-ED/-ING Participles of Emotional Response Verbs


By Margaret C. Brophy, M.S.Ed.
Department of English
National Technical Institute for the Deaf
Rochester Institute of Technology

When a student writes "I am frustrating with that class," we recognize it as an error, but the error is not one that makes the writing unintelligible. The message comes through, albeit awkwardly. When the error is merely an annoyance, is it worth the time and effort to correct it? This author believes it is.

There is value in teaching a relatively minor concept such as the correct use of the -ed and -ing participles. The value lies in the broader understanding of English sentence grammar that comes as a result of really "getting" the -ed/-ing principles. Knowing about the different roles of verb and participle structures enables students to better understand the workings of English sentences. Perhaps students will experience greater control over the syntax and express ideas more clearly. The students' knowledge of these structures brings them up one more rung on the ladder toward mastery of English.

Description of the Problem

Frequently, we see errors in student writing such as the following:

I am interesting in that.
I am boring with that class.

We may suggest corrections:

I am interested in that.
I am bored with that class.

The student may look puzzled and reply, "How can it be -ed when am is present tense and -ed is for past tense?" A sophisticated student may even say, "My high school teacher taught me that -ing is the 'present participle'. I was writing in the present tense. Why do you want me to mix past and present tense?"

For the teacher of a subject other than English, the question may appear apt, and the answer elusive. Why do we use -ed with a present tense verb? Why is "I am boring" incorrect? Native users of English know that "I am boring" communicates a completely different message from "I am bored." But what is the explanation? First, let's review some basic information to establish a context.

Grammatical Summary

In order to help students understand the distinction between -ed and -ing participles and use them properly, it is first necessary to review some basic facts about verbs, types of verbs, and the functions of verbs. It is a specific type of verb, an "emotional response verb," that is relevant to the issue of -ed and -ing participles.

What is a Verb?

A verb is a word or phrase (group of words) that is a major sentence element. The verb expresses a state or an action and provides essential information within a sentence. Without a verb, a group of words is not a complete thought. For example:

*George a doctor.

(The * indicates that the sentence is not a grammatical sentence of English.) Is George a doctor? Did George go to a doctor? What happened? What is this string of words trying to say about George and the doctor? Because there is no verb, this string of words is not a complete thought in English; therefore, it is not a grammatical sentence.

There are several types of verbs, which provide different kinds of information within sentences:

Action Verbs

An action verb, for example, walk, play, dance, work, indicates that someone or something does something:

George plays tennis twice a week.
We work ten hours a day.

Stative Verbs

A stative verb, for example, live, think, stand, love, shows the state of being of the subject of the sentence:

Frank lives in New York.
The sales clerk stood behind the counter.

Linking Verbs

A linking verb, for example, appear, look, seem, sound, feel, describes the appearance of the subject noun phrase in a sentence:

Denise sounds cheerful.
John looks tired.

Emotional Response Verbs

An emotional response verb indicates that someone feels something; something happened to cause an emotional response. Sentences with emotional response verbs have a SOURCE, a noun phrase that serves as the "stimulus" of the emotional response. And they have an EXPERIENCER, a noun phrase that "receives" or experiences the emotion. Consider the following sentence:

The amount of the tax rebate surprised me.

In this sentence, the emotional response verb is surprised; the SOURCE noun phrase is the amount of the tax rebate; and the EXPERIENCER is me.

Functions of Verbs

The function of a verb in any sentence is twofold:

1. To tell the action/state of being/appearance or emotional response of the sentence elements

2. To give the time (tense) of the action, state of being, appearance or emotional response.

In other words, the verb tells the action, etc., of the subject noun phrase and when the action, etc., occurred.

The English language has a wide menu of verb tenses to describe the happenings or states of being of the noun phrases in a sentence. What follows is a very brief overview of verb tenses, formation, and use.

Simple Tenses

An English verb formation can consist of one word, as in the "simple present" and "simple past" tenses. In the first sentence below, the present tense eats expresses a fact that is a habitual action. In the second sentence, the past tense shocked expresses an event that occurred as some point in the past.

I eat turnips.
The news shocked the nation.

The "simple future tense" is really the combination of the helping (modal) verb will along with the plain (base) form of the main verb:

Sara will receive her diploma next May.

Progressive Verb Tenses

The progressive verb tenses are composed of an -ing form of the main verb following a helping (auxiliary) verb, specifically a form of the verb be. These formations describe an event in process. The first sentence expresses a present event in process. The second sentence expresses an event that was in process in the past.

