Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

The Perversity of Past Participles

Zero derivation—that is, the ability of a word to perform different grammatical functions without a change in form—is a celebrated feature of English. We have, for example, a word like green (many other color words work the same way) that can be noun, adjective, or verb without a change in form, because in English it is usually syntax, not morphology (word form) that tells us what job a word is doing in a sentence. A sideshow of zero derivation is the fact that English has no barrier to using a principal verb form—the past participle—as an adjective. English in fact gets great mileage out of the regular infinitive + ed form; it is used in perfect tenses (if the verb is regular), passive constructions, simple past constructions, and as an adjective. What's not to love, you may think, about the simplicity of using a single form to do so many jobs? It surely relieves the memory by not requiring us to store multiple transformation or suffixation rules, so long as we plop our word down in the right place in a sentence.

I have no argument with this fantastic and flexible feature of English, only with the license it gives speakers and writers to use it in a weaselly way. Because of the range of functions that past participles participate in, it's a doddle in English to indicate that something has happened without cluing up the reader or listener about who was responsible for it. Past participle forms pack in a wallop of information: most of them are eventive—that is, they suggest or indicate that a thing has happened or that a thing was done, but they do not identify the doer—they give us a done deal, a fait accompli (to use a past participle from another language) with no indication of who did it.

Of course it's often convenient or sensible to omit the doer, especially in cases where there's no clear agent (mixed emotions), or where the cause is unremarkable or not pertinent (bottled water, informed consent, celebrated feature). No one objects to:

Purple mountain majesties above the fruited plain

or to:

I found a dimpled spider, fat and white,
On a white heal-all, holding up a moth

Indeed, English would seem crippled without this facility to efficiently identify states or characteristics resulting from a past process, act, or event. Elected officials and retired teachers alike would be frustrated writers if they were forbidden to use participles as adjectives. But when the language consumer has a legitimate interest in knowing how something came to be and by whose will or whim, it can be disappointing when a past participle, deposited as an adjective, leaves no trace. Perhaps it doesn't matter so much with burnt toast or spilled milk. Does arranged marriage take some of the heat off of the arrangers when things go terribly wrong, since they are not named? Doesn't botched surgery suggest that someone should stand up and take responsibility?

A critic of one of the most natural and productive features of English must walk a fine line to avoid being labeled "martinet" or "language cop," but I do think that some past participle ploys are a bit perverse and I hope that shining a spotlight on them might alert readers to situations where they are being gently hoodwinked. For example: I find it mildly objectionable that an online magazine uses a subheading "branded content" to characterize a story that is in fact an advertisement. Branded by whom? Branded like cattle are branded? The participle suggests that the story in question had been subjected to some kind of improving or specializing process, when in fact it's just trying to influence your thinking or buying behavior. A different online outlet labels such items as promoted stories. Promoted to what end? And by whom? This tendency has reached its most irritating point in the suggested posts that now clutter my newsfeed on Facebook. By whom are they suggested? Or is it being suggested that I give this post wider circulation, and thereby clutter the newsfeeds of my friends with it?

A usage that is currently rampant is the vague employment of the participle rigged. Type it into Google News's search window: what you get back are accusations of rigged elections, outcomes, balloting, democracy. Donald Trump says "It's time to change a rigged political system that works only for the insiders and to replace it with a government that serves the people." In all of these contexts it is rarely spelled out in detail who the riggers are; the participle simply plants the idea that rigging has already happened. It seems to be intended to worry us about great forces working inimically to our interests. The more we hear rigged used in this rather vague way, without supporting evidence, the more we are inclined to become cynical and untrusting, and perhaps angry, without being able to identify a clear cause.

We encounter some participial adjectives so frequently that they have become bleached and we no longer question what agency might be involved, even though it would sometimes improve our perspective to do so. What are featured articles and who is featuring them? Is preferred stock preferred by everyone, or only by the people who own it? Who actually organizes organized crime? A privileged position is one that carries obvious privileges, often to the detriment of those who don't enjoy them, but how often is the privileger identified? It is helpful to know about endangered species, but it would be even more helpful to know who or what endangers them. By what marks are marked contrasts to be known? Who vests vested interests? We blithely accept the limitations of limited (editions, warranties, resources, liability) without questioning whether such limits are willfully imposed or whether that should matter to us.

