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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.

  • Only five apples had been left on the plate. Do you think left is possibly an adjective there? – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 1 '18 at 13:19
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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. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 1 '18 at 13:45
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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 '18 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 '18 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. – Tᴚoɯɐuo Nov 1 '18 at 18:19
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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.

  • (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 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 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 at 11:07
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ColleenV Feb 15 at 11:38

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