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Confusion Between Verbs and Other Forms

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.