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The Exciting World of Participial Adjectives

Everyday Grammar: The Exciting World of Participial Adjectives
The Exciting World of Participial Adjectives
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The English language has a lot of adjectives. Some estimates put the number at several thousand. And while those numbers may sound frightening, adjectives can be exciting!

In English, many adjectives come from verbs. In today’s program, we will tell you about participial adjectives – adjectives that we make from verbs.

To understand these adjectives, we must first get to know participles.

What is a participle?

Don’t worry: Participles are simpler than they sound. A participle is a word that is made from a verb and usually ends in -ING or -ED. For example, the verb “to surprise” can be made into the words “surprising” and “surprised.”

Participles can act as one of three parts of speech:

1) a verb tense when used with the verb “to be”

2) a gerund

3) an adjective.

Today, we turn our attention to adjectives.

Participial adjectives are used just like normal adjectives. In other words, they can appear before a noun, such as in the words “surprising results.” Or, they can appear after linking verbs, such as in the sentence, “The results were surprising.”

Past or present?

There are two types of participles: the present participle, which ends in –ING, and the past participle, which ends in -ED.

Adjectives with -ED endings tell us how people feel about something or someone. It is less common for words with the –ED ending to describe non-living things, situations or ideas.

And, adjectives with -ING endings often describe a quality of a person, thing or idea. They describe the thing that causes a feeling or emotion.

Let’s look at two examples of the verb “to shock” as a participial adjective and compare their meanings:

I was shocked by the president’s words.
The president’s words were shocking.

In the first sentence, “shocked,” tells us how the speaker felt. In the second, “shocking” describes the thing that caused the speaker’s feelings – the president’s words.

In other words, the shocking words made the person feel shocked.

Common mistakes

English learners sometimes have trouble choosing between the endings. This is especially true for certain adjectives, such as bored / boring, interested / interesting and confused / confusing.

There are two common mistakes that happen when learners choose the wrong ending:

  1. The person incorrectly uses -ED to talk about the thing that caused the feelings in someone.


  1. The person uses the wrong ending to express their intended meaning about someone.

Listen to an example of the first problem:

I don’t like Professor Holt. His writing class is so bored!

In this example, the person incorrectly used the -ED ending to describe the thing that caused boredom: the writing class. Here is the correct way to say that:

I don’t like Professor Holt. His writing class is so boring!

Or, if they wanted to express their feelings about the class, they could say this:

I don’t like Professor Holt. I’m always bored in his writing class.

Sadly, we can’t do anything to make Professor Holt’s class more fun.

Let’s look at an example of the second common mistake: using the wrong ending to express an intended meaning about a person. And, let’s continue with Professor Holt. Listen:

Professor Holt is so bored! I always fall asleep in his class.

Remember that the -ED ending is used to describe the feelings of someone. So, this example means that the professor feels bored. But, we know that this wasn’t the speaker’s intended meaning. Here’s the intended meaning:

Professor Holt is so boring! I always fall asleep in his class.

This example expresses a quality about Professor Holt, which is that he is a boring person.

Here is a tip from the British Council on how to know which ending to use: Remember that people can be boring but only if they make other people feel bored. The same tip applies to other participial adjectives.

Adjective vs. verb

Another common difficulty is mistaking participial adjectives with continuous verb tenses or with passive voice verbs.

First, let’s talk about continuous verb tenses. These are formed with the verb “to be” + the present participle. So, participial adjectives ending in -ING can look like a verb tense.

Listen to two examples with the word “annoying” and guess which one uses a continuous verb tense and which uses a participial adjective.

The baby’s cries are annoying the tired travelers.
The baby’s cries are annoying and the travelers are tired.

If you guessed correctly, you are within the top percentile of English speakers. That’s right -- even native English speakers have difficulty telling the difference.

The first sentence uses the present continuous verb tense. But in the second sentence, “annoying” is a participial adjective. It describes the baby’s cries, which is the thing causing the speaker’s annoyed feelings. The word “are” in the second sentence is simply a linking verb.

English speakers also sometimes cannot recognize the difference between passive voice verbs and participial adjectives. Both are formed by the verb “to be” + the past participle.

Listen to these two examples and test yourself:

The child was amazed by the clown.

The child was amazed.

Tell us which sentence you think has a passive voice verb and which has a participial adjective with a linking verb.

Well, we hope you feel as inspired by the exciting world of participial adjectives as we do.

That’s our program for today.

I’m Alice Bryant.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.



Choose the correct participial adjective (-ED or -ING) for each sentence. Write your answers in the Comments section.

1. I went to Thailand last month. It was excited/exciting!

2. She is interesting/interested in joining a sports team.

3. He was really tiring/tired when he left work last night.

4. I don’t understand the homework. This class is confused/confusing!

5. I am embarrassed/embarrassing by my child’s behavior.


Words in This Story

linking verbn. a verb which connects a subject to its predicate without expressing an action; linking verbs are used to re-identify or describe their subjects

intendedadj. in your mind as a purpose or goal

tipn. a piece of advice or useful information

guessv. to form an opinion or give an answer about something when you do not know much or anything about it

Your opinion

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