A Word, Please: Understanding past participles is key to grammar

August 26, 2013|By June Casagrande | By June Casagrande

A lot of adults gave up on grammar long ago. They didn't learn as much as they would have liked in school. Now there's too much too learn.

Amid a sea of gibberish about sentence-ending prepositions, dangling participles and split infinitives, it's impossible to even know where to begin, right?

Not exactly.

Lifelong grammar learning is about priorities — getting the most out of the time you invest. And in my experience, no grammar lesson gives you a better bang for your buck than a crash course in past participles. Invest just a few minutes learning about past participles and you never again need wonder about things like:


"He has drank" versus "He has drunk."

"I have swam" versus "I have swum."

"We had got" versus "We had gotten."

"He had laid down" versus "He had lain down."

"She has dreamed" versus "She has dreamt."

If you don't know about past participles, it seems a lifetime isn't enough to learn the answers to countless grammar conundrums like these. But in fact, to tackle these issues with 100% confidence, you only need to know two things: what a past participle is and how to spot one in a dictionary.

Put simply, the past participle is the form of the verb that works with "have" to put something in the past. For example, "I walk" is present tense. "I walked" is simple past tense. But "I have walked" and "I had walked" combine a form of "have" with the past participle "walked" to convey time and duration.

The grammar terms (present perfect and past perfect) and the why don't matter. All you need to know is that the verb form that works with "have" and its cousins is the past participle.

Past participles can be regular or irregular. Regular past participles are identical to the simple past tense forms. Yesterday I walked. In the past I have walked. Last week, he worked hard. In recent weeks, he has worked hard. Yesterday she baked a cake. In the past, she has baked many cakes.

Notice how these simple past tenses and past participles are formed just by adding "ed" or "d" to the base.

Irregular past participles are any that don't follow that formula: thought, been, sung, taken, given, swum, brought. The list goes on. Some irregular verbs use the same form for the simple past tense as they do for the past participle. Yesterday he thought. In the past he has thought. But some don't. Yesterday he sang. In the past he has sung.

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