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 Apr 17 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 Apr 17 at 7:56
  • By looking at the syntactic evidence, such as I mentioned. – BillJ Apr 17 at 8:09
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    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 Apr 18 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 Apr 18 at 15:34

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 texts 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 Apr 18 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. – sumelic Apr 18 at 19:48

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