Copular verbs, also known as copula verbs, linking verbs, and complement verbs, are used to link the subject of a sentence to the complement in a clause, which is usually an adjective phrase, but they also occur with nouns / noun phrases.
Before proceeding to understand copular verbs, it's important to understand some basic grammatical terms:
What the sentence is about / who or what performs an action, thought etc.
That which is affected by the action of the verb
Words, clauses or phrases that give additional information about the subject regarding its condition or a relationship
And there are two types of subject complements:
An adjective or adjective phrase that follows a copular (linking) verb and modifies the subject
A noun or noun phrase that follows a copular (linking) verb and modifies the subject
It is important to know these terms and differences because it is the key to understanding copular verbs.
In contrast to action verbs (also known as object verbs), which have an object, copular verbs are not followed by an object but are followed by subject complements (either predicative adjectives or predicative nominatives).
This contrast is illustrated in it's most basic sense below
The farmer killed the chicken
Copular Verb + Predicative Adjective:
The farmer felt really sick
Copular Verb + Predicative Nominative (noun):
That is the farmer's field
Action verbs make a degree of sense on their own. For instance with killed, we know what action is taking place, even if we don't know who is involved. Similarly we know with others such as eat, swim, run etc.
But 'felt' has little meaning on its own, and neither do other common copular verbs such as 'is'.
This is a simplified explanation, but it provides a good starting point to understand the basic differences between action verbs and copular verbs.
Copular verbs have various functions, but they can be broadly categorised into three types:
It's worth noting at this point that not all the verbs presented are necessarily copular every time you see them.
For instance, the verb 'to be' is also used as a helping verb to make the continuous tense and passive voice:
So in both these cases it is not a linking or copular verb. Also, as you now know copular verbs do not have a direct object. So if the verbs have an object, they are transitive, and therefore not copular. For example:
But we'll now look at some specific examples of how these verbs can be copular.
'To be' is the most common verb in English and is often followed as a copular verb by adjectives or nouns (i.e. predicative adjective or nominative).
Adjectives used after copular verbs are usually used to make some kind of evaluation:
In more formal contexts, adjectives such as possible, necessary, difficult, and important are used with clauses or prepositional phrases to make evaluations:
When a noun follows a copular verb, it is called a predicative nominative. It's function is either to characterise:
Even though they are followed by nouns, they are not direct objects, as they are not the recipients of the action of the verb. Rather they are further describing the subject in some way.
Other verbs related to states of being are appear and seem. These are commonly followed by predicative adjectives (adjective complements):
But they can also be followed by to-complement clauses:
And in the case of seem, followed by a predictive nominative:
These are used with predicative adjectives to express positive or negative evaluations. For example:
Certain copular verbs can be used to show change or continuation. They can be used with a variety of adjectives, but below are some examples.
Become refers to a change from one state to another:
Get is commonly used to express the way a person is physically or mentally changing:
Go is usually used to express a change to a more negative or undesirable state:
The following copular verbs, grow, come, turn, and end up, to show change are less common than those above. Their meanings are given after the example:
In contrast to those above the copular verbs remain, keep, and stay, show some kind of lack of change or continuation of a state or situation:
Only action verbs can be placed into the passive voice, which means that copular verbs cannot be made passive.
We make something passive when we turn the object of the sentence into the subject:
When we have a copular verb though, there is no object to make the subject.
Copular verbs are therefore intransitive.
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