How do you tell the difference between a verb and an adjective that looks like a verb?

For example, "he is working." To the best of my understanding, "working" could function as either a verb or an adjective depending on the meaning of the sentence. How can you tell which it is?

  • In your example, "working" is a present participle used to form the progressive aspect. As far as I'm aware, it cannot function as an adjective. In, for example, "a working clock", it's not an adjective but a verb phrase.
    – BillJ
    Commented Mar 31, 2019 at 15:37

2 Answers 2


Working as an adjective modifies a noun, as a verb it does not.

working (verb) - He is working on a new project.

working (noun) - Working is essential for our cognitive function.

working (adjective) - He's a working man who has never been on welfare.

Examples from the web

  • "...with all men working, there would be so much food that each man would have to work not more than two hours a day."

  • "Besides this, she was working in one of the dark holes, by electric light."

  • "Childcare for working mothers."

  • "There is a good working relationship between the departments."


In your example, "working" is not an adjective - it is a verb tense known as a present participle. If you said, "he is moody", that would be an adjective, because it describes him, where "he is working" says what he is doing, and that it is in the present and ongoing. Other verb tenses would be "he works" (present tense), "he worked" (past tense), and "he will work tomorrow" (future tense).

Sometimes the verb ending in -ing can act as a noun, like "working is good for the soul". This is called a gerund.

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