linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
1 Emergency! The prisoners are escaping.
2 News Flash! Three of the escaping prisoners have been captured in a hijacked car.
3 The captured prisoners are being brought back to school immediately.
Notice the words escaping and captured. They’re each used in two ways. In the first example, escaping is used as a verb; in the second, it’s used as an adjective. Then in the second example, escaping is used as a verb, whereas in the third example it’s used as an adjective. How can this be? How can a word be used in two ways like that?
Well, why not? Lots of languages allow this to happen, and there’s a special name for the result: a participle. The term comes from Latin, meaning ‘to share’. A participle is a word which shares some of the characteristics of a verb and some of an adjective.
English has two participles. One ends in -ing, and is usually called the -ing participle. In older grammar books, you’ll find it called the present participle, but this is rather misleading. The form isn’t restricted to present time, but can be used for past and future as well:
I am watching. I was watching. I’ll be watching.
The other doesn’t have a single kind of ending, but as the usual ending is -ed, it’s generally called the -ed participle. In older grammar books, you’ll find it called the past participle - but this, too, is a misleading name, as -ed participles are by no means restricted to past time.
The car is parked. The car was parked. The car will be parked.
My watch is broken. My watch was broken. My watch will be broken.
By the way, watch out for the use of the -ing participle as a noun:
Smoking is not allowed on the London Underground.
And when participles begin to get boring, stir some life into them by finding ambiguous sentences based on the differences in the way they’re used:
I like shooting stars (I watch them in the night sky).
I like shooting stars (I keep a camera especially for the purpose).

Cartoon 76
Beware the ambiguity that can appear if you put participles in the wrong place. Lying all rusty in the garage, Aunt Maude managed to sell her old bike. Poor Aunt Maude. They should have looked after her better. Brought her in at nights. But of course, it’s the bike that’s rusty, isn’t it? To avoid the ambiguity, the clause beginning with the participle should have gone at the end of the sentence, next to the word bike.
There’s always a risk of ambiguity when you separate a participle from the word it should go with. Separated constructions of this kind are called by various names, but the most popular way of talking is to say that the participle has been left ‘dangling’. It’s a dangling participle. Of course, there wasn’t any real risk of misunderstanding in the Aunt Maude sentence, because we know that people don’t go rusty. But there are other cases where you wouldn’t know what was going on. Try this one. Staggering drunkenly along the road, Colonel Jones met the vicar. Who’s drunk?
So be careful, especially when you’re writing, that you don’t make your sentence ambiguous, or cause a laugh when you didn’t mean to.
Related notions: adjective, ambiguous, verb

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