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I've always thought (perhaps, erroneously) that if there is some ambiguity in determining whether the given word is an adjective or a past participle, you need to look at whether the "source" of action is mentioned in the sentence. If the source is not mentioned, then it is an adjective. For example:

The disappointed boy was sitting on a bench.

Here, we don't know the source of the boy's disappointment, in other words, we don't know who performed the action of letting the boy down, Therefore, disappointed is an adjective.

But when the source is mentioned, then it is a past participle. For example:

The boy was greatly disappointed by his mom.

Here, we know the "source" - the boy's mom - therefore, disappointed is a past participle here.

However, this method doesn't seem to work in the following sentence:

One car drove away 10 minutes ago. Two more cars drove away 5 minutes ago. So now there are only 5 cars left in the parking lot.

Firstly, I thought that, since the source is not mentioned, it was either an adjective or an adverb, but the Wiktionary page doesn't reserve this meaning for the adjective "left" or for the adverb "left". It reserves that meaning only for the past participle "left", which is one of the forms of the verb "leave". So, most likely the word "left" in this sentence is a past participle.

However, the "source of leaving" is not mentioned in the sentence and it is not even implied, which means that the method that I've been using was wrong. But then I am really at loss in how to differentiate between adjectives and past participles.

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    It is still ambiguous with the copula. Three people were left in the room. could mean "Three people had not departed yet" and thus left refers to their state of remaining, or it could mean something like "Three people had not been fetched from the room" (perhaps by a nurse who was showing patients in to an examination room and had forgotten to show them in). But Three people had been left in the room is clearly a case of them not having been fetched from the room. Nov 1, 2018 at 13:45
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    Yes, you have to assess the predication. There were three apples left. With that existential construction, "There were", the past participle left refers to the existential state of the apples, and that is usually labeled "adjectival". Three apples are left. Again, their existential state is referred to. Three apples had been left would refer to an act that resulted in them being there, and there left is a perfective verbal. The perfective with transitive verbs and the state the perfective entails are flip sides of the same coin. Nov 1, 2018 at 14:10
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    "Left" is an adjective in your example, with the meaning "remain". It has a stative meaning, not a dynamic one, and hence this is not a verbal passive, but an adjectival one.
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2018 at 17:09
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    Replacement of "be" by "remain" serves to remove the ambiguity in favour of an adjectival reading: "There remained only 5 cars in the parking lot".
    – BillJ
    Nov 1, 2018 at 17:16
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    I think @BillJ is addressing were left on the table not had been left on the table. The question has been edited to talk about "cars were left in the lot" (the apples are gone) but it's the same, cars were left in the lot vs cars had been left in the lot. With were the word left can be a stative adjective or a passive, but with had been the word left is not adjectival. Also, a complement can change your view of things: The apples were left to rot. There, left means "abandoned". It's not a pure adjective. The rule of thumb is not air-tight. Nov 1, 2018 at 18:19

4 Answers 4

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TL;DR

Depending on how the sentence is parsed, "left" can apparently be considered a verb, an adverb, or even a preposition. (I can't fully explain the latter, but perhaps a generative grammar person can chime in).

Ambiguity in parts of speech

Parts of speech can be tricky in that they can depend on how a sentence is parsed. One problem with theories of linguistics, in fact, is that they can't always fully account for things that are left out of some utterances (yet presumed by the speaker and/or addressee), but which can influence how an utterance is perceived and parsed. This sentence is a good example, since

So now there are only 5 cars left in the parking lot.

could be understood somewhat differently depending on it is broken up, where the main ambiguity is whether "left" is part of a subordinate clause describing the five cars, or whether "in the parking lot" is where the cars have been left (by some unknown/presumed agent(s)):

...there are only 5 cars {[that have] left in the parking lot}.
...only 5 cars are left {in the parking lot}.
...5 cars {remain} {in the parking lot} (note "remain" is a linking/copular verb)

These different ways of parsing the phrase might seem like splitting hairs (and in practice they're almost entirely irrelevant), but which one of these or other interpretations one starts with can make a difference as to what part of speech "left" can be analyzed as.

