Thursday, April 05, 2007

Today's English lesson

From the American Heritage Book of English Usage:


uses of participles. A participle is a verb form that can be used as an adjective and is used with an auxiliary verb to form tenses and, in the case of the past participle, the passive voice. The present participle ends in -ing (going, running). The past participle for many verbs ends in -ed (created, walked); other past participles have a different form, and often a different vowel, from their base form (made from make, ridden from ride, swum from swim). The present participle is used with be to indicate continuing action or state (I am going. They were laughing. We have been talking). The past participle is used with have to form past tenses (We have climbed. She had ridden. They have sung) and with be to form the passive voice (The floor is being scrubbed. The ball was kicked. The car has been driven.).

dangling participles. Participial phrases are used chiefly to modify nouns, as in
Sitting at his desk, he read the letter carefully.
where the sitting phrase modifies he. It is important to remember that readers will ordinarily associate a participle with the noun or noun phrase that is adjacent to it. Thus readers will consider a sentence such as
Turning the corner, the view was quite different.
to be an error, for the view did not do the turning. A sentence like this needlessly distracts the reader and would be better recast as
When we turned the corner, the view was quite different.
Turning the corner, we had a different view.

participles and absolute constructions
Be careful not to confuse a participial phrase that modifies a noun with an absolute construction that employs a participle. The difference is between sentences such as
Taking down the poster, he went inside.
The poster having been taken down, he went inside.
Absolute constructions can dangle where they please since by their “absolute” nature they do not modify a specific element in the rest of the sentence.

participles as prepositions. A number of expressions originally derived from participles have become prepositions, and you can use these to introduce phrases that are not associated with the immediately adjacent noun phrase. Such expressions include concerning, considering, failing, granting, judging by, and speaking of. Thus you can say without fear of criticism
Speaking of politics, the elections have been postponed.
Considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all.

participles as adjectives. Many participles can also function as adjectives: an interesting experience, an interested customer; the surprising results, the surprised researchers. But it is often hard to tell when a participle is an adjective, especially with past participles. Linguists have a number of tests for confirming an adjective. Here are four of them:
  1. Can the word be used attributively (i.e., before the noun it modifies), as in an intriguing offer.
  2. Can it be used in the predicate, especially after the verb seem, as in She thought the party boring and He seems concerned about you.
  3. Can it be compared, as in We are even more encouraged now and The results are most encouraging.
  4. Can it be modified by very, as in They are very worried about this.
Some adjectives pass more of these tests than others and are thus more purely adjectival. Disastrous, for instance, passes tests 1, 2, and 3, but not 4. When used as adjectives, most participles pass all four tests, but modification by very is tricky.

You can tell that a past participle is really part of a passive verb—and not an adjective—when it is followed by a by prepositional phrase that has a personal agent as its object. Thus, the participle married would be part of the verb in the sentence
Chuck and Wendy were married by a bishop.
but used as an adjective in the sentence
Chuck and Wendy were happily married for about six months.
To confirm the adjectival status of a participle, try transforming the sentence to see if the participle can come before the noun:
For about six months Chuck and Wendy were a happily married couple.

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