What Are Verbal Nouns (Participles)? Definition and Examples

By Carly Forsaith, updated on August 17, 2023

Would you like to learn more about participle verbal nouns? Then you've come to the right place! This article will teach you everything you need to know about participles and how to use them in your writing.

In short, participles are words that look like verbs but are used for one of three purposes:

  • to form continuous and perfect tenses
  • as adjectives
  • to create the passive voice

This guide is part of our free online Grammar Book.

What Are Participle Verbal Nouns?

Participles are part of the grammatical category called verbal nouns. Three kinds of verbal nouns exist: gerunds, infinitives, and participles. They're all words derived from verbs, so they look like verbs but have different functions.

Every verb can be turned into a participle, of which there are two kinds:

  • present participle
  • past participle

Let's take a look at each of these in turn.

Present Participle Verbal Nouns

The present participle is used to form past, present, and future continuous tenses or an adjective describing something currently happening. It's created by taking the root form of a verb and adding -ing to the end.

Here are a few examples:

cook → cooking

listen → listening

wash → washing

Well, that's for regular verbs, anyways. There are exceptions, of course.

Here they are:

For verbs that end with -e, remove the -e, then add –ing.
Bite → biting

For verbs ending with -ie, change the –ie, to –y, then add –ing.
Die → dying

For verbs ending with –c, add a -k and then –ing.
Mimic → mimicking

For verbs ending in consonant + vowel + consonant, double the consonant, then add –ing.
Forget → forgetting 

That last one only applies to words where the second syllable is stressed. So the term 'cancel' would only take one 'l' in 'canceling' if you're writing in American English because it's the first syllable that's stressed. Brits stress the second syllable, however, so if you're writing for a British audience, you will spell it 'cancelling.'

Present Participle Tenses

The present participle can be used to form the following tenses:

  • Past continuous
  • Past perfect continuous
  • Present continuous
  • Present perfect continuous
  • Future continuous
  • Future perfect continuous

And it goes like this:

[auxiliary verb] + [present participle]

The auxiliary verb is usually the verb 'be' or 'have.'

Past Tenses

Let's start with the past progressive tense, which is used to talk about events that went on for a while in the past, but that are over now.

To create this tense, use the following formula:

[was/were] + [present participle]

They were looking at exotic fish at the aquarium.

I was just talking to mom on the phone.

My brother was working at the cafe when the earthquake happened.

  • You can also form the past perfect progressive to talk about an event that was happening continuously in the past before another event in the past.

Use the following formula to make a sentence in this tense:

[had been] + [present participle]

It had been raining for hours when we left the house.

She had been working there for years and then one day, out of nowhere, she resigned.

They'd been swimming right before the storm started.

Present Tenses

You can create the present progressive tense with a present participle. Use the present continuous to talk about an event that is taking place in the current moment or, confusingly, an event that will take place in the future.

To form this tense, you must use the formula:

[am/is/are] + [present participle]

I am cooking dinner.

She is tie-dyeing her dress.

We are arriving at eight tonight.

  • As for the present perfect continuous, we use it to talk about an event that started in the past and continues into the present moment.

It's created using the formula:

[have/has] + [been] + [present participle]

He has been working here three years.

They have been waiting outside for us.

You've been a good friend of mine for such a long time. 

Future Tenses

  • Another tense you can form using the present participle is the future continuous. This one's helpful to talk about something that will be happening continuously or over some time at a point in the future.

You can create it using this formula:

[will be] + [present participle]

This time next week we will be on vacation in Hawaii.

My niece will be six years old when I see her next.

I will be waiting for you outside the station. 

  • And finally, you can form the future perfect continuous to describe an event that will be in the process of happening when another event occurs, with both events being in the future.

Here's the formula:

[will have been] + [present participle]

We will have been friends 10 years next month.

They'll have been going out together for three years by the time they move into their new home.

At 3 pm, Sally will have been waiting for an hour.

As you can see, what all these tenses have in common is that they're formed using an auxiliary form—adapted to the subject's pronoun and the relevant tense—and the present participle form of a verb.

Present Participle Adjectives

As I mentioned earlier, present participles are used not only to form tenses but can also function as adjectives. You use them in a sentence next to a noun they modify, just like any other adjective. But what present participles provide that adjectives don't always do is they play a bit more of an active role, and they show progression because of their origins as verbs.

Take the following sentence, for example:

We stared at the sparkling stars for four hours.

Here, the participle 'sparkling' is used as an adjective to modify the noun 'stars.' It describes an ongoing quality of sparkle, suggesting that the stars continued to sparkle for the four hours they were watching them. You could use another adjective that's not a participle, such as the word 'bright,' which is a perfectly good adjective but has more of a stative quality than an active one. Both choices are valid; you just have to pick the one that best expresses what you're trying to convey.

