If in English, and in other languages, a word is used, with the same spelling, in two different functions, it has a different grammatical name for each function. E.g. the word “work” in “the work” cannot be called a verb, but is called a noun. Vice versa the word “work” in “I work” cannot be called a noun, but it is a verb. Equally the word “one” in “One should not do that” is grammatically not a numeral but a (personal) pronoun, and the same word in “one hundred” is called not a pronoun but a numeral. In each case they are actually two different words with the same spelling.


There is a present participle, always ending in “-ing”,

There is a past participle, ending in “-ed” or “-en” et al., which indicates past tense of an action if it is combined with the auxiliary “to have”: like in “He has gone” or “I have eaten”. Although the auxiliary is in the present tense, because it indicates the present result of the past action, the function of this participle is to indicate a past action, and is therefore called a past participle, rightly so. “has” and “have” indicate the present tense and are therefore present indicative verbs, whereas “gone” and “eaten” indicate the past tense of the action and are therefore called “past participles”. Whenever it is with “to have”, the verbal participle is a past participle. With this function both “gone” and “eaten” indicate the active tense of the combination, and could not possibly be called “passive participles”: there is nothing passive in “He has gone” and in “I have eaten”; one could as well say “He has went” and “I have ate” because there is nothing passive expressed in either “has/have” or in “gone” and “eaten”. In spite of its origin, the meaning and function of these participles is in the active voice. And this is all because of the presence of the auxiliary “to have”. Calling it a passive participle because of its origin is wrong nowadays: although it looks passive, it has lost its passiveness in the development of the language, in the same way as the original numeral “one” has alternatively changed into a pronoun and as the verb “go” has created a noun “go” as in “on the go”, and as the original participle “provided” has changed into a conjunction, and as the original adverb “than” has changed into the conjunction “than” and as the original past/passive participle “past” has changed into the present preposition “past”. In all these cases the grammatical term is the one for the present function. That would also be the case when a past participle changes its function into a passive participle. When we say “The letter was received at two o’clock”, we can say either that in this sentence the now passive participle developed out of the adjective “received” or that the now passive participle is a continuation of the earlier passive participle.

Consider the phrase “The chicken will be eaten (to-morrow at six o’clock)”. The time of the action is given by the auxilliary “to be”, namely the future. In that sentence there is not the slightest hint that the action is in the past, or in a past related to another tense. So there is no way to attach a tense, any tense, to the participle “eaten”. The function of that participle, used with the auxiliary “to be”, is only to indicate the passive voice, in whatever tense the action of eating happens. Therefore in “The chicken is (being) eaten (at this moment)” the time of the action is present tense, indicated only by the present verb “is”. The participle does not indicate any time, its only function being to indicate the passiveness of the action. Equally, if the action happens in the past, the past is indicated by the auxiliary “was (being)”, not at all by the participle “eaten”, which indicates only the passiveness of the action, not at all the past. Its function therefore is still a passive participle. The phrase could not possibly have two verbs to indicate the past: it would then involve a past to a past, and called pluperfect. Or the auxiliary “was (being)” would only here not indicate a past tense. In all these three tenses of the passive action the function of the participle is the passive voice, and consequently this participle, looking like a past participle, must be called, after its sole function, a PASSIVE PARTICIPLE.

Although this passive participle has the same form as the past participle (which is used in combination with “to have”), it does not indicate any tense but only passiveness and therefore has to be called “passive participle”, which is its real function. As such it has, as a verb, to be used in combination with the auxiliary “to be”. The same applies to all other verbs. This means that in English we definitely have three participles: a PRESENT (OR CONTINUOUS) PARTICIPLE, used, as a verb, with the auxiliary “to be”, a PAST PARTICIPLE, forming with “to have” the Perfect Tense, and a (timeless) PASSIVE PARTICIPLE, used, with the auxiliary “to be”, to form the Passive Voice.

Marcel Leereveld, Melbourne, Australia.

P.S. 1. One cause of the European linguists not being aware of the separate existence of an English Passive Participle may be the odd construction of the Passive Voice from the Active Voice.

When we change a simple past tense, the Preterit, from the Active “We ate the chicken” to the simple past tense in the Passive “The chicken was eaten by us yesterday”, the tense of “ate” is in the Passive indicated by the word “was”, which means that the participle “eaten” is the word indicating the Passive, not the Tense.

When we change a Perfect Tense from the Active “We have eaten the chicken yesterday”, in which “eaten” indicates the Past Tense, to the same tense in the Passive “The chicken has been eaten by us yesterday”, the past tense of “eaten” is in the Passive indicated not by the past tense of “eaten”, as in the simple past, but by the Past Participle “been”, so that “eaten” in that Passive can not indicate the tense, Past, but only the Passive. As there is only one Past Tense in the Active, there must be only one Past Tense in the Passive, namely the Past Participle “been”, and “eaten” indicates only the Passive, as “been” can not be a Passive Participle since “been” is an intransitive verb.

P.S. 2. Most of the non-present English participles being used as adjectives are Passive and not Past Participles. In “The eaten chicken” the eating can happen in the past, the present, or in the future, depending on additions like “having been”, “being”, or “going to be”. The participle “eaten” does not indicate the tense, only the passiveness. The time of the action of the verb in the adjective,“to eat”, can only be ascertained from an additional source, e.g. “The now (being) eaten chicken was yesterday still alive” and “The to-morrow (going to be) eaten chicken is still alive to-day” and “To-morrow the yesterday (having been) eaten chicken will trouble me because of my allergy”. Also: “The yesterday (having been) eaten chicken is now not alive, neither is the now (being) eaten chicken, but the to-morrow (going to be) eaten chicken may to-day still be alive”. In all these cases the word “eaten” indicates only the passive voice, either because of the expressed or because of the understood “to be”, which last auxiliary verb gives the tense. Hence “eaten” is in the passive a tenseless Passive Participle, even as an adjective.

P.S. 3. If we consider infinitives and participles as parts of a tense and, while not giving them personally the name of the combination, still give them a special personal name, reflecting their function in the combination, we still have to give them the correct name, for the correct function. If the participle is a Past Participle, then that is the individual name. But if the participle does not function as a past participle, but as a passive participle in a passive combination, then we have to give it that name, Passive Participle. The two functions are quite different, and not co-existent, and cannot be covered by one name, even if they have the same form. E. g. in the phrase “The chicken will be eaten to-morrow evening”, not meaning that it will be eaten before to-morrow evening, Past Participle is a misnomer, even though it is part of a (future) tense. Looking at the problem from whichever angle, the word “eaten” in the Passive is a Passive Participle, in whatever tense, and needs the title “Passive Participle”, distinguishing it from the Past Participle in the combination “I have eaten” in the active voice.

P.S. 4. From whatever angle we approach the problem, nobody would dare to call the word “work” in “the work” a verb used as a noun, and nobody should dare to call the word “eaten” in “the chicken will be eaten to-morrow” a past participle used as a passive participle. The word “(the) work” is, because of its function, by nature a noun in its own right, and the word “(will be) eaten” is, because of its function, by nature a passive participle in its own right, whatever the origin of either “(the) work” or “(will be) eaten” in the past.

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