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I've researched about this and can't find any clear rules. I want to know the Rules or Guides on how to distinguish whether to use past participle or present participle in Compound Adjectives?

Examples

Noun + Past Participle vs. Noun + Present Participle:

  1. This is a sun-powered machine. / This is a sun-powering machine.

  2. America is an English-spoken country. / America is an English-speaking country.

  3. Phelps did a record-broken swim. / Phelps did a recording-breaking swim.

Adjective + Past Participle vs. Adjective + Present Participle:

  1. This is a new-invented phone. / This is a new-inventing phone.

  2. That is a strong-kicked animal. / That is a strong-kicking animal.

  3. That is an old-fashioned statement. / That is an old-fashioning statement.

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    Can please provide the source? I mean where did u find these sentences? – EngFan Jan 10 '17 at 4:08
  • Half of these sentences are wrong... you can't make a "sun powering machine" and "English-spoken country" and "record-broken swim" aren't idiomatic in any way I can think of. What are you trying to ask? – Catija Jan 10 '17 at 4:46
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    Of course "sun-powering machine" and "record-broken swim" are wrong. the correct sentences are "sun-powered machine and "record-breaking swim". That's my point if I want to create my own compound adjectives how would I know if I need to use past participle or present participle? – Seato Jan 10 '17 at 5:25
  • This is a very good question, although the incongruities in your examples obviously cause confusion about what you are asking. Let me edit to see if I can clear this up without changing your meaning. – Andrew Jan 10 '17 at 5:38
  • I'm not sure there are any rules. These might be idioms each formed in a unique way. For example, neither new-invented nor new-inventing are natural English -- it should be newly-invented. But hopefully someone can give more insight. – Andrew Jan 10 '17 at 5:45
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There exists a distinction between agent and patient. The so-called present participle tends to modify agents. The so-called past participle tends to modify patients.

In "a sun-powering machine", "sun-powering" modifies "machine". In this case, the machine is the agent. In the active voice, the machine powers* (one or more) suns.

In "a sun-powered machine", "sun-powered" also modifies "machine". In this case, the machine is the patient. In the active voice, the sun powers the machine. In the passive voice, the machine is powered by the sun.

You can see that the passive voice construction uses the so-called past participle. The usual subject of a passive voice construction is a patient, and the agent (if mentioned at all) is supplied by a prepositional phrase.

Sun-powering machines do not exist in reality, although they might exist in science fiction and fantasy. Sun-powered machines do exist, although they are more commonly called solar-powered machines in my dialect.

In a similar manner, a country that speaks English makes sense, so "an English-speaking country" makes sense. I have no idea what it would mean for English to speak country (or for a country to be spoken by English) so I can make no sense of "an English-spoken country".

Record-breaking or not, "Phelps did a swim" does not sound natural to my ear. Still, the swim breaks the record, so "a record-breaking swim" is perfectly sensible.

"Old-fashioned" is a word in its own right. It is not an example of some general adjective + participle pattern in the language. I find "a newly invented phone" and "a strongly kicking animal" to make more sense. Even here, the present participle modifies its agent, and the past participle modifies its patient -- the animal kicks, but someone else invented the phone.

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* Please note, the so-called present participle has nothing to do with the present tense. The sun-powering machine might be a machine that does power the sun, or did power the sun, or will power the sun. Likewise, the past participle has nothing to do with the past tense. The sun-powered machine is exactly that whether it was powered by the sun, or is powered by the sun, or will be powered by the sun.

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  • Although I suspect there are still numerous exceptions, this seems like a pretty logical explanation to start with. – Andrew Jan 10 '17 at 17:08
  • Thank you Gary for giving your time. My examples are not that important. I just gave them to give readers a perspective to my question. I just wanted to know in General if there are any grammatical explanations on why we tend to use past participle instead of present participle in certain situations when we are making compound adjectives. Most of the time,I would naturally say the correct compound adjectives when making observations but I just couldn't explain the grammar behind it. You've mentioned a good point regarding agent-patient relation, I'll start with that and do further reading – Seato Jan 10 '17 at 17:50
  • why we tend to use past participle instead of present participle (vice versa) in certain situations when we are making compound adjectives – Seato Jan 10 '17 at 17:59
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I might be wrong, cause I am still in learning process and don't consider myself as an expertise of English language; however, these sentences make me feel unnatural. In English you need to identify adjectives and noun phrases. For instance, you can say spoken English, which indicates passive voice "to speak". For example: English is spoken in America and this is the spoken language of Americans. In your second sentence, America is an English-speaking country, speaking modifies speak to use as a noun, so English-speaking is used as a noun here. "This is a sun-powered machine" also indicates a passive voice; means the machine is powered by the sun. Phelps did a record-broken swim is not correct; as I know. record-breaking shows a compound noun here to break a record. record-broken might be used to show a single event that is no longer is going on. I hope it might helps.

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  • Of course "sun-powering machine" , "record-broken swim" and English-spoken country"are wrong. The correct sentences are "sun-powered machine, "record-breaking swim" and English-speaking country. That's my point if I want to create my own compound adjectives how would I know if I need to use past participle or present participle? Are there any guidelines in creating compound adjectives that use past participle and present participle? – Seato Jan 10 '17 at 5:29

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