Some sentence trees

So while at first glance this seems like a fairly simple question, plugging the example sentence into an online Linguistics Tree Solver didn't immediately offer a easy or even a single way to parse it. In fact, there were so many possible permutations I lost track of them, but below are some.*

I started out inserting "that were" before "left" because it seemed like that would make it obvious there was a hidden subordinate clause containing "left in the parking lot", but the Tree Solver didn't see it that way:

sentence tree with "that were" inserted

Using the original sentence and specifying "left" as a verb, as suggested by the tree above, generated this tree, which was unsatisfying because "left in the parking lot" didn't feel like its own, separate verb phrase in my interpretation:

left in parking lot as separate verb phrase

If "left" was specified as an adverb, the tree was closer to what I would originally have expected, with "only 5...in the parking lot" as a single verb phrase:

single verb phrase

However, this still wasn't entirely satisfying so I attempted some other possible combinations. The Linguistics Tree Solver will attempt to make trees based on three different sets of syntax rules. Here's the same tree as above drawn using X-Bar Theory, a more complex set of syntax rules:

single verb phrase x-bar

In addition to generating trees with "left" as a verb or adverb, The X-Bar Theory syntax generated a tree in which "left" was a preposition—and even appeared to prefer that among the three possibilities.†

enter image description here

It seems counterintuitive that "left" could be a preposition (P) in a prepositional phrase (PP) without a noun before which it is "pre-positioned," but perhaps that's because of the pernicious idea that a preposition must always come before something (e.g. that prepositions shouldn't end sentences, which is a fallacy we should disabuse ourselves of).

Note of clarification

A final note on the "PP" notation in the last tree, which is short for "prepositional phrase"—not to be confused with "past participle." I mention this because, as your question notes, "left" is the past participle of "leave." And while one answer notes that you're right about that, I don't think that answer is precisely correct that a participle (past or otherwise) is a "part of speech". Rather a participle is one form of a specific part of speech, the verb, albeit a confusing one since it can function as other parts of speech, all the while not being a part of speech itself. Some supporting evidence:

In English a participle generally "can function independently as an adjective" (my emphasis). And a past participle specifically is

a verb form...that is used as a verbal adjective in phrases such as "finished work" and "baked beans" and with auxiliaries [where it remains a verb] to form the passive voice or perfect and pluperfect tenses in constructions such as "The work was finished" and "She had baked the beans". [my emphasis and add'l punctuation]


*The Linguistics Tree Solver tool requires the user to specify the (possible) part(s) of speech for each word in order to construct the tree, so while I attempted to try all possible permutations in order to get it to recognize the grammar of the sentence, it's possible I missed some and that there are additional ways to parse this sentence.

†By "prefer" I mean that if verb, adverb, and preposition were all selected as possible parts of speech for "leave", the tree was generated with "leave" as a preposition.

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    WOW! This is just amazing! Thank you.
    – brilliant
    Sep 13, 2022 at 1:24
  • @brilliant Strangely enough, I hadn't noticed until literally just now that this question was posed nearly four years before I attempted an answer...but glad to know it may still have been helpful, if not timely ;)
    – cpit
    Dec 11, 2022 at 7:16
  • It happens here :)
    – brilliant
    Dec 11, 2022 at 12:15
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So now there are only 5 cars left in the parking lot.

can be "simplified" to:

Cars are left in the parking lot.

So you are correct when saying that in this case, 'left' is a participle.

As it is usual with passive voice, the actor who performed the action is not mentioned:

The ceiling is painted.

Which can be extended to:

The ceiling was painted by Michelangelo.

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  • (1) "As it is usual with passive voice, the actor who performed the action is not mentioned" - The problem is the actor is not only not mentioned, but he is not even implied and even cannot possibly exist. I think the right way to go about it is to see whether the existential meaning is being conveyed (in which case it's an adjective) or not (in which case it's a past participle).
    – brilliant
    Feb 13, 2019 at 10:58
  • (2) Consider this case: "In the whole world there were only 6 people who had this particular phenomenon. Sadly, we heard that one of them was killed yesterday by a burglar. So now there are only 5 such persons left." - The burglar here knew nothing about the person he was killing. It's not like the burglar had a goal to kill all six people that had that particular phenomenon. So you can't possibly say that the burglar "left" the other five alive. He doesn't even know anything about those five. So, in this case "left" is definitely an adjective, not participle.
    – brilliant
    Feb 13, 2019 at 10:58
  • @brilliant: your points are very interesting. Actors exist many times, even if they are not known. Somebody must have driven the cars there before leaving. When you refer to "existential meaning", I understand philosophy rather than grammar. And passive voice does not include a meaning of intent. You are right, the robber did not plan to "leave" 5 people, he merely robbed (and killed) one. But as overall picture, 6 people existed, and 5 people are left.
    – virolino
    Feb 13, 2019 at 11:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ColleenV
    Feb 15, 2019 at 11:38
  • "One car drove away. Now there are only five cars parked." Here "parked" is a participle. You can also use a present participle: "Now there are only five cars waiting".
    – Stuart F
    Jul 22, 2022 at 14:37
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The correct way to phrase this sentence would actually be as follows