Is there a remedy for beleaguered readers and listeners who would like to know more about how things came to be the way they are? There is probably not, given the handy facility of English to mold itself to the user's intent, but it is wise to be alert to the use of participial adjectives when they fail to tell the whole story and to question who might benefit from this want of information. It is equally desirable for writers to pay attention to their use of participial adjectives and be aware of a tendency to shortchange their readers.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 1st 2016, 6:36 AM
Comment by: James B.
Great article - I just want to point out that one of your examples is not valid. That is: "Is preferred stock preferred by everyone, or only by the people who own it?" Preferred stock is a specific class of stock that a company can issue along with common stock. This is a term that has long been in use and is not meant to be misleading.
Thursday September 1st 2016, 6:49 AM
Comment by: Cheryl H.
This article raised some really important points! Thank you for paying attention to language use and sharing your thoughtful analysis. Love it!
Thursday September 1st 2016, 9:50 AM
Comment by: Allan P. (Halifax Canada)
Loved it!
Thursday September 1st 2016, 10:08 AM
Comment by: Gena W.
Although I enjoyed every bit of this thoughtful column, I want to especially praise the use of the word "bleached" in the sentence about cleansing of the agent from the action taken. So well done! Also, I vehemently second the dangers of saying something is "rigged" without talking about who rigs it. We know that language helps form how we think--and we should not promote in our public conversations the simultaneous disaffection and helplessness that thinking about a "rigged" system evokes.
Thursday September 1st 2016, 10:20 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Bravo, Orin! I learned so much that was new to me. Clear, elegant, compelling prose makes learning a joy.
Thursday September 1st 2016, 10:31 AM
Comment by: Jan S. (Brookline, MA)
This is not the thrust of your fine article, but it's worth observing that in much colloquial speech the past participle, when it differs in form from the regular past tense, is being replaced by the past-tense form: "He'd swam six miles"; "I've already gave him some"; "I didn't know you'd went." As far as I know, the only instance in which this shift has come into the standard language is the word "bespoke" in the sense of pre-ordered. The OED cites a 1606 usage with the original form of the word: "A lodging bespoken for newgate." But a scant two centuries later we read, "A new set of chains was bespoke." Now we flaunt our bespoke suits. Who bespoke them?
Friday September 2nd 2016, 8:46 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Thanks to all for comments.

James B: "preferred stock" is completely valid as an example in my view because it uses a past participle without any indication of provenance. The fact that it as a known technical meaning is beside the point--it's technical meaning is of no help to someone who doesn't know it.

Jan S: I have also noticed this simplification of some irregular verbs; it's common in a lot of colloquial American speech. Perhaps some of them will eventually be accepted as standard, but I think we're a long way from that now!
Friday September 2nd 2016, 10:24 AM
Comment by: Bill (Hinesburg, VT)
I have the same problem wity "passed," as in my father "passed" last week. Passed what: gas, his orals, another car, out?

Death shall have no dominion, unless we euphemize it.

Bill Schubart
Friday September 23rd 2016, 7:42 AM
Comment by: Peter E.
Great article and comments that provoke thought. I respect the fact you gave return comments. That speaks volumes to your ability to listen back.
Monday October 3rd 2016, 11:15 PM
Comment by: Rajesh S. (Indore India)
Dear Orin,

I regularly follow the writings of The Indian Press and Indian journalists and they seem to revel in conveniently "omit the doer, especially in cases where there's no clear agent" or agents.

The use of past participles in the media seems to lend itself to the pervasive idea of conspiratorial, hidden forces at work through 'the invisible hand' without mentioning who the 'doers' leading to the readers becoming "cynical and untrusting, and perhaps angry, without being able to identify a clear cause."

The 'system' always seems to be at fault without actually identifying the perpetrators of the system.

I was struck by your example of 'rigged' used without any clarifying who the 'riggers' are. Nobody ever seems to ask the question.

Thank you Orin for a brilliant piece of writing. You gave me an insight into how the media seriously impacts the thinking of a whole generation.

Rajesh Santhanam
Bangalore, India

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