Joanne is making a quilt.
Sally was working as a receptionist until she moved.

Perfect Verb Tenses

The "perfect verb tenses" are composed of a form of the auxiliary verb have followed by the -ed or -en form of the main verb. The "present perfect" can express an event that started in the past and still continues into the present:

Bob has worked at NTID for twenty years.

The "past perfect" can be used in a sentence when two past events are compared. In the next sentence, both events are in the past, but the past perfect had danced signals that this event occurred prior to Twyla's becoming a manicurist:

Twyla had danced with the ballet for many years before she became a manicurist.

Students frequently exhibit confusion in distinguishing between a word that is serving as a true verb in a sentence and a word that looks like and is based on a verb, but which has a different function. Confusion in understanding this distinction causes students to write erroneous sentences such as "I am frustrating."


Participles are derived from verbs and have the form VERB-ing or VERB-ed (sometimes VERB-en, etc.), and they serve either of two functions. Paired with an auxiliary verb, the verb formation containing a participle expresses an action or state, as explained previously:

Sally has played tennis for 15 years.
He has been a regular member of the team for a long time.
David is making a cake for the party tonight.

As a single word, the participle acts as an ADJECTIVE to add information to a noun phrase. In the following sentence, the participle smiling describes the subject noun phrase the man. The main verb of the sentence, received, is not a participle.

The smiling man received his lottery check.

In the next sentence, the participle frustrated functions as an ADJECTIVE to describe the mental state of the subject noun phrase citizens. The main verb in the sentence is protest.

Every year frustrated citizens protest for simpler tax code.

-ING Participles

The -ing participle standing alone cannot serve as the complete, independent verb of a sentence because it does not indicate tense, as in:

*Gerry working at home.

In this example, working is not a complete verb because we do not know the time (tense) of the action. It could be past, present or future:

Gerry was working at home until he found a new job.
Gerry is working at home and loves it.
Gerry will be working at home until he retires.

Time (tense) is indicated by the helping verb. The -ing participle alone cannot be the complete verb because it does not indicate the time of the action.

Some teachers refer to the -ing participle as the "present participle," but you can see from the examples above that the term is misleading.

-ED Participles

The -ed participle is identical in form to the simple -ed past tense form of regular verbs. In the following sentence, worked serves as a complete verb in the simple past tense and is not a participle.

Gerry worked at home for two years.

In this sentence, worked expresses both the action and the time of the action (simple past). It meets both conditions required to be the main verb. However, the fact that the -ed past tense and the -ed participle are identical in form is a major source of confusion for students.

An "emotional response verb" is a verb that expresses an action or a state of an emotional or psychological nature. With an emotional response verb, generally someone feels something. Examples of emotional response verbs are the following:

amuse, annoy, baffle, bewilder, bore, confuse, depress, disappoint, excite, frighten, frustrate, interest, motivate, overwhelm, please, puzzle, shock, surprise

A feature of these verbs is that the emotion has a SOURCE, or stimulus, and it has a EXPERIENCER, or receiver, who feels the emotional response. The SOURCE can be a person, thing, or event; the EXPERIENCER is usually a person, although animals, too, can exhibit responses that we might label emotional (S. Polowe, NTID curriculum materials, 1983).

Here is an example of a sentence containing the emotional response verb thrilled:

The water slide thrilled the children.

Emotional response verb = thrilled
Source = the water slide
Experiencer = the children

When the subject of the sentence and the SOURCE of the emotional response are the same, as in the above example, the sentence is in the "active voice" (the verb thrilled is active). When the subject of the sentence is the same as the EXPERIENCER of the emotion, as in the next example, the sentence is in the "passive voice" (the verb were thrilled is passive).

The children were thrilled by the water slide.

Emotional response verb = were thrilled
Source = the water slide
Experiencer = the children

For further details on the active/passive distinction, see the SEA Site module on Passive Voice.

As already noted, in conjunction with the auxiliary verbs be and have, the -ing and -ed forms of a verb serve to create a variety of verb tense formations. Used alone, however, the -ing and -ed forms can serve as ADJECTIVES. In this capacity, they add information to noun phrases in the sentence and are called "participles." To avoid the confusion and misunderstanding that occurs with the use of the terms "present participle" and "past participle," the terms "-ing participle" and "-ed participle" are used in this module.

Distinguishing -ed and -ing Participles

The participles of emotional response verbs serve a very special function--to distinguish between the SOURCE of the emotion and the EXPERIENCER of the emotion. This concept is key to clearing the confusion between pairs such as boring/bored and interesting/interested.