Here are some more examples, with the participle adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in bold:

She was proud of her blossoming rose garden.

Of course he won the spelling competition

This medication is fast-acting

Past Participle Verbal Nouns

The past participle creates past, present, and future perfect tenses and adjectives that describe something already completed. It's most often formed by taking the root form of the verb and adding -ed, as such:

jump → jumped

talk → talked

look → looked

That's for regular verbs, but there are exceptions, just like with present principles (and everything else in English grammar).

For verbs ending in -c, add a –k, then –ed.
Mimic → mimicked

If the verb ends consonant + -y, change the -y to an -i and add -ed:
bully → bullied

The above rule doesn't apply if the final consonant is -w, -x, or -y. Just add -ed.
borrow → borrowed
box → boxed
sway → swayed

If the verb ends -e, just add -d:
bake → baked 

If the last syllable of a verb is stressed and ends [consonant-vowel-consonant], double the last consonant, then add -ed:
blur → blurred

That last one only applies to words where the second syllable is stressed. So the term 'cancel,' for instance, would only take one 'l' in 'canceled' if you're writing in American English because it's the first syllable that's stressed. Brits stress the second syllable, however, so if you're writing for a British audience, you would spell it 'cancelled.'

Past Participle Tenses

The past participle can be used to form the following tenses:

  • Past perfect
  • Present perfect
  • Future perfect

And it goes like this:

[auxiliary verb] + [past participle]

As you can see, there's a little overlap here; the present participle is also used to form continuous tenses. So you'll see those pop up in some of the following sections.

Past Perfect

  • Let's start with the past perfect tense, which is used to talk about an event that happened in the past before another event in the past.

To create this tense, use the following formula:

[had] + [past participle]

Susan had laid out her clothes for the next day before going to bed.

We had talked about how this might happen.

I couldn't call you because my phone had ran out of battery.

Present Perfect

  • The present perfect tense is used to talk about events that started in the past and often continue into the present.

To create this tense, use the following formula:

[have/has] + [been] + [past participle]

I'm tired; I have been working all day.

You can tell she loves her new school because she's been talkng about it all week.

We have been developing this new app for three months.

Future Perfect

  • Use the future perfect tense to talk about an event that will have been completed once another future event occurs.

To create this tense, use the following formula:

[will] + [have] + [past participle]

I will have read the entire book by the end of the day.

We will have finished by the time you arrive.

They'll have completed the game by 3pm if they carry on this way. 

Past Participle Adjectives

  • Past participles, just like present participles, can be used as adjectives. They can modify a noun or an entire phrase and are particularly useful for describing a feeling or the state of something.

Here are some more examples, with the participle adjective underlined and the noun it modifies in bold:

She is a spoiled child.

Do you have a red-colored pen?

He has a broken leg.

Forming the Passive Voice

So far, you can see that the present and past participles, though constructed differently, serve similar purposes. They can both form tenses and be used as adjectives. But the past participle has an additional use that the present participle does not have: to create the passive voice.

  • In a passive sentence, the subject is not actively acting as the verb. As a general rule, it's best to use active voice when possible. It's the preferred form if you want to sound credible and you want your sentences to be straight-to-the-point.

However, there are times when the passive voice is more appropriate, such as:

  • when you want to emphasize the action rather than the doer;
  • when the doer is unknown;
  • when writing about a general truth;
  • when trying to remain vague.

The simple formula to build a sentence in the passive voice is as follows:

[correct form of the verb 'be'] + [past participle]

Let's see some examples of what that might look like:

I can't believe my phone was stolen again.

The July event was the most widely attended of the year.

I was very touched by the gesture.

Perfect Participle

You might hear about a third kind of participle called the perfect participle, so I wanted to mention it here in this article. Opinions vary as to whether or not it counts as a third type of participle since it's actually formed using a present participle and a past participle, so technically it's a blend of both.

  • Whether you consider it a third type of participle or not, one thing's for sure; it's that it's a commonly used way to form a sentence, so it's worth learning about.

It consists of the present participle form of the verb 'have,' which is 'having,' followed by the past participle of the verb of your choice. So it's pretty specific that way.

Here's the formula:

[having] + [past participle]

Here are some examples of sentences that use a perfect participle:

Having just seen him at the mall, I can tell you with certainty that he is not stuck in bed with the flu.

Having had my fair share of encounters with spiders, I'm no longer afraid of them. 

Having arrived early at the station, we had time to grab a coffee.

As these examples demonstrate, the perfect participle is a way of showing a cause and an effect. It indicates an action or event has just finished and what the consequence is. It's like a formal synonym of the conjunction 'since.'

