I have recently applied for an English teaching position in Brazil and had to take a test in which they asked:

  • Choose the correct part of speech for 'FOUND' in the setence "A whale found dead on the southern Spanish coast was found to have swallowed 17 kg of plastic waste, including plastic bags."

The options were: a) Noun b) Adjective c) Verb d) Adverb

I chose letter C, as I assumed it was a reduced passive. When the key to the test was made public they considered letter B as the correct option.

I got confused.... From what I understood, although there is an adjective clause I was supposed to give the part of speech. I felt mislead. But I'm not sure I have misinterpreted the question itself. I thought about formally requiring the anullment of this question. What do you think about it?

  • I was going to say that lexically "found" is a verb, morphologically it is a past participle, and syntactically it is normally a verb or an adjective. But this sentence is really tricky and syntactically it feels like it has some of the functions I would normally connect with conjunctions or prepositions, which of course it is not - so I'm really interested to see the analyses in the answers ... Dec 12, 2013 at 7:44

5 Answers 5


The answer C, the one you chose, is somewhat better than answer B. However, passive participles like found straddle two syntactic categories, verb and adjective. They can behave like an adjective with respect to a noun that they modify, i.e. they can be dependent on a noun as if they were a clear adjective, but they clearly maintain their verbal quality with respect to the material that they head.

The verbal quality of found in the example can be seen in the fact that reduced relative clauses like found dead on the southern Spanish coast allow an analysis in terms of ellipsis. One can construe the words that was as having been elided: A whale (that was) found dead on the southern Spanish coast was... The verbal quality of found is also visible in the fact that true adjectives cannot be modified by adjuncts such as on the southern Spanish coast, e.g. *A whale enormous on the southern Spanish coast... Further, when attributive adjectives modify nouns, they usually precede the noun in English, e.g. an enormous whale. The fact that the passive participle follows the noun that it modifies is thus a further indication that it is more verb-like than adjective-like.

Whoever wrote the question is valuing the one criterion more than these others. They are taking the fact that found modifies the noun whale like an attributive adjective would as decisive. In so doing, they are shortsighted and ignoring the verb-like qualities of found.

In sum, I think you are justified in protesting.

  • A balanced answer. Two small things. 1. Is there any diachronic or synchronic evidence for construing found as elliptical? I don't think so? 2. A whale enormous in size / grey at the bottom. How can we prove that these do not contain adjuncts but found on the southern Spanish coast does? They "feel" different to me, but I find the difference hard to pin down if we cannot base it on presupposing found to be a verb (which would be petitio principii).
    – Cerberus
    Dec 12, 2013 at 7:42
  • I cannot produce much evidence in favor of an ellipsis analysis of reduced relative clauses beyond coordination, e.g. ?the things [found here on the beach] and [that I keep]. The fact that the reduced relative clause can at least marginally be coordinated with the full relative clause suggests ellipsis, but it's not a strong argument. The point about modifiers of participles is discussed by Tesniere (1959, chapter 200). That point is solid. He produces examples from numerous languages. Dec 12, 2013 at 8:37
  • Sorry if this is naive. Would it make sense to consider that it is the whole of "found dead on the southern Spanish coast" that is an adjectival part of speech, within which "found" is a verbal one. Indeed, "found" would not be correct alone. If you replaced "found" by "killed", if would have to be in front of the noun if alone.
    – babou
    Dec 12, 2013 at 12:00
  • @Tim: OK, but you can coördinate "regular" adjectives with relative clauses too, also perhaps somewhat marginally: ? we went over all options available and that we had enough time for. The same applies to prepositional modifiers: ? they bombed all stations in London and that did not bear white flags. I do think there is something predicative rather than adjectival about all those modifiers that come after a noun; but I'm not sure I would call it ellipsis rather than a "different" use of modifiers that did not directly arise from relative clauses, even though it can be replaced by a r.c.
    – Cerberus
    Dec 12, 2013 at 17:40
  • @babou, yes, your interpretation of participles is similar to what I wrote in the answer. The participle is an adjective with respect to its head "whale", but it is a verb with respect to its dependents "dead" and "on the southern Spanish coast". It is an adjectival part of speech in the one direction, but a verbal part of speech in the other. Tesniere (1959, ch. 200) discusses these traits of participles extensively. Both answer B and answer C should have been accepted as correct. Dec 12, 2013 at 19:40

There is no consensus on how participles should be classified as for POS. Different treebanks/taggers mark them as adjectives or verbs. Some theories would classify this example as a verb as for form and an adjective as for function. It's all about terminology. In any case, the question in the test was unclear.


Found can be used both as an adjective and as a verb.

Adjective Usage: The cherries found in the forest were poisonous. In this case, found serves as an adjective qualifying the cherries.

