'The cat was curled up on the couch, sleeping happily'. I found this sentence in a Cambridge dictionary online, and I don't understand why using 'the cat was curled up' instead of ' the cat curled up'. I mean the cat has its own will to curl so I don't think it passive voice but I can not figure any formula relates to help me explain this sentence

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    The act of curling up is a transitory event, which wouldn't pair well with simultaneously sleeping happily (an extended activity). But being curled up is an extended activity / state, so it works. Commented Apr 10 at 2:19
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    If you like, yeah. But for logical, semantic reasons, not just "syntactic consistency". Commented Apr 10 at 2:30
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    Curl up is a phrasal verb. In its in past participle form here, it’s a subject complement and functions like an adjective. Compare The cat was tired. Commented Apr 10 at 2:56
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    Maybe call it "semantic parallelism", if you want a label / "formula". But really it's just a matter of logic - if you're gonna pair up up two descriptive verbs about the same subject, it's only logical that they should be "temporally consistent". Commented Apr 10 at 2:58
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    You could compare "curled (up)" with "bent" which is more obviously an adjective, or "tucked", "hid/hidden", "folded", "bent over", "folded up", "hidden away", etc, which are often used similarly. The only relevant question I can find is about "I am/was sat" which was generally agreed to be dialectal, so doesn't really match.
    – Stuart F
    Commented Apr 10 at 8:58

2 Answers 2


the sentence The cat curled up implies that the observer had seen the cat curling up, the action of curling up. He did not he only saw that the cat was curled up after the cat, by it's own volition had made itself comfortable by curling up, as cats are wont to do.

  • thank you for your information Elliot
    – EvanNguyen
    Commented Apr 10 at 10:40

"curled up" refers to the act (that happened in the past) and "was curled up" refers to the state (the bodily posture) the cat had assumed. action vs state.

In that particular case, the simple past tense and the past participle of the verb curl (up) are the same. But you can tell that "was curled up" has the past participle because was + simple past is not grammatical:

I was took a shower. ungrammatical

I was drove my car to the store. ungrammatical

I was smiled at the joke. ungrammatical

was + {past participle} expresses state.

  • So there is really some kind of formula relate to this sentence and thanks TimR for your information. And do you have any kind of document or anything relates to this knowledege for me to read ? I will be very happy to read it
    – EvanNguyen
    Commented Apr 11 at 1:52
  • Aren't the past participles of take and drive, "taken" and "driven"?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 11 at 8:15
  • Yes , they are Mari-Lou A
    – EvanNguyen
    Commented Apr 11 at 9:59
  • @EvanNguyen. Not sure why you're asking about past participles when I wrote "... was + simple past is not grammatical: ..." and followed up with several examples where "was" with a simple past are flagged as "ungrammatical".
    – TimR
    Commented Apr 11 at 11:29
  • Oh sorry , I was too excited when I thought there really are formula for this sentence. But I will go along with 'be curled up' is a phrasal verb
    – EvanNguyen
    Commented Apr 12 at 1:36

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