How do you determine if a past participle--when used as a pre-modifier of a noun--is a verb or an adjective?

For example:

a. I saw a broken vase.

b. I saw a murdered man.

I think broken in a. is an adjective whereas murdered in b. is a verb. (Correct me if I'm wrong.)

Is there any clear way of determining the part of speech of a past participle pre-modifying a noun?

  • I agree with you. There are a few tests: “broken” can occur as complement to the complex-intransitive verb “seem” (“It seemed completely broken”). “Murdered” on the other hand fails all the tests: it can’t occur as complement to complex-intransitive verbs (* ”He seemed/became quite murdered”), or to complex-transitive verbs (* ”I found him quite murdered”).
    – BillJ
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 6:50
  • @BillJ Why do you think "It seemed/became broken" is possible while "He seemed/became murdered" is not? I mean, what kind of inherent difference between 'broken' and 'murdered' do you think makes the former construction possible and the latter construction impossible?
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 17, 2019 at 7:56
  • 3
    My point is that both broken and murdered pass one of the essential syntactic tests of adjectives, namely they can premodify nouns. Broken also passes a morphological test of adjectives; it can take the prefix -un, which murdered cannot. But neither pass the can be made into an adverb test: e.g. happy > happily, broken > *brokenly. As a teacher I am most interested in usage not classification. So the question Is 'murdered' an adjective or a verb in the phrase 'a murdered man'? is not one that adds any value for me or my students. But I am willing to be persuaded otherwise!
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 9:02
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    English learners need to know that you can premodify nouns with the present or past participle forms of many verbs, including murder: the murdering man, the murdered man. Whether you call such participles verbs or adjectives does not, in my opinion, advance their proficiency in the language. Of course, for linguists it is a different story, and I would be interested if anyone can point to a definitive reference on the matter.
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 15:34
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    No, I don't tell them that government (committee), car (door), teacher (workroom), etc. are adjectives. I say that nouns can be used attributively (i.e. can premodify other nouns) - a very common feature of English. I've got 10 minutes to chat if you want.
    – Shoe
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 16:00

2 Answers 2


I was trying to edit the question, but I realized that the edit could amount to an answer on its own. So I'm going to post my own answer to my question so I can get some feedback.

While thinking about this question, I've come to realize that broken and murdered are inherently different in that they are allowed to be complements of different form of the verb 'be' when they are used as complements of the verb 'be':

The OP's examples can be rephrased as follows:

a1. I saw a vase that was broken. (= a.)

b1. I saw a man that had been murdered. (= b.)

In order for a1. and b1. to equate in meaning to a. and b., respectively, different forms of the verb 'be' should be used in a1. and b1.

In b2., for example, using the form was, instead of the form had been, renders the sentence even ungrammatical, much less having the same meaning as b.:

b2. ??I saw a man that was murdered.

I don't know how to explain the ill-formedness of b2., compared with the well-formedness of a1., without the analysis that murdered in a. is not an adjective but a verb while broken in b. is not a verb but an adjective.

  • This post makes sense to me, but I'm not sure I agree about the dubiousness of "I saw a man that was murdered" with a stative sense. I mean, when I try to think about it, even "I saw a murdered man" seems kind of funny to me in terms of its meaning (like you're talking about seeing a ghost or something).
    – herisson
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 4:12
  • @sumelic Maybe I should be looking for a more natural sounding example.
    – listeneva
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 4:28
  • Your interesting question has resurfaced, and you have added a further potential way of distinguishing broken and murdered. Your question and answer seem to be based on the assumption that every given word in a given context can be definitively categorized. In this case, the claim is that broken is an adjective and murdered is a verb. If this is so, then presumably it should be possible, not just to list the various tests that the words do or do not pass, but also to state which of the tests are necessary or sufficient for placing the words into one or the other of the classes.
    – Shoe
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 10:24
  • It is possible to conceive of a sentence I saw a very murdered man (e.g. he had been shot, stabbed and bludgeoned). The ability to add very is a characteristic of prototypical adjectives such as happy, so does this now make murdered an adjective in this context?
    – Shoe
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 10:24
  • @Shoe Well, I'm not as ambitious as you seem to think I am. I don't even know if what I've suggested can qualify as a test, let alone the test. I'm just trying to get some feedback about what I've been thinking. Regarding the very murdered example of yours, I think it's one thing to think of a context in which the man had been murdered in a very violent way, it's another to describe the man as a very murdered, which I find awkward at best, when you can describe him as a brutally murdered man.
    – listeneva
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 15:35

You can distinguish sometimes, but not always.

  • Very can’t come directly before a verb.

  • Carefully usually(?) won’t work before an adjective.

Neither of these tests seems to work very well for determining the part of speech of the words broken and murdered in your sentences. None of I saw a very broken vase, I saw a carefully broken vase, I saw a very murdered man, I saw a carefully murdered man sound natural to me.

  • If your test doesn't work for my question, how could this be an answer?
    – listeneva
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 3:03
  • @listeneva: This post describes tests that can work for the general question ("How do you determine if a pre-modifying past participle is a verb or an adjective?" "Is there any clear way of determining the part of speech of a past participle pre-modifying a noun?"), even though they don't work for your specific example. If you don't find it helpful, that's fine. I just don't have anything better to offer at the moment.
    – herisson
    Commented Apr 18, 2019 at 19:48
  • I'd like your feedback on my own tentative answer.
    – listeneva
    Commented May 23, 2019 at 4:09

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