Understanding the differences between verbs and verbals such as participles helps you write more clearly and effectively. Verbs indicate action to a reader, while participles look like verbs but are actually describing words, or adjectives. Participles usually end in -ing or -ed.

Differentiating Verbs and Present Participles

Verbs either illustrate an action, such as "walk" or "sing," or a state of being, such as "am," "is," "are," "was" and "were." Present participles generally end in -ing, appear without a helping verb before them and modify nouns, such as, "The smiling clowns wave to the children." Here, "smiling" functions as a participle, describing what kind of clown it was. The participle may appear before or after the noun and can be part of an entire phrase: "The clowns smiling from ear to ear wave to the children." In contrast, the verb reveals the action the subject performs. In this sentence, the clowns perform the action "wave." Words ending in -ing cannot be verbs unless they have a helping verb such as a linking verb before them. For instance, "The boy walking his dog" has no verb, but in the sentence "The boy was walking his dog," the phrase "was walking" is the verb.

Understanding Past Participles

Past tense verbs often add -ed to the end, as in the sentences, "She burned the candle" and this passive-voice use: "The candle was burned by her." Past participles also typically end in -ed but again function as adjectives, describing nouns rather than indicating action. For example, in "The burned candle flickered," the word "burned" describes what kind of candle and functions as a participle. The action the candle performed is "flickered," which is the verb. Past participles can appear in phrases, as well: "The candle burned last Halloween smelled like pumpkin." Here, the phrase "burned last Halloween" explains which candle performed the action "smelled."