  • The -ed participle always relates to the EXPERIENCER of the emotion or mental state.

A frightened dog might wake its owner in the middle of the night.
(dog = EXPERIENCER of the fright)

  • The -ing participle always relates to the SOURCE of the emotion or mental state.

The frightening storm lasted two hours.
(storm = SOURCE of the fright)

In these examples the -ed/-ing participles function as adjectives, adding information to the nouns dog and storm, respectively, and indicating whether the noun is the EXPERIENCER of the feeling/emotional response or the SOURCE of it.

As you can see from the examples, the -ed/-ing participles are NOT functioning as verbs in the sentences; other words are available to serve that need. In the first example above, the verb is might wake. In the second example, the verb is lasted.

Tense and Participles

Importantly, -ed/-ing participles are independent of the time (tense) of a sentence. In the following sentences, motivated and surprising have no connection to the time expressed by the verbs seem/seemed and will share/have shared.

The students seem motivated to learn English.
The students seemed motivated to learn English.

The scientists will share their surprising results.
The scientists have shared their surprising results.

One way to distinguish in a sentence whether a participle is describing the EXPERIENCER of the emotion or describing the SOURCE of it is to express the relationships in a simple "concept sentence." We can create a concept sentence for any -ed or -ing participle.

A concept sentence is a simple, one-clause sentence, written in active voice, in simple present tense. The verb in a concept sentence shows the action or emotion. Using subject-verb-object (SVO) order, the concept sentence illustrates the relationship that exists between SOURCE and EXPERIENCER (Bordman, Byrd, & Schlein, 1977).

For example, given the phrase "the frightened dog," we could generate a concept sentence:

Something (S, SOURCE) frightens (V) the dog (O, EXPERIENCER)

Something is frightening to the dog. (SOURCE/-ing)
The dog is frightened. (EXPERIENCER/-ed)

Given "depressing news":
Concept sentence: The news (SOURCE) depresses people (EXPERIENCER).
Alternative Expression: People are depressed about the news.

Given "a confusing report":
Concept sentence: The report (SOURCE) confuses the reader (EXPERIENCER).
Alternative Expression: The readers are confused.

Given "a frustrated citizen":
Concept Sentence: The new law (SOURCE) frustrates the citizen (EXPERIENCER).
Alternative Expression: The new law is frustrating.

Action Steps

1. When students make errors such as "I am confusing by that homework," realize that they may believe, wrongly, that the VERB-ing must always be used with the present tense of the verb to be (am, is, are) as it is in "present continuous tense" formations such as am studying, is walking, are playing.

2. Explain to the student that many -ed/-ing forms can have an ADJECTIVE function separate from their use as parts of a verb phrase.

3. Show the student how the -ed/-ing participles, operating as adjectives, are independent of the tense of a verb. In the sentences below, the participles motivated and surprising describe "the students" and "the results of the experiment" in the same way that regular adjectives like "happy" or "important" could. Independently, the verbs are, were, and will be express the time relations within the sentences.

The students are motivated to learn English.
The students were motivated to learn English.
The students will be motivated to learn English.

The results of the experiment are surprising.
The results of the experiment were surprising.
The results of the experiment will be surprising.

4. Explain to the student that there is a category of verbs related to "emotional response" and that the -ed/-ing participles of those verbs communicate the SOURCE and EXPERIENCER of the emotion. The participle referring to the noun phrase that is the SOURCE of the feeling has the -ing ending. The participle referring to the noun phrase that is the EXPERIENCER of the feeling has the -ed ending.

5. Use "concept sentences" and questions as a strategy to help students analyze the relationships between the emotional response verb and the SOURCE/EXPERIENCER noun phrases. For example, given the phrase "the confusing homework," help students develop a concept sentence such as the following:

The homework confuses you.

Ask questions to help students see what the source of the confusion is and who is experiencing the confusion:

What is the source or cause of the confusion? (the homework)
Who experiences the confusion? (you)

As another example, given the phrase "the frightened boy," help students develop a concept sentence such as the following:

Something frightens the boy.

Ask questions to help students see what the source of the fright is and who is experiencing the fright:

What is the source or cause of the fright?
Who experiences the fright?

Working through these concept sentences and related questions will enable students to see the relevant relationships in sentences containing -ed and -ing participles. Seeing the relationships and interpreting the sources and experiencers will ultimately lead students to the correct use of these forms and to the proper understanding of sentences containing them.