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BACKGROUND

The definition of 'participle' is something along the line of:

a word having the characteristics of both verb and adjective (M-W Dictionary)

the form of a verb that usually ends in "ed" or "ing" and is used as an adjective (Cambridge Dictionary)

The Oxford English Dictionary explains that the Latin term was used to refer to “a non-finite part of a verb” that shares “some characteristics of a verb and some of an adjective.” (Grammarphobia; I don't have access to OED, so...)

There is no mention of 'noun' above (which I think is reserved to be related to 'gerund'). So far so good.

PROBLEM

But then, I've come across this definition of 'participle' in the online Oxford Dictionary:

A word formed from a verb (e.g., going, gone, being, been) and used as an adjective (e.g., working woman, burned toast) or a noun (e.g., good breeding). In English, participles are also used to make compound verb forms (e.g., is going, has been).

The same dictionary has this 'origin':

Late Middle English from Old French, by-form of participe, from Latin participium ‘(verbal form) sharing (the functions of a noun)’, from participare ‘share in’.

Quite confused, I had to look to Etymonline:

participle (n.)

late 14c., in grammar, "a noun-adjective, a word having the value of an adjective as a part of speech but so regularly made from a verb and associated with it in meaning and construction as to seem to belong to the verb," from Old French participle in the grammatical sense (13c.), a variant of participe, and directly from Latin participium, literally "a sharing, partaking," also used in the grammatical sense, from particeps "sharing, partaking" (see participation). In grammatical sense, the Latin translates Greek metokhē "sharer, partaker," and the notion is of a word "partaking" of the nature of both a noun and an adjective.

This seems only to confirm the uncanny inclusion of 'noun' in the definition of 'participle' as in the above-referenced online Oxford Dictionary.

QUESTION

Does the etymological definition of 'participle' include 'noun'?

If so, how about the current definition?

If not, are both the online Oxford Dictionary and Etymonline simply wrong?

1 Answer 1

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Etymonline is just wrong, as far as I know, when it says the term participle comes from the notion that this kind of form is a "noun-adjective" or a "word 'partaking' of the nature of both a noun and an adjective".

The Oxford "Lexico" dictionary is referring to the traditional Latin categorization of parts of speech where adjectives are considered a kind of noun. There is some sense to this grouping. Latin adjectives inflect in mostly the same way as (other) nouns and often can be used "substantively" (used "as a noun", in the modern English sense of "noun").

When adjectives are categorized a kind of noun, a verb used as or like an adjective can also be described as a verb used as or like a noun. So a participle "shares" properties of verbs and nouns in the traditional Greek/Latin categorization where "adjective" is just a subcategory of "noun", but not in the categorization normally used by modern English speakers where "adjective" is not a subset of "noun". It's about as simple as that.

In fact, even in English, there are certain situations where it's difficult to distinguish adjectives and nouns, so a word like "chosen" in "Only the few, and the carefully chosen, are allowed to teach college MOOCs or Lynda.com courses"1 could be interpreted as a noun, or as a "verb used as an adjective used as a noun". But in that sense, a participle is only a "noun-adjective" to the same extent that words like free and poor are "noun-adjectives"—and nobody applies the term "participle" to words like free or poor. So it's clear that the defining feature of a participle is that it either is a verb, or at least shares some properties with verbs.

  1. Here Comes Professor Everybody, The ‘sharing economy’ meets higher education, By Jeffrey R. Young, FEBRUARY 2, 2015
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  • That makes a lot of sense, but it still bothers me that Lexico presents breeding as in His politeness shows good breeding as an example of a participle in its definition. What do you make of that?
    – JK2
    Feb 22, 2021 at 3:31
  • @JK2: I’m not sure about that.
    – herisson
    Mar 1, 2021 at 22:31
  • So at least the Lexico definition you find strange, don't you?
    – JK2
    Mar 3, 2021 at 3:42
  • @JK2: Yes, i do.
    – herisson
    Mar 3, 2021 at 7:51

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