Verb Usage: I found a pen hidden beneath the table. Here, found works as verb

  • It is nothing but a shortened relative clause: The cherries that were found in the forest ...
    – rogermue
    Jan 17, 2015 at 9:57

You were absolutely right to choose option c), and, in my view, should impugn the decision of whoever may have declared b) the right option.

The word found is a passive past participle of the verb find and, therefore, categorially speaking, it is itself a 'verb'. It is true that some participles have homonymous adjectives (e.g., interested, interesting), but found is not one of them, and, even if it were, when followed by an adjective (dead, here) it cannot be anything but a 'verb'; in such [ ...__A...] contexts, found cannot be an adjective at all. [I asume you are interested only in the first token of found, the one in bold face, and what follows applies only to that instance of found, but, as a matter of fact, the second found of your sentence is also a passive past participle, and, again, 'verbal', not adjectival].

The proof is simple; it rests on just two solid facts: a) in this construction, the adjective dead must, in its turn, be analysed as a 'secondary predicate', an 'attribute', a 'complement' or a 'post-modifier' depending on the head found (there have been different analyses of the "find x Adjective" construction), and b) in English, no adjective is allowed to take another adjective as its 'secondary predicate', 'attribute', 'complement' or post-modifying 'adjunct' (which of those functions is attributed to the second adjective does not matter for current purposes).

In case you are skeptical about the latter claim, let me explain it a bit: of course, in English two adjectives may form a single syntactic constituent, as in pale blue (shirt), where pale and blue jointly constitute a single adjectival modifier of shirt, but in such cases it is always the first adjective that modifies the second, never the other way round (i.e., inside the [A+A] constituent pale blue, it is pale that modifies blue, not viceversa; that's why pale blue is a kind of blue, instead of a kind of pale-ness).

On the other hand, English also allows sequences of mutually independent pre-nominal adjectives, as in big round blue eyes (where multiple standard constituency tests show that big, round and blue do not constitute a unitary syntactic constituent), but, in such cases, by definition, none of the adjectives can act as a complement or adjunct (etc.) of any other; they are just different syntactic constituents each separately modifying either eyes (under a 'flat' 'Davidsonian' analysis of modification), or a 'nominal phrase' headed by eyes (under a binary branching 'Fregean' one).

Adjectival phrases formed by two adjectives such that the second adjective is a 'dependent' (whether a 'complement' or an 'adjunct' is inmaterial for present purposes) of the first one are simply impossible in English (although normal in Spanish and other Romance languages, obviously), and yet that is exactly what we would have to say if found were analysed as an adjective in the example under discussion.

In sum, although 'participles' (and not only passive past ones, active present ones, too) were so called in traditional grammar precisely because they seemed to 'participate' of verbal and adjectival properties (in particular, they could occur in __ N or N __ contexts where the __ slots were typically occupied by adjectives), they are always, and above all, the participial forms of verbs, and so never lose their verbal character. In the case of found, to stick to the example we are discussing, that verbal nature is manifested by its capacity to take as a complement the same adjectival secondary predicate that the corresponding finite base verb find takes in The boys found the whale dead.

Note that it is that capacity of found to take dead as its 'dependent' (not its also being followed by a place adverbial!) that proves crucial to establish its verbal, and therefore non-adjectival, nature. I insist on this because, although Tim Osborne has said above that "The verbal quality of found is also visible in the fact that true adjectives can not[emphasis mine] be modified by adjuncts such as on the southern Spanish coast,<...>", that statement is, simply, not true. On the contrary, many unquestionable adjectives can be modified by place (and, of course, time) adjuncts (cf. That was a kind of whale (extremely) rare/common/frequent/abundant/valuable/dangerous/aggressive....on the southern Spanish coast/a generation ago/until recently). As a consequence, the fact that found is followed in our example by a place adjunct does not by itself suffice to establish its verbal nature, as many adjectives can also be followed by comparable place (or time) adverbials. And, again pace Tim Osborne, neither is the post-nominal position of found ... coast an argument for the 'verbal' (here = non-adjectival) status of found, because adjectives may take complements (and modifiers) of their own, and whenever they do, they must be post-nominal (cf. A student of mine keen on cryptography told me that ..., vs. *A keen on cryptography student of mine told me that...). What does supply the crucial proof that in this case found is a 'verb' (in participial form, but still a verb) is the fact that it is followed by a dependent adjective, a construction that would be ungrammatical if found were itself an adjective, as already explained.


If a school says "found" in the above sentence is an adjective and only this answer is correct and the answer verb is not correct then I would say the examination board is narrow-minded. That's the least I would say. Sometimes test papers are idiotic.

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