Mini-Lesson Monday, Lesson #207 (Part 1): Adjectives that end with -ed and -ing in English (through Bronte’s ‘Villette’)

If you have ever tried to describe someone you know, or an experience you have had, or something that you like, you will have almost certainly used some adjectives.

Adjectives in English often end with similar endings – ‘-al’, ‘-ous’, ‘-ful’, ‘-ed’, and ‘-ing’ being some of the most common.

In today’s Lesson we are focusing on the last two types of adjectives, since they are often related to each other but have quite different meanings: ⚠️ for example, ‘interested’ is NOT the same as ‘interesting’; ‘annoyed’ has a different meaning from that of ‘annoying’.

We will consider the following points here in our two-part lesson:

  • How -ed and -ing adjectives are different from other verb forms that look the same
  • The main differences in meaning between -ed and -ing adjectives with similar root form
  • Some examples (from literary texts) showing how to use -ed adjectives, and
  • (in Part 2 of this Lesson) Some examples of how to use -ing adjectives

I am using today one of my favourite passages ever written by Charlotte Bronte – a scene in Villette (1853) where the main character, Lucy Snowe, wakes up on a warm July night and goes for a walk to the park, where she finds crowds already gathered for a national celebration. Because Lucy has been given a secret drug or medication in her evening drink, she is not fully awake but sees everything as through a dreamy haze. For this reason, she uses lots of interesting adjectives to describe what she experiences, and so her words are some of the best I can find anywhere to show how -ed and -ing adjectives are used in context! 📘


Adjectives that end in -ed or -ing might look like verb forms (past participles or present participles/gerunds) but from the context we should be able to tell the difference:

  • ✏️ Adjectives will always try to describe or complement a noun, whereas
  • ✏️ Past or present participles will describe a verb-based motion, activity, action, and
  • ✏️ Gerunds act as nouns in themselves

Here are some examples of these confusingly similar verb forms ‘in action’ (notice how they are presented in either a verb form – ‘had opened’ – or, if a gerund, as a distinctive noun such as ‘struggling’):

📘 ‘No matter that I now seized the explanation of the whole great fête — a fête of which the conventual Rue Fossette had not tasted, though it had opened at dawn that morning, and was still in full vigour near midnight.’

– Charlotte Bronte, Villette (emphases mine)


📘 ‘While looking up at the image of a white ibis, fixed on a column— while fathoming the deep, torch-lit perspective of an avenue, at the close of which was couched a sphinx— I lost sight of the party …’

– Charlotte Bronte, Villette (emphases mine)


📘 ‘Rumours of wars there had been, if not wars themselves; a kind of struggling in the streets— a bustle— a running to and fro, some rearing of barricades, some burgher-rioting, some calling out of troops, much interchange of brickbats, and even a little of shot.’

– Charlotte Bronte, Villette (emphases mine)


👉 TIP: If you would like to review participles and gerunds further, why not check out Lesson #127 where we looked at examples of them using Dickens’ Hard Times (written in 1854, one year after Bronte wrote Villette)!

👉 ANOTHER TIP: Generally speaking, in English we place the adjective before the noun that it describes (unless we are reading / writing poetry, in which case we might choose to place the adjective after the noun for poetic effect). If for any reason you see a word that looks like an adjective (because it ends in -ed or -ing) following a noun, then there is a good chance that it is either a participle of some kind or a gerund. For example: ‘the challenging elections …’ (this is an adjective) vs ‘the elections challenging the government … ‘ (here ‘challenging’ is a present participle, not an adjective – notice how it is following the noun ‘elections’, not preceding it).


Generally speaking, the difference between -ed and -ing ending adjectives is that they describe the describe two different sides of a giving-receiving action.

  • In short, think of -ed ending adjectives as indicating received action (passive nuance): e.g. ‘Round about stood crowded thousands, gathered to a grand concert in the open air.’ (Bronte, Villette – emphasis mine)

This means: The crowds were gathered – someone or something had gathered them there.

  • Think of -ing adjectives as giving an action (active nuance): accosting, gathering, etc. ‘The increasing chill and gathering gloom, too, depressed me; I wanted to see— to feel firelight.’ (Bronte, Villette – emphasis mine)

This means: The gloom was gathering – it was (actively) gathering itself, getting more intense and dark.

✍️ TIP: If it helps you to remember this distinction, why not associate each with the kind of sound they have:

👉 -ed has a softer, flatter sound (uhd in ‘interested’ or ‘yd in ‘annoyed’) so we might say that it sounds more ‘passive’.

