In a sentence taken from the Oxford Dictionary:

‘The inscription on his tombstone in Groombridge Church, where he is buried alongside his three children, bears his original name and no reference to his nom de plume.’

Is ‘buried’ an adjective, a participial adjective, or a predicate nominative because it follows the copular verb is?

Predicate nominatives complete only linking verbs. The linking verbs include the following: the helping verbs is: am, are, was, were, be, being, and been; the sense verbs: look, taste, smell, feel, and sound; and verbs like become, seem, appear, grow, continue, stay, and turn.

Or is it a past participle because the clause is in the passive voice?

Does “he is buried” mean currently his body lies in a coffin covered with soil, or does it mean he has been buried by someone?

If we say ‘he was buried’ it clearly refers to an event that happened and ended sometime in the past. It might even suggest that the burial ground has since been changed.

  • 2
    If they meant "he has been buried by someone", they would have written "he was buried" rather than "is". So they do mean his body is currently lying there.
    – Mr Lister
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 9:30
  • @MrLister no worries, we are all here to learn! I have asked this question because when I told someone that I believed buried in "he is buried" was an adjective, I was informed that it is in the present simple passive voice. I see if I can dig it up (get it?!) somewhere.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 12:05
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    I think asking whether "the clause is in the passive voice" or not could be tricky/ambiguous. FWIW, this sentence is an example of what's called "concealed passives": The article needs checking. (Because a by-phrase is permissible, e.g., The article needs checking by the editor.) Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 16:26
  • I don't believe he buried himself, whichever label you stick on the word.
    – TimR
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 17:55
  • Yikes! I hope I didn't really inform you! I'll try to sound less authoritative, especially since I didn't think that comment through. "He is buried" is surely a copular sentence and buried is adjectival. That's what I get for trying to be creative with the old chestnut He died and was buried. The point, though, was that clauses, not sentences, have voice and "tense". Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:36

2 Answers 2


There is no ambiguity. In a present-tense narrative, it could be passive "He marries, he dies, he is buried" but in any other context, it is adjectival.

He is buried

is a copular sentence, where "buried", an adjective, is the complement of the copula "is". You can call it a participial adjective if you like, as it originates as a participle: I'm not sure what the value is in doing so.

Whether or not you call it a predicate nominative depends on what you mean by "nominative", which the writer of the page you linked to didn't specify. Again, I don't know what advantage there is in such a designation.

  • The question has its genesis in the sentence He died and was buried which is sometimes used to demonstrate that clauses, not sentences, have voice. I then expanded to He died, and is buried here in a failed attempt to make the same case for tense in a single sentence. I'll have to try He died, and is eaten by scavengers. (Or is that a flop, as well?) Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 20:30
  • @P.E.Dant: It doesn't work for me. "Is eaten" works only in a present-tense narrative.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:15
  • Well, can you come up with a memorable example that illustrates both points in a single sentence? How about "He died, and is attended by angels?" A present-tense narrative is exactly what I want here. Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:18
  • Yes, I think that one works, @P.E.Dant
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:26
  • It will please the ecclesiastics as well as the grammarians... Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:36

This "buried" is the so-called past participle.  The past participle is a non-finite verb form.  The other non-finite forms are the infinitive and the gerund.  "Non-finite" means something like unbounded.  There are two characteristics common to non-finite forms in English.  They are not bound to a subject.  They are not bound by time.  Another way to express the same idea is to say that they do not form predicates and they do not have tense. 

1) Is this "buried" an adjective? No, not really. It's a participle. It is derived from a base verb.


Past participles express some result of the verbs from which they are formed.  For action verbs like "to bury", they represent a state that results from the action.  If I bury a treasure, the result is a buried treasure.  If I bury a treasure in my back yard, the result is a treasure buried in my back yard

So, we start with the fact that participles can modify nouns in much the same way that adjectives can.  Even though "buried" is a verb and "happy" is an adjective, we can see the same grammatical relationships in "a buried treasure" and "a happy man". 

When a participle modifies a noun in the manner of an adjective, it seems reasonable to call it "an adjective participle" or "a participial adjective".  Those are nothing but shorthand for "a participle doing an adjective's job". 

2) Is this "buried" a participial adjective?  Sure, why not?


The argument of a copular (or linking) verb isn't called an object; it's called a complement.  Specifically, it's a subject (or subjective) complement.  There are two kinds of subject complements.  One kind is a different reference for the same referent, or a restatement of the subject.  We call that kind "nominative".  In the sentence "he is our teacher," "our teacher" is the predicate nominative subject complement.  The other kind of subject complement modifies the subject.  We call this kind "adjective".  In the sentence "he is happy", "happy" is the predicate adjective subject complement.

In the sentence "he is buried", we can see that "buried" still does the same job as an adjective like "happy".  We can call it a participial adjective serving as the predicate adjective subject complement. 

3) Is this "buried" a predicate nominative?  No, it's a predicate adjective. 


Even though the past participle "buried" doesn't take a subject, it is still a form of an action verb.  It implies an actor or agent. 

This is the basis of passive-voice constructions.  This is the reason that passive-voice constructions exist and make sense. 

The sentence "he is buried" implies at least one of the following: Someone or something buries him.  Someone or something buried him. Someone or something has buried him.  Since the participle "buried" has no tense, the grammar of "he is buried" cannot tell us the time of the act of burying. 

There is no conflict between interpreting "is buried" as the copula with a participial predicate adjective subject complement and interpreting it as the passive voice, present tense, indefinite aspect and indicative mode construction.  The latter interpretation makes sense because the former interpretation carries the same semantics.  Those two interpretations result in the same meaning. 

4) Is the clause in the passive voice?  Yep. 


5) Does “he is buried” mean currently his body lies in a coffin covered with soil, or does it mean he has been buried by someone?

This "or" doesn't make sense to me.  If he is buried, if his present-tense state is the result of the action of burying, then some actor or agent for the action of burying is implied.  From the grammar alone, I can't tell whether the indefinite aspect represents a habitual state (i.e. he is usually buried because someone/thing often buries him) or merely a current state (e.g. he is now buried because someone/thing buried him earlier).  The mechanisms for knowing which of these possibilities makes sense in a given context is called pragmatics


If we say "he was buried", that clearly references a state that existed in the past, and it can suggest that the state has ended or changed.  Obviously, it doesn't require that the state has changed.  A sentence like "He was buried there yesterday, so I assume he's still there" makes as much sense as "He was buried there, and I have no idea where he is now." 

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    I disagree strongly with part of this. Except for the rather unusual use as present tense narrative, "He is buried ..." is not in the passive: the only verb is the copula, and "buried" is an adjective, not a verb (I don't deny that it is derived from a verb).
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 21:59
  • The disagreement is more than welcome if it can be clarified. I don't see anything unusual about present tense narratives since casual conversation is littered with 'em. I do see the same semantics in both "his wife buried him" and "he was buried by his wife". I don't recall having ever seen a passive-voice construction that cannot also be construed as a copular structure with a participial phrase serving as the predicate adjectival. I would find any counter-example or contraindicative test to be delightfully illuminating. Commented Oct 25, 2016 at 22:58

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