Nuance: A series to help English language learners explore the subtleties of English

When -ED Doesn’t Mean Past Tense

This series is called Nuance and it looks at subtleties of the English language that even advanced learners of English might miss.

“When you see the -ED ending on a word, it means that the sentence is in the past tense.”

Lots of my students learned this rule from school. Unfortunately, it’s wrong! And it can cause a lot of confusion.

Teachers tell their students this as a “shortcut method” of teaching the past tense. In reality, the -ED ending only sometimes refers to the past tense, but it’s used for many other things, too.

Look at these three sentences:

I feel surprised.
The room is cleaned every day.
He will have finished his work by three o’clock.

In each one, we can see a word that ends in -ED, but none of these sentences are in the past tense. Let’s look at each example in turn.

Adjectives that end in -ED (passive adjectives)

Adjectives are descriptive words like happy, tall and wide. They do not have a tense and they do not signify time.

However, there are some adjectives that end in -ED or -ING. These usually occur in pairs:


What we can notice is that these adjectives usually describe feelings (-ed) or something that causes a feeling (-ing). These are called ‘passive’ and ‘active’ adjectives.

Here are some examples:

I was frightened.
(‘Frightened’ describes a feeling)

The monster was frightening.
(The monster made me feel frightened)

I felt annoyed.
(‘Annoyed’ describes a feeling)

The mosquito was so annoying.
(The mosquito made me feel annoyed)

Another thing that we can notice is that these adjectives are formed from root words that can also function as verbs. Hence, ‘frighten’ and ‘annoy’ can also be verbs:

Scary movies frighten me.
George often annoys me.

Extra notes:

1 A passive adjective needn’t necessarily describe a feeling.

Example: Steve was driving a damaged car.

The passive adjective damaged signifies that something happened to the car (it was damaged).

2 Occasionally, there is a passive (-ed) form of an adjective without a corresponding active (-ing) form:

Example 1: Jane felt composed as she waited for the interview.
(There is no corresponding adjective ‘composing’).

Example 2: George is quite an easygoing fellow.
(There is no corresponding adjective ‘easywent’ or ‘easygone’.

3 While we are looking at -ED endings here, passive adjectives are actually in the past participle form. An example where we can see this is ‘written’, which is used as an adjective here:

The written word can be more powerful than the spoken word.

The Passive Voice

As we have seen, past participles sometimes end in -ED.

Another usage of past participles is with the passive voice.

Note that the basic structure of the passive voice is:

[BE VERB] + past participle

Here are some examples of passive voice in different tenses:

Simple past tense: Joey was reprimanded.
Simple present tense: The room is cleaned every day.
Simple future with WILL: The package will be delivered tomorrow.

We can see that even when talking about the present or the future, we have sentences where the main verb ends in -ED. The -ED ending signifies passive voice, in this case.

Perfect Tenses

Perfect tenses in English can be tricky to understand. They show completion or they also show an action happening up to a certain point. We have the past perfect, present perfect and future perfect, which look like this:

Past perfect: She had visited earlier.
Present perfect: George has cleaned the room.
Future perfect: I will have completed the work by 3pm.

The structure of these sentences is: had/has/have/will have + past participle

So, we can see once again that we can form sentences in the present or future where we see an example of a verb ending in -ED.

Final notes

1 The three instances where we find words ending in -ED which do not signify past tense are:

2 Note that, in each case, it is the past participle which is used and not the actual past tense of the verb.

3 A misunderstanding of this issue can lead English learners to make mistakes. For example…

A: The show will have finish by now.
B: The show will have finished by now.

…some English learners might write sentence A because ‘it doesn’t seem right’ to say ‘finished’ when the sentence describes the future. Actually, we now know that B is the correct sentence.

Are you worried that you make this mistake? Test yourself with an 10-question quiz on this topic here