Since she had finished her homework she was allowed to go out and play.

Having finished her homework, she was allowed to go out and play.

Participle Phrases

Participle phrases—also known as participial phrases—contain a participle and are used to modify another phrase or clause. There are two types of participial phrases: present participial phrases and past participial phrases.

  • As you might have guessed, a present participial phrase is used to give information about something that is happening at the same time as the phrase it modifies.

Here is an example:

Flying through turbulence, the plane started shaking.

The present participial phrase 'flying through turbulence' tells us why the plane is shaking. You could remove the phrase, and the sentence would still make sense, even though we'd be missing some helpful information. This is an example of a non-essential participial phrase, and you can tell because it's offset from the rest of the sentence with a comma

  • There are also essential participial phrases; these can't be removed from the sentence and aren't offset with commas.

Here's an example of an essential present participial phrase:

I'll be the one wearing the black jumper.

If you were to remove the participial phrase "wearing the black jumper," you'd just have "I'll be the one," which doesn't make much sense.

Let's take a look now at a past participial phrase that is considered non-essential:

Startled by my presence, my mum let out a shriek.

Again, removing the phrase would remove some helpful information but wouldn't render the sentence meaningless. Notice again how commas offset it.

Now here's an example of an essential past participial phrase:

The bread my nan baked is the tastiest one.

Dangling Participles

You'll want to look out for dangling participles when using participial phrases. That's when the participial phrase is incorrectly placed, causing confusion around what it's modifying.

  • Whichever noun your participle modifies must be placed directly after the participial phrase. If it isn't, it's called a dangling participle.

Here's an example of a dangling participle:

Walking up the mountain, many trees were in sight.

Because "many trees" comes right after the participial phrase 'walking up the mountain,' it sounds like the trees were walking up the mountain.

A better way to say this would be:

Walking up the mountain, we saw many trees.

Here, the subject "we" comes right after the participial phrase, telling the reader that it was "we" who walked up the mountain, not "the trees."

Let's have a look at some more examples of dangling modifiers:

Starving after a long morning, my lunch was a welcome distraction. 
Starving after a long morning, I enjoyed my lunch as a welcome distraction. ✅

Crowned champions, the season was a success.
Crowned champions, we celebrated a successful season.

Looking up into the sky, the sun shone brightly.
Looking up into the sky, I was blinded by the sun.

Other Types of Verbal Nouns

In this article, we've learned about one type of verbals: participles. We also have articles on the two other types—infinitives and gerunds—but I thought I'd cover the basics on them right here. That way, you can see how they differ from participles, even though they serve the same function: to operate as nouns.

What Are Infinitives?

  • The infinitive form of a verb is its base form, preceded by the word 'to.'It can actually function as other parts of speech, as well as nouns (adjectives and adverbs) and other parts of a sentence (subject, direct object, subject complement).

Here are some examples of infinitives functioning as verbal nouns:

To dwell on the past is to waste your life. 

I really need this to work

He has tried to tell her how he feels but she won't listen.

What Are Gerunds?

  • Gerunds look like the present participle form of a verb, but they function as nouns. You can use the guidelines stated in the present participle section in order to form them.

Here are some examples:

Painting is my favorite way to de-stress.

People-watching is as great a pastime as any.

I think apologizing to him is a great idea.

Although gerunds may look like a verb, when making a sentence with a gerund, you should treat it as a noun in terms of your grammar choices, this means you can modify them with adjectives or replace them with pronouns.

Case in point:

Watercolor painting is my favorite way to de-stress. It's a very calming activity.

Concluding Thoughts on Participle Verbal Nouns

That concludes this article on the type of verbal noun called participles. I hope you found them to be helpful and that you feel well-equipped to use them in your writing.

Let's summarize what we've learned:

  • Participles are words that look like verbs but have different functions.
  • You can use them to build tenses or as adjectives.
  • Past participles also allow you to form a passive voice.
  • Perfect participles are considered by many to be a third type of participle.
  • You can use participles to create participial phrases, but watch out for dangling participles!
  • The other two types of verbals are infinitives and gerunds.

If you enjoyed this article, then you should check out our Grammar Book. It's an online database full of articles similar to this one, where we break down both simple and complex grammar concepts into easy-to-read, easy-to-understand articles. And it's totally free!

We encourage you to share this article on Twitter and Facebook. Just click those two links - you'll see why.

It's important to share the news to spread the truth. Most people won't.

Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for WritingTips.org. Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

Add new comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

WritingTips.org Newsletter
Receive information on
new articles posted, important topics, and tips.
Join Now
We won't send you spam. Unsubscribe at any time.