I just came across the following sentences, and it just kept me thinking for hours and searching up grammar rules, but it was in vain. The question is about identifying verbal phrases:

  1. The apples were eaten.

  2. The children were excited.

Now, at first, I said "were" is a linking verb as "excited" in number two is an adjective describing the state of the children. However, looking at the other example (number 1), I realized it could be a verbal phrase because it might be a passive voice. So, I am unable to decide on the right answer. I appreciate your help in advance as I am very confused.

  • There have been similar questions asked before: see this question and the linked questions. Ultimately you may have to use your knowledge of the context to tell whether it's referring to an action or a property of an object.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 10:17

1 Answer 1


First of all, in both cases, were is a part (in fact, head) of the verb phrase. The question then becomes: what is its complement, a past participle (i.e. a verb) or an adjective?

There are a couple of tests that allow you to distinguish participles from adjectives. Certain adverbs, such as very, pretty or too (meaning "excessively"), are special in that they can modify adjectives, but not verbs. Just insert any of these in the phrase and see what you get:

(1) *The apples were very eaten. — wrong

(2) The children were very excited. — OK

Another one involves imagining the suspect words in other verb phrases. Be is exceptional in that it takes both predicative complements and passive clauses. But other "linking verbs" are not going be compatible with passive verbs. So take a verb like seem or look:

(3) *The apples seemed eaten. — wrong

(4) The children seemed excited. — OK

So now we see: eaten is a past participle, and excited is an adjective.

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.