1. John is highly educated.
  2. John was educated in London.

According to traditional grammar, educated is an adjective in the first sentence and a verb in the second sentence (past participle).

But grammarians like Professor Rod Mitchel say that both are adjectives and that there is no past participle in English. Mitchel says that calling it a participle is a Latinate fallacy.

How far is his explanation valid and acceptable for the experts on the site? Can you provide supporting arguments for his and alternative views?


3 Answers 3


This claim, if it is as simple as it seems, is not supported by any major published modern academic grammar. Especially as concerns the perfect tense, linking verbs and the passive, it's hard to argue that pairs like dead (adjective) and died (past participle) are actually both adjectives, their syntactic properties being quite different.

*I have dead.

I have died.

I am dead.

*I am died.

Adjectives can generally be modified by pretty or very, can be used as pre-head modifier in a noun phrase, and can occur predicatively (complement to complex intransitive verbs like seem or appear).

That's a dead dog.

*That's a died dog.

He seems (pretty) dead

*He seems (pretty) died.

Further, note that in the example provided (John was educated in London), educated refers to a past event not a state like an adjective would John was happy in London, but now he's miserable in Chicago.

  • 3
    In a particular context, perhaps you might have John was educated in London, but now feels lowbrow when in Cambridge, where educated would be an adjective.
    – Henry
    Commented Jun 15 at 9:55
  • 2
    @Henry In that example, "educated" is a verb in a passive clause. It denotes an action, not a state.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 15 at 11:29
  • Your lack of Oxford comma has garden-pathed me into a reading in which "the perfect tense links verbs and passives". :)
    – tchrist
    Commented Jun 15 at 14:02

If we want to, we can define terms like "adjective" however we like in technical discussions. The question is whether it is useful or not to use a definition of "adjective" that encompasses words like educated in "John was educated in London."

I am familiar with at least one linguist, Björn Lundquist, who argues that participles should be considered adjectives. You can see the argument in the paper “The Category of Participles” (2013), which I mentioned in an answer to Is "running" a gerund or a participial adjective?

The argument against calling it an adjective is that there are grammatical differences between the use of words like "educated" in sentences like "John is highly educated" and the use of words like "educated" in sentences like "John was educated in London." Some of these differences are discussed in the linked question. Lundquist acknowledges these differences, but argues that they are better analyzed in terms of subcategories of adjectives, rather than in terms of adjective versus verb uses. Lundquist does not reject the term "participle" and proposes using the terms "result/stative participle" and "event structure participle" to differentiate between the first and second way of using words like educated.

I'm not familar with Rod Mitchel's approach, but maybe he would say something similar.

The term participle has little going for it other than tradition: Latin grammarians used it because they thought of Latin participles as sharing properties of verbs and nouns (the latter category including adjectives in traditional Latin grammar), but most modern grammatical approaches I'm familiar with assign participles either to the adjective category (as you discussed) or, more frequently, to the verb category, rather than giving them special treatment either as their own part of speech or as a hybrid part of speech.

  • 2
    @herisson The term 'participle' is from traditional grammar, and it was used because grammarians wanted to draw attention to the way one word-class could become another (i.e. participate in the function of another). Linguistic approaches don't usually worry about where a word-class came from. The important point is how a word is functioning now. Some participles can belong to two word classes, compare: "It didn't look broken to me" (adjective) vs "The window got broken" (past-participle form of verb)
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 15 at 14:54
  • Yet in order to learn many verb-based adjectives in English, it's very useful to be able to reel off: go, went, gone or see, saw, seen. So those now are what? Present, simple past and an adjective? I'm just saying that in terms of teaching English, what grammarians say and what is pedagogically practical are often at odds. That said, I don't disagree with what you say in your answer, intellectually speaking.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 15 at 15:10
  1. "bear" is exactly like other transitive verbs.

She bore her baby in the quickening springtime.

Her baby was born (by her) in the quickening springtime.

It is simply that such language is old-fashioned.

If you want to state the year or whatever you were born, of course you say "I was born in 1961".

If it is necessary to state the person who gave birth to you, you can say "I was born by my mother in a little cottage by the river", but it comes across as story language.

We don't normally say "I was born by my mother" - because it's obvious, until medical science makes it posible for men to be pregnant (in theory it is possible).

A real life example is: "I was born by my mother, but my grandmothers, aunts and uncles brought me back to life."

Purists would say "I was given birth to by my mother" - but what people say in real life does not follow concepts of "purism".

You can also say "the baby was born by caesarian section".

"Born" and "borne" is the past participle of "bear"; the past participle is a resultative adjective form.

It is impossible for born to be a passive verb - in any theory of English grammar. That is simply false, and shows a serious unawareness of English.

As for theoretical discussion - we are in a forum which is teacher - teacher. What do you expect?

However, I do around 25 to 30 hours a week of teaching EFL - and have been doing so for over 30 years, long enough to have been able to put it into practice with learners.

It works. By Professor Rod Mitchel

  • Her baby was born [to her] in 1900. Her baby was borne by her [carried] for six months only. She bore [had] six children in seven years. And I would say: My mother gave birth to me but my uncles, aunts and so forth. Frankly? I just call the be born thing a defective verb and don't worry about it after I teach people to use: X was born on or in y. The other uses of bear (carry) would come later and to more advanced students.
    – Lambie
    Commented Jun 15 at 15:06
  • @Jvlnarasinharo I disagree that "it is impossible for 'born' to be a passive verb - in any theory of English grammar". "Born" in the childbirth sense, as in "I was born in England" is clearly passive, though it is restricted to 'short' passives, the kind without a by phrase.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 15 at 15:24
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    @Jvlnarasinharo I also disagree with your claim that "born"and "borne" are resultative adjective forms. They are not -- they are both verb forms.
    – BillJ
    Commented Jun 15 at 16:17
  • Mr Bill. That is not my claim but it is Rod Mitchel's. I have pasted his comment Commented Jun 15 at 16:20

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