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January 2014
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Grammatically Speaking
by T. Leo Schmitt

If you have a question for Grammatically Speaking, please send it to We welcome all types of language questions.

How do I know when to use a present participle or past participle in a hyphenated adjective? Example: well-liked or well-liking? Native English speakers automatically know this from hearing the phrases from childhood. But how does an ELL know when to use which?

Sylvia Summers, IEP instructor

Dear Sylvia,

Thank you for this question. Many students seem to find this a vexing issue and I am happy to address it. It pains me on more than one level to hear students telling me things such as “I was very boring on the weekend.”

As you note, native speakers automatically know this from childhood. There are competing theories to explain first language acquisition and our grammar sense, but there is a pattern here. Nonnative speakers, on the other hand, may rely more on individual words and fail to grasp the grammatical patterns at play here, thus conflating words such as “bored” and “boring.” Adding in hyphenated or nonhyphenated adverbs complicates things further.

Traditional Grammatical Explanation
English verbs can take multiple forms such as eat, eats, eating, ate, eaten. Two of these can follow the verb “be”: the so-called “present participle” (or –ing form) as “He is boring me lately” and the past participle (or the –ed or third form of irregular verbs, e.g. drunk, seen, etc.) as in “474 things to do when you’re bored.” The latter is the passive construction. The difference between the present progressive (or present continuous) –ing form and the passive or –ed/irregular should be easy enough for students to grasp.

In many cases, the participle can be transposed to the front of the noun where it behaves much like an adjective, modifying the noun. Indeed, they are sometimes called participial adjectives. Thus we can have “boring student” from “the student was boring” and “bored student” from “the student was bored.” Because they are related to two very different constructions (the present progressive and the passive), their meanings are not surprisingly different. A bored student is one that receives the action (i.e., one that is bored by something or somebody). A boring student is one that performs the action (he/she bores somebody). Note that the –ing form can also be a gerund, which behaves very differently (e.g. “Now modern teachers are waking up to the fact that boring students is not a good idea.”)

Once we establish that the meanings of these –ing and –ed/irregular modifiers are different and understand that difference, we can then move on to the hyphenations that you mention. There are few definitive rules on the use of hyphens. Generally speaking, though, we do not use them with adverbs ending in –ly. Thus for the examples you give, there are fewer possibilities, such as “well-cooked broccoli,” “hard-fought battle,” or “fast-moving fire,” which use non –ly adverbs modifying participial adjectives. That does not stop us from using –ly together with participial adjectives in phrases such as “quickly forgotten,” “happily married,” or “quietly working”; they just do not take hyphens. The notes about collocations below apply equally to –ly adverbs.

In all of these cases, the learner should look at the participial adjective to see if the noun is receiving the action (someone is cooking the broccoli and someone is fighting the battle) or doing the action (the fire is moving). That should answer the question of using –ing or –ed.

Teaching Tips
This is certainly the kind of issue that is best spread out over several lessons, with increased depth and reinforcement each time it is broached.

I have found that “boring” and “interesting” are some of the first participial adjectives that students learn. Those can be great for clarifying the differences. At beginning levels, it may make sense to start off with “interesting” and leave “interested” to a later stage, where both can then be contrasted. For example, at intermediate and advanced levels, I emphasize that there are two different participial adjectives: “boring” and “bored.” We then examine what can be “boring” and what can be “bored.” It is often possible to elicit that only people (and sometimes animals) can be bored. I then ask students to consider why, and they should see that this is because only people can feel things, and thus receive the boredom. This emphasizes that the –ed is something received.

On the other hand, if you know teenagers, you know that anything can be boring (with the possible exception of grammar columns!). That is, anything can give the feeling of boredom. Once this is clear, we can extrapolate the idea to all participial adjectives. Those that end in –ing give or transmit the action or feeling, while those that end in –ed or third form irregular (eaten, shot, found) receive the action. We can then practice this through some simple cloze or “choose the right form” exercises, moving on to sentence generation when the students feel comfortable with the pattern. This helps students recognize the difference between –ing and –ed. There are a number of exceptions to this general rule, such as “vanished cities” or “well-read students,” where nobody vanishes the cities or reads the students. It is useful to explain that there are such exceptions to the general grammatical pattern.

The rule that –ly adverbs do not usually take a hyphen to join them to the following word is worth sharing.

Students can then review the subset of adverbs that do not end in -ly to see which ones they might effectively join with participial adverbs.

It is, however, very important to point out that it is not simply a matter of taking a non –ly adverb and tacking it onto a participial adjective. There are issues of collocation that students need to be aware of. For example, we do not usually “yawn hard,” so “hard-yawning” would not be mainstream usage. Even more complex is the fact that some adverbs may collocate with the verbs, but the adverbs might not also collocate with the participial adjective. For example, while we can do most verbs “well,” we rarely use it with the –ing participial adjective. Well-meaning is the most common, followed by well-paying, but there are only a few others. We would not, for instance, usually say “I saw well-playing Shaun Livingston,” even though we can easily say “Shaun Livingston is playing well.”

Even for the –ed form, there is not always a full corollary. If you make something well, it is “well-made”; but while you can see something well, “well-seen” has a different meaning. Other formations are much rarer than their verb-adverb cousins. Thus, “he started well” is a very common phrase, yet “well-started” is much less common. Teaching students how to differentiate common and uncommon phrases, such as through an online concordance, can help enormously in helping them produce text-appropriate language.

Language Notes
While most non –ly adverbs remain intact when joined by hyphen to participial adjectives, often does not. It is generally reduced to oft as in “oft-repeated.”

Last Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned.
  2. Space-age polymer technology and their unique design allow them to swing silently and with low friction to their closed position.

This was a very tricky one, and I apologize if you burned some brain cells on this. Both of these offer an apparent violation of the parallel form rule. Briefly, this rule says that if you join two or more ideas with a conjunction such as “and” or “or,” they should be the same part of speech or in the same grammatical form.

By and large seems to join an adjective and a preposition (though its origin goes some way to explain why these are joined). It is at this point a fixed phrase in the language.

The second example joins an adverb with a prepositional phrase. It would follow traditional grammatical rules better if it were rewritten as “…to swing in silence and with low friction.” Many writers are less exact with maintaining parallel form as rigorously as grammatical purists might like.

These examples serve to show that while the parallel form may be a very productive pattern, your students may come to you with questions about exceptions such as those above. 

This Month’s Brain Teaser
Look at the two sentences below. What traditional rule of grammar do they both appear to violate? How would you explain this to an English learner?

  1. Mary is loving her experience on The X Factor, but had trouble with Louis' choice of song for her this week, and has been forced to change her song at the last minute.
  2. For the last two years, my grandmother has been hearing this loud noise in her head almost continually.

The best correct answer will be published in the next column of Grammatically Speaking.
Please e-mail your responses to


When writing to Grammatically Speaking, please include your name and location (city and state, province, or country). If your question or response is selected for publication, your name and location will be printed unless you specify otherwise.

Examples cited in this column are authentic examples of language use and are not the
author’s creations.

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