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Grammar School: Past Participles

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by Meredy Amyx

Meredy is a recent retiree from a thirty-year career as an editor, the last decade of it in technical documentation at Cisco Systems. She currently freelances (http://meredyamyx.com) part time and is still in love with grammar.


Introduction

 

Imagine overhearing an elevator conversation that goes like this:

Joe:

You should have went to the department luncheon.

Lyn:

Sorry I missed it — I would have liked to have been there.

Joe:

For special entertainment, the managers sung a quartet.

Lyn:

I wish I would have seen that.

Luckily these two are not in a documentation group, or we would have to worry about their writing skills because every single sentence contains a glaring error, and every error involves a verb.

In particular, they all involve the verb form we call the past participle, which is the key component of the verb tenses known as the present perfect and the past perfect.

The Versatile Past Participle

 

Last time we talked about past participles in their capacity as adjectives, often resulting in the infamous dangling participle. This time we are concerned with their primary use as parts of verbs.

The past participle is the part of the verb that we combine with have, has, or had to express a completed past action or state that we call perfect. If we find this verb form troublesome, it’s probably because we’re not sure

  • what it really means,
  • how to construct it syntactically, and
  • what to plug into the space where the past participle belongs.

What It’s Good For

 

The perfect tenses (present perfect and past perfect) are for actions or states that are past and completed in relation to your point of reference in time.

The present perfect tense of the verb expresses things that are all over in relation to present time:

I have written four manuals in the past year.

The past perfect expresses an action or state that precedes some other more recent past time. If you’re talking about something that happened at a particular past time, the past perfect happened before that; for instance, you’re describing an event that occurred yesterday:

We met with all the project managers for the current release.

and you want to mention something that happened earlier:

We had prepared a PowerPoint status report to show them at the meeting.

To create the present perfect or past perfect tense, you must have a past participle. Written is the past participle of write, and prepared is the past participle of prepare.

The Past Participle Never Travels Solo

 

When you're constructing a verb using a past participle, the main thing to know is that it’s never used by itself. It always has another part of a verb with it — a part that we call an auxiliary or “helping verb,” usually have, has, or had.

Whenever we have a syntactic construction that is any version of

<subject> {have | has | had} <verb form>

(even if it is inverted as for a question or interrupted by an adverb or a negative), what goes in the place of <verb form> is the past participle.

If the verb you’re using is a regular verb, the simple past and the past participle are no problem because they follow the same easy formula. But watch out for the irregular verbs.

Some Principal Parts Are Nonconformists

 

The past participles of regular verbs are effortlessly predictable. We add -d or -ed, the same as for the simple past:

Present

Simple
Past

Past
Participle

Example

walk

walked

walked

I have walked a mile every day this week.

train

trained

trained

She has never trained a new assistant.

move

moved

moved

The boxes had been moved into storage.

It’s those eccentric irregular verbs that keep us on our toes. We just have to master them one by one:

Present

Simple
Past

Past
Participle

Example

see

saw

seen

Have you seen the training video?

give

gave

given

We have been given a reasonable deadline.

go

went

gone

He had gone to work before the sun rose.

These three forms are called the principal parts. Lists of the principal parts of irregular verbs can be found in many places. The excellent OWL site has a list of common ones; a much longer list is at Englishpage.com.

So What’s Wrong with the Examples?

 

should have went: Incorrect past participle. The past participle of go is gone. “Should have went” is not correct, has never been correct, and never will be correct. Went is the simple past.

I would have liked to have been there: Wrong time relationship. What this says is that at some past time I then wished that I had been there at an earlier time. It says that yesterday I wished to have been there before yesterday. This is not what I mean. I mean that today I wish I had been there yesterday — or that yesterday I was wishing I were there at that very time.

the managers sung: Incorrect verb. Sung is the past participle, and you can’t use it without the auxiliary. This is the simple past and should say sang.

I wish I would have seen that: Wrong time relationship. Would have is a complex form of a conditional construction called the subjunctive that expresses the future from a past point of view. Its present-tense counterpart is will have. There is no future aspect to this statement; to express this idea now, we would not say “I will have seen,” so neither should we say “I would have seen” then. It’s a simple past subjunctive with had.

Now listen to these folks on the elevator:

Sue:

You should have gone to the department luncheon.

Ben:

Sorry I missed it — I would like to have been there.

(Or — I would have liked to be there. The difference is whether you wish now, after the fact, that the past were different, or you wished it then, at the time that you were missing the event.)

Sue:

For special entertainment, the managers sang a quartet.

Ben:

I wish I had seen that.

Hurray — perfect English. No wonder: they’re getting off at the documentation department’s floor.

Copyright © 2011 Meredy Amyx.

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