for example, cannot be used as adjectives:

[1] They can't be modified by "very": *"She was very sleeping"; *"The train was very approaching"; *"The army was very retreating."

[2] They can't occur as complement to complex-intransitive verbs like "become": *"She became/seemed sleeping"; *"The train became approaching"; *"The army became retreating"."

[3] They can't occur as complement to complex-transitive verbs: *"I found her quite sleeping". *"I found the train quite approaching"; *"I found the army quite retreating"

The range of expressions that can occur as pre-head modifier to a noun is very large and varied: we don't want to call them all adjectives. "Frightening" and "scared" have the properties of indisputable adjectives and hence must belong in that class, but the others don't have the distinctive properties of adjectives and hence are analysed as verb phrases in examples like "a sleeping child", "the approaching train", "the defeated army.

Does that clear things up?

  • So main is not an adjective? For [1], you can't say: *This is a very main train station. For [2], you can't say: *After the decommissioning of the Essex freeway, the Morris turnpike became main. And for [3], you can't say *The Union Hospital is quite main. May 11, 2019 at 23:02
  • Please don't post ill-informed comments on ELU. If you bothered to actually think about the OP's question and my answer, you might just be able to understand this.
    – BillJ
    May 13, 2019 at 9:16
  • I know perfectly well that main is an adjective. My comment was intended to point out that there are lots of different kinds of adjectives with different behaviors, and words like retreating and sleeping behave justlike some of these kinds of adjectives. So saying that they are not adjectives based on some arbitrary test that some actual adjectives fail is a rather arbitrary classification. May 13, 2019 at 9:47
  • So you have one kind of test for participial adjectives and another, different, kind of test for non-participial adjectives? That still sounds arbitrary to me. If sleeping and main behave similarly grammatically, why shouldn't they be classified as the same part of speech? Oct 6, 2020 at 13:43
  • There’s nothing arbitrary about it. Of course the tests are different. We're comparing ing adjectives formed by conversion from ing verbs, so different considerations apply.
    – BillJ
    Oct 6, 2020 at 16:36

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