“I Boring in this Class!” How to Teach Participial Adjectives

By Denise Kray
January 14, 2016

Picture yourself teaching a typical English language class when a student says, “teacher, I’m boring in this class!” You realize this could end in several ways; however, you choose the option of selective hearing and decide to forge on hoping the student doesn’t say it again more loudly. Despite the obvious mistake, if you teach English grammar, you get the picture.

Unfortunately, participial adjectives are serious grammatical road bumps for ESL/EFL students – even after studying the rules (and possibly the endless exceptions) more than once! So, what are participial adjectives? What’s the problem with getting them right? How can teachers help?

What are participles?

Let’s back up for a second. What are participles? Participles are words that are derived from a verb but are used in different ways. A verb + ing is usually referred to as the present participle. Forms like cut, broken, gone are referred to as irregular past participles and forms like wanted, walked, lived, are referred to as regular past participles.

Participles can be used in sentences:

1. with the auxiliary verbs be and have to make progressive and perfect verb forms.

  1. It was raining.
  2. I have talked to her 10 times!
  3. She had gone to bed before I arrived.

2. to make the passive voice progressive and perfect verb forms.

  1. The home was built in 1906.
  2. The food will be eaten by the dog.
  3. the house is being cleaned.

3. as adverbs.

  1. The dog ran barking out of the house.

4. as clause-like structures.

  1. The woman talking to Tom is my mother (reduced from who is talking to Tom – adjective clause > adjective phrase).
  2. The boy injured in the accident is in critical condition (reduced from who was injured – adjective clause > adjective phrase).
  3. There are 10 cars parked outside (-ing and –ed phrases often follow there + to be).

5. as adjectives.

  1. Jane’s job is boring.
  2. Jane is bored (with her job).
  3. He has a broken heart.
  4. The house looked abandoned.
  5. The falling leaves are so colorful!

Participles as Adjectives

Ok, let’s focus on adjectives now. Adjectives are words that describe or modify nouns. When you use a present or past participle as an adjective, it is called a ‘participial adjective’ (PA). We often talk about feelings in three different ways, either by using a verb (e.g. annoy) or by using the –ed or –ing adjective (e.g. annoyed, annoying). In general, PA’s can be used in the same way as other adjectives of quality. Adjectives can come before the noun or after linking verbs (stative) like ‘be, seem, appear, become and get.’ (Of course there are exceptions!)

We can say ‘the big map,’ ‘the colorful map,’ or ‘the confusing map.’

Or, ‘the map seems big,’ ‘the map is colorful,’ ‘the map appears confusing.’

We can say ‘the nice person,’ ‘the tall person,’ or ‘the confused person.’

Or, ‘the person appears nice,’ ‘the person is tall,’ or ‘the person seems confused.’

The difference is that PA’s are derived from verbs so you could also use the verb to show the situation.

– The map confuses Tom.

  1. The map is confusing.
  2. Tom is confused (by the map).
  3. Tom hates the confusing map.

We often choose to use the adjective forms instead of the verb forms in our speech for the following verbs (group A):

Bore, tire, interest, amuse, frighten, satisfy, depress, disgust, disappoint, surprise, shock, exhaust, annoy, terrify, embarrass, excite, amaze, fascinate, frustrate, thrill, engage, irritate, worry.

So what’s the problem?

There are several reasons students get PA’s mixed up!

  1. They often don’t recognize the –ing and –ed form as a verb or an adjective in the sentence because the structures are formed the same way.
    1. Progressive verb: I am talking. = to be + verb(ing)
    2. Adjective: The map is confusing. = to be + verb(ing)

2. They often don’t recognize (remember) the difference between the active and passive meaning of the participles.

  1. a. The present participial adjective (-ing form) has an active meaning. The noun it describes does/performs the action: The map confuses Tom, so the map is confusing/the confusing map. The map causes the confusion for Tom.

i.      We don’t say: The map is confused.

  1. b. The past participial adjective (-ed, -en form) has a passive meaning. The noun it describes feels/receives the action: The map confuses Tom, so Tom is confused (by the map). Tom feels the ‘confusion.’

i.      We don’t say: Tom is confusing. He is not causing the confusion.

3. They often don’t recognize the difference between passive voice verbs and past participial adjectives (passive meaning) because they are formed the same way.

  1. a. To form the passive voice verb form, you use to be + past participle.

i.      The food was eaten by the dog.

  1. b. To form the passive PA, you use to be + past participle.

i.      I was confused.

4. They often don’t know all of the exceptions. Here are a few of the most common ‘problems’:

  1. Before a noun or not? In most cases (as in the verbs mentioned above in group A), the adjective can come before the noun.
  2. However, not all participles can be used as adjectives before nouns. You can say ‘a lost dog’, but not ‘a found dog’, or ‘a baked potato’, but not a ‘baking potato’.
  3. A few ‘feeling’ verbs have an –ed adjective, but not the –ing form.

i.      I was delighted to meet her. She was a delightful person. Not, ‘delighting.’

ii.      I was scared. The movie was scary. Not, ‘scaring.’

iii.      We were impressed. Your resume was impressive. Not, ‘impressing.’

iv.      I’m stressed. My job is stressful. Not, ‘stressing.’

v.      I was offended. What you said was offensive. Not, ‘offending.’

5. With most passive forms, we use the preposition ‘by’ to show the noun that does the action. However, there are other prepositions used with past participles as adjectives.

i.      I was confused by the map.

ii.      I am frightened of dying.

iii.      He is excited about his new job.

iv.      She is annoyed with Bob.

v.      Jill was surprised at your attitude.

How can a teacher help?

Here are a few quick tips:

1. Always teach grammar in context! Context should naturally generate language. Give a little story, then ask for the correct form.

Here’s an example: Tom always gets lost. He only has one map in his car that he always uses. He can’t read the map correctly because the map is difficult to understand. He never gets anywhere on time and he always has to call his friends for directions! Ask: Is this a good map? Is it helpful? Does the map confuse Tom? How does Tom feel when he tries to read/use the map? How do you describe the map?

2. Do lots of oral drills/practice. Give an example: People reading over your shoulder in a public place. Then, give students a structure to work with on the board. ‘I feel/get annoyed when people read over my shoulder in a public place. It’s so annoying!’

3. Have students discuss situations in pairs: something in the news that shocked you, a movie you recently saw, the kind of weather that depresses you, an embarrassing mistake, etc.

4. Go around the room ‘finishing sentences.’ For example, S1 says to S2: If a story amazes you, how would you describe the story? Then, S2 gives a similar question with a different verb to S3, etc.

5. Give sentences with incorrect usage and have student correct the mistakes.

Would you like to read more on the subject? Here are a couple of additional online grammar references:

And here are some online interactive activities:

If you found this article interesting, check out our other posts on teaching English grammar.