👉 -ing has a more emphatic sound (ihng as in ‘interesting’), so we could say that it sounds more ‘active’.


With the distinctions made above, let’s now look at some examples from Charlotte Bronte’s Villette.

📘 ‘The gates were locked, soldiers set before them: was there, then, no admission to the park? Through the deep throng it could pass but slowly; the spirited horses fretted in their curbed ardour.’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphases mine)

Explanation: I have highlighted three adjectives here that also have an -ing equivalent: locked (locking), spirited (spiriting), and curbed (curbing).

Locked – closed with a lock. Locking – closing or likely to close with a lock. E.g., ‘the locked treasure box’ vs ‘they passed quickly through the entrance because of the easily locking door’.

Spirited – having a lively spirit. Spiriting – encouraging, inciting, motivating one or many to have a lively, defiant spirit. E.g., ‘a spirited animal’ vs ‘a spiriting chorus or song’.

Curbed – restrained or controled. Curbing – actively restraining or controlling something or someone. E.g., ‘a curbed anger’ vs ‘a curbing conversation that doesn’t allow me to speak as freely as I would like’.

📘 ‘I saw the occupants of that carriage well: me they could not see, or, at least, not know, folded close in my large shawl, screened with my straw hat (in that motley crowd no dress was noticeably strange).’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphases mine)

Folded – already bent in folds. Folding – able or likely to bend in folds. E.g., a folded shawl or folded paper vs folding doors.

📘 ‘In a land of enchantment, a garden most gorgeous, a plain sprinkled with coloured meteors, a forest with sparks of purple and ruby and golden fire gemming the foliage …’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphasis mine)

Sprinkled – where tiny drops of liquid have been tossed onto a surface. Sprinkling – where tiny drops of liquid are being actively tossed onto a surface. E.g., ‘the sprinkled paint on the canvas looked like foam from the sea’ vs ‘I got wet just walking past the sprinkling fountain’.

NOTE: Another word that has a similar form to ‘sprinkled’/’sprinkling’ could be ‘sparkled’/’sparkling’ from the verb ‘to sparkle’, meaning to shine bits of light quickly and reflecting a greater light. E.g., ‘the sparkled water’ vs ‘sparkling waves’.

📘 ‘Already I saw the thick-planted trees which framed this tremulous and rippled glass …’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphasis mine)

NOTE: Notice how I haven’t highlighted ‘framed’ here, even though it ends with -ed and might be mistaken for an adjective, which it is not. It is a past participle, because it describes a kind of action and so is a verb form. If it were an adjective, it would clearly describe a noun instead.

Rippled – denotes state of being marked with ripples. Rippling – denotes action of making ripples on a surface. E.g., ‘the rippled paper felt strange under my fingers’ vs ‘the rippling noise was very disturbing’.

📘 ‘He carried his disinterested civility further; and, from some quarter, procured me a chair.’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphasis mine)

One of the reasons I have chosen this sentence is because of a very common pair of adjectives that are related to the one mentioned here. While ‘disinterested’ means ‘not interested’ or even ‘generous and not interested nor judgemental’, its related adjective ‘interested’ is much more common in English and one that you are likely using already.

Interested vs Interesting

Interested – having had an interest in something. Interesting – causing others to become interested in someone or something; curious, intriguing, fascinating. E.g., ‘the interested tone of voice the doctor had made me feel more comfortable talking about my symptoms’, vs ‘history is an interesting subject in my opinion’.

📘 ‘I saw, too, Paulina Mary, compassed with the triple halo of her beauty, her youth, and her happiness.’

– Charlotte Brontë, Villette (emphasis mine)

I have highlighted this particular word – compassed, meaning surrounded by, encircled by – because it also has a more popular set of adjectives that have nearly the same spelling except for an important prefix: en-. These are encompassed and encompassing, but there are plenty more adjectives starting with an en- that apply similar rules (e.g., enclosed/enclosing, enlivened/enlivening, endeared/endearing, etc). You probably already know some of these and are using them!

Encompassed – having been surrounded completely by, encircled fully by, etc. Encompassing – actively surrounding or enclosing something. E.g. ‘there were high walls everywhere – and the encompassed city seemed to be well-guarded’, vs ‘the encompassing crowd grew larger and more noisy’.

Please join me in Part 2 of this Lesson where we will finish by looking at some important -ing adjectives!

by J. E. Gibbons

English language tutor and researcher at 'Learn English Through Literature' (2024)