"The cat was surrounded by mice."

What part of speech is "surrounded" in this sentence? To me, it seems like the verb "surround" is being used as a past participle in the passive voice... hence, it's still considered a verb. However, I was told that it's being used as an adjective, acting as a complement (which can only be a noun or adjective). Am I wrong? Can someone explain?

  • What is the context here? Does the sentence describe the action of the cat being surrounded by mice? Or does it describe the existing state of the cat being surrounded? As an aside: We get many "What part of speech is x?" questions on this site. I am always interested in the reasons for such questions, and whether the answer has any wider significance or consequence.
    – Shoe
    May 8, 2019 at 7:38
  • The original quote, from the story Half-Chicken by Alma Flor Ada: And the swallows flew over the fields, spreading the news to the cows grazing peacefully with their calves, the fierce bulls, and the swift horses. Soon the hen was surrounded by animals who wanted to see the strange chick. One of the ducks said, "But he only has one wing!
    – rose
    May 8, 2019 at 9:32
  • The reason I ask: I’m an English teacher for young students, and a similar sentence appeared in this story we read. Originally, their curriculum listed “surround” as an adjective in their vocabulary list, so I informed my managers of the mistake - which resulted in a grammar discussion of how the word was actually being used in the story. I want to teach my students how to correctly identify the part of speech in a sentence, since they’ll have to know that for grammar tests, but I also don’t want to confuse them unnecessarily.
    – rose
    May 8, 2019 at 9:32
  • Thanks for the clarification. I think it would be good if you could edit the question to include the original quote.
    – Shoe
    May 8, 2019 at 10:08

2 Answers 2


In your comment you provide extra context to the sentence heading your question, namely:

  • Soon the hen was surrounded by animals who wanted to see the strange chick.

I interpret the word soon here as indicating the state of the hen on completion of the action of surrounding by the other animals. And a state past particple is adjectival, not verbal.

Contrast this with the following alternative sentence:

  • One by one the hen was surrounded by animals who wanted to see the strange chick.

In this case the ongoing action of the surrounding is being described, and the past participle is part of a passive construction, i.e. verbal.

Finally, a comment: I don't think it is unreasonable to ask young students to identify parts of speech. But it seems unfair to give them decontextualised, ambiguous examples such as "The cat was surrounded by mice."

  • Although that last example is technically ambiguous, there are default assumptions. Without qualification as in your second example, most would interpret it as the adjectival form, I think.
    – Barmar
    May 9, 2019 at 0:57
  • @Barmar. I agree. And in real life, as opposed to grammar tests, the context will generally preclude ambiguity in such utterances. It's not clear to me whether the OP's students were asked to categorize surrounded in "The cat was surrounded by mice", or "Soon the hen was surrounded by animals..." or some other sentence. I stand by my point, however, that young students learning to identify parts of speech should be tested on sentences that are unambiguous.
    – Shoe
    May 9, 2019 at 7:02
  • But the students also need to know possible ambiguities, and default readings. Oct 5, 2019 at 14:02
  • Yes, Shoe is right. In fact, I think that for the usage to be 'verbal' in the circumstance described, the author would have to have written "... Soon the hen HAD been surrounded by mice.
    – Tuffy
    Feb 2, 2020 at 22:48

The cat was surrounded by mice - is the PV of 'Mice surrounded the cat.' If we go by PV, it can be analyzed as, a) The cat (sub) and was surrounded (passive verb). If seen as in a) The cat was injured.... The was attacked.... The cat was surrounded...., the part after 'The cat was' can be considered verb complement or even adjectival (The cat was fat/ fostered/ abused, etc.). Easy way to recognize parts-of-speech is to convert the sentence to AV and review.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.