One car drove away 10 minutes ago. Two more cars drove away 5 minutes ago. So now only 5 cars remain in the parking lot.

Using "There are only 5 cars left" means that someone or something took the others (leaving the rest), and in this sentence no person is actually mentioned. Presumably, these could be self-driving cars, since they are described as having driven away, not having been driven away; they are acting, not being acted upon. For this reason, they continue to act in the final sentence; only 5 cars remain.

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  • (1) I think it's absolutely correct to say in this case : "There are only 5 cars left". Consider this sentence: "After Giant Softshell Turtle dies, only three are left on Earth" ( twitter.com/NoExtinctions/status/717019790980808706 ).The act of dying is committed by turtles themselves, in other words, they act; however, the sentence says "are left" instead of "remain".
    – brilliant
    Jul 19, 2022 at 15:50
  • (2) Besides, the whole example in my question could have been written in the way of "having been driven away" and then the final sentence would have been absolutely okay: "One car was driven away 10 minutes ago. Two more cars were driven away 5 minutes ago. So now there are only 5 cars left in the parking lot."
    – brilliant
    Jul 19, 2022 at 15:51
  • (1) You are free to think as you wish. Not every single rule of English is written in a book or on the internet, so the only source I have for this is logical reasoning and personal debates among my peers. The fact remains that "to leave" has to be done by someone or something, and that "left" is always (except when opposite of "right" or used in politics) the past-tense form of "leave". Your turtle example, I would argue, is therefore not perfectly correct.
    – Blue Dev
    Jul 19, 2022 at 19:54
  • (2) Sure, you could change the sentence, and then "left" would be absolutely okay. But without changing the sentence, leaving it as it is, it is not as correct (though it would still be quite acceptable by most people). As stated in my above comment, this is not a rule which is taught from textbooks, yet has (as is apparent) caused questions to arise as to the proper use or classification of the word(s).
    – Blue Dev
    Jul 19, 2022 at 19:56
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    There is no need to remove your reply. Your reply is a great input into the subject matter and may be useful for those who will land on this page in the future. It is just that since you insist that this is not a personal rule and is really just using the language as it is defined and, besides, it is also a convention on this website to provide answers with authoritative sources, it would be good if you added some link to that rule in your reply.
    – brilliant
    Jul 23, 2022 at 6:19
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In my point of view. There are 3 kinds of adjectives.

(1) Comparable Adjective (the original adjectives) {e.g. big, clean}

(2) Modifier Noun (any noun can be used as adjective) {e.g. chicken burger, crocodile bag}

(3) Modifier Participle (Past Participle and Present Participle) {e.g. a closed shop, a closing shop}.

So, the answer to your question is "left" is an adjective as Word Class in your sentence because there is no participle in Nine Word Classes.

And you don't need to differentiate between adjectives and past participles because participles can be used as adjectives.

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    What is "Word Class", and what are you referring to with "Nine Word Classes"?
    – Joachim
    Aug 14, 2022 at 8:11
  • English words are divided into nine word classes according to their grammar. (1)adjective (2)adverb (3)conjunction (4)determiner (5)exclamation (6)noun (7)preposition (8)pronoun (9)verb. Aug 14, 2022 at 14:36
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    Can you, please, provide a link to those Nine Word Classes?
    – brilliant
    Aug 14, 2022 at 14:37
  • Sorry, I copy them from my notes. I don't remember where I got it from. "Word Classes" are also called "Parts of Speech". Aug 14, 2022 at 14:41
  • How many "kinds" of adjectives there are in English (if adjectives are even divided up in such a way) is not really a matter of point of view. There might be a debate about how many/what kinds there are, but that's not quite the same as it being a matter of opinion or perspective.
    – cpit
    Sep 12, 2022 at 21:27

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