Participles can be used both as verbs and adjectives. But I get confused sometimes and struggle to understand the role the participles play in a given sentence, like this one:

The man, who was robbed, went to the King and pleaded for help.

Is robbed an adjective or a verb in this context?


3 Answers 3


Robbed in your sentence is a verb. In the clause who was robbed, "was robbed" is the main verb, and it's in the passive voice.

Sometimes it can be difficult to see whether a past participle is used as an adjective (adjectival) or as a verb (verbal). When participles are used as adjectives, they are called Participial Adjectives,

Adjectives with -ed or -ing endings are known as PARTICIPIAL ADJECTIVES, because they have the same endings as verb participles (he was training for the Olympics, he had trained for the Olympics). In some cases there is a verb which corresponds to these adjectives (to annoy, to computerize, to excite, etc), while in others there is no corresponding verb (*to renown, *to self-centre, *to talent). Like other adjectives, participial adjectives can usually be modified by very, extremely, or less (very determined, extremely self-centred, less frightening, etc). They can also take more and most to form comparatives and superlatives (annoying, more annoying, most annoying).

Most participial adjectives can be used both attributively and predicatively:

That's an irritating noise. This is an exciting film. (attributive)
That noise is irritating. This film is exciting. (predicative)

When participial adjectives are used predicatively, it can be difficult to distinguish between adjective and verbal uses. Here are my own guidelines:

  • Participle adjectives are about a quality or attribute of the noun it modifies. This explains that why many of them refer to mental states and feelings. For example, She is bored, The noise is annoying, I was surprised, The window is broken. When they are used as verbal, they will be about the action. For example, The noise is annoying me, The window was broken by him.

  • If the agent, e.g. by-agent phrase, is clear, then the past participle is used as verbal. Compare:

    I was delighted to meet you again. I was disappointed to hear your decision. (adjectival)
    I was delighted by his compliments. I was disappointed by your decision. (verbal)

  • Another simple test is to test its 'very' acceptability, i.e. to see if we can add 'very' or not. If it makes sense, it's an adjective, if it doesn't, it's a verb. For example, She was very upset and She was very bored make sense, but He was very robbed doesn't. Also note that though this test works in most cases, there are some exceptions (see Swan's Practical English Usage, entry 410.4),

    I was very amused / much amused / very much amused by Miranda's performance.

  • Also some participial adjectives are not commonly used with very:

    That's Alice, unless I'm (very) much mistaken. (NOT ... unless I'm very mistaken.)
    He's well known in the art world. (NOT ... very known ...)

  • @PeterShor I suggested to use the test when it is used predicatively only, and I also noted that there are exceptions. Jan 20, 2014 at 19:50
  • 2
    Sometimes you can distinguish clearly between a verb form and an adjective form. Sometimes there is no clear evidence one way or the other, so the distinction becomes unhelpful.
    – user230
    Jan 21, 2014 at 1:34
  • This is really useful. I've been a teacher of English for many years, and trying to explain the differences to students is tricky and can lead to you getting tied up in knots. The tip of using "very" is excellent, however (as somene posted above) it doesn't apply in every case - typical English grammar !!
    – user19481
    May 7, 2015 at 8:25

The word "robbed" is functioning as a verb. You can tell the difference between your original sentence and your other examples (i.e. "who was upset" and "who was bored") because your other exmples can be rewritten to use "upset" and "bored" as adjectives directly:

The upset man...
The bored man...

On the other hand, it would sound strange to say:

* The robbed man...

People would probably figure out what you were trying to say, but "the man who was robbed" sounds much more natural.

  • 1
    Don't mean to contradict you, but robbed man sounds equally natural. In fact, robbed man seems to have appeared more number of times in books and literature if a search on Google Ngram is to be considered.
    – Elzee
    Jan 20, 2014 at 16:39

'...was robbed' is passive voice here. It's a verb and not past participle (verb coverted to adjective with 'ed' at the end).

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