What Is a Participle?

One would think that sentences which are fairly simple in idea are also fairly simple in grammatical construction. One would think—and be surprised how often that is just not the case. Take this straightforward statement, for example: The speaker’s opening remarks were compelling. We understand the idea readily enough: someone began to speak and what he had to say caught and kept our attention. But if we look at how that meaning is built into the original sentence, we’ll find ourselves in grammatical bramble by the third word.

The word opening, like the last word compelling, is called a participle, and if there’s one department of grammar that causes particular trouble for many, this is it. A participle participates, which means it shares characteristics of both an adjective and a verb. We can see clearly enough that the word opening is related to the verb open, but in our example, it is not being used as a verb; the speaker did not open anything, and yet the idea of beginning or initiating or disclosing is present in the sentence. Likewise with the participle compelling. We are correct to assume that this word is related to the verb compel, but did the speaker’s remarks actually compel someone in the audience to do something? Not according to the grammar of this sentence, at least.

Participles, then, are defined as verbal adjectives, that is, they are adjectives constructed from verbs. Why? Because the world is, to our mind at least, a very complicated place. When we describe something, we are attempting to name qualities, or characteristics, that we see as part of the things we are describing. We could speak of polite remarks or foolish remarks, and both those adjectives would point to static features that make up the noun they refer to. There’s something called politeness and something called foolishness, and when a fragment of either sticks to something called a remark, we get a polite or foolish remark. Or many of them.

But to our mind’s eye, politeness or foolishness are what they are, always and forever. They don’t do anything; they just sit invisibly as qualities, or abstractions, somewhere in some metaphysical world, attaching themselves to a noun when called upon as the adjectives polite and foolish. Grammarians call such words adherent adjectives because that’s what they do: they adhere, or stick, themselves onto a noun and make the noun more specific to the scene in which it is appearing. Adjectives name the species of a genus, and so they answer to the question what kind of? What kind of remarks are you referring to? Polite remarks, or foolish remarks.

Very different, though, is the participle. Since a participle is built from a verb, the quality it is attaching to a noun is related to something the noun is doing, not to what it is by nature. To speak of opening remarks is to refer to remarks which opened a speech. And to say that those opening remarks were compelling is to mean that they had the power to compel—the power, or potential, to compel, not that they in fact compelled anyone to do anything. Participles, as adjectives, carry a verbal force which other adjectives do not, and we well need them, and need to use them well, in order to write fittingly about our perceptions.

Participles, along with infinitives and gerunds, comprise a grammatical category called verbals. All three are a challenge, but that just means that the way our mind perceives the world (or at least the way it perceives the world through a certain kind of language) is a complex affair. But then again, is the world we are perceiving complex, or are we making it complex by the way we perceive it in language? You tell me.


Leave a comment

Join the Discussion