Copular Verbs

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.

Copular Verbs

Before proceeding to understand copular verbs, it's important to understand some basic grammatical terms:

Subject

What the sentence is about / who or what performs an action, thought etc.

  • Tom spoke to Sarah

Object

That which is affected by the action of the verb

  • Tom spoke to Sarah

Subject Complements

Words, clauses or phrases that give additional information about the subject regarding its condition or a relationship

  • Sarah was feeling tired
  • She is a chemist

And there are two types of subject complements:

Predicative Adjective (or Adjective Complement)

An adjective or adjective phrase that follows a copular (linking) verb and modifies the subject

  • Sarah was feeling tired

Predicative Nominative (or Noun Complement)

A noun or noun phrase that follows a copular (linking) verb and modifies the subject

  • She is a chemist

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


Differences between Copular and Action Verbs


Action Verb:

The farmer killed the chicken

  • Showing an action (kill)
  • Verb usually followed by noun or noun phrase
  • Object (the chicken) is affected by the verb

Copular Verb + Predicative Adjective:

The farmer felt really sick

  • Showing a condition (sick) or relationship
  • Verb followed by adjective phrase
  • Predicative adjective (really sick) gives more information about the subject (the farmer)

Copular Verb + Predicative Nominative (noun):

That is the farmer's field

  • Identifying or characterising something
  • Verb followed by noun phrase
  • Used to identify whose field it is

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.  

Examples of Copular Verbs

Copular verbs have various functions, but they can be broadly categorised into three types:

States of being / existense

The most common copular verbs are those forms derived from and including the verb 'to be': 

  • be (is, am, was, were, been, etc)
  • seem
  • appear

Sensory perception

Some can broadly be seen as related to these conditions or states: e.g.

  • feel
  • look
  • smell
  • taste 
  • sound

Change or Continuation

Others are connected to change:

  • become
  • get
  • go
  • grow
  • turn
  • end up

Or lack of it:

  • remain
  • keep
  • stay

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:

  • The man is walking his dog (present continuous) 
  • The broken down car was towed away (passive)

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:

  • I smelled the flowers
  • She got a sandwich for lunch

But we'll now look at some specific examples of how these verbs can be copular.

States of Being

To be

'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:

  • She isn't very nice
  • The film was funny

In more formal contexts, adjectives such as possible, necessary, difficult, and important are used with clauses or prepositional phrases to make evaluations:

  • It is important to finish of the work on time
  • It is difficult to imagine anything will change

When a noun follows a copular verb, it is called a predicative nominative. It's function is either to characterise:

  • I think Saturday will be a great day
  • The car was a good buy

Or identify:

  • That is my house
  • She is my next door neighbour
  • Steve Jobs was the CEO of Apple

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

Other verbs related to states of being are appear and seem. These are commonly followed by predicative adjectives (adjective complements):

  • It seemed impossible that she would go
  • It seems likely that the government will pass the legislation 
  • It seems clear that we should leave now
  • They seemed surprised by the ending of the film
  • It didn't appear likely the car would start

But they can also be followed by to-complement clauses:

  • She seemed to be happy with the result
  • They appear to have taken the wrong bus

And in the case of seem, followed by a predictive nominative:

  • He seems the perfect partner for my daughter

Sensory Perception

These are used with predicative adjectives to express positive or negative evaluations. For example:

  • This mango tastes good
  • I think it tastes awful

  • It smells terrible in that room
  • Something smells funny

  • What he said sounded strange
  • Sue sounded angry when I spoke to her

  • I feel guilty about what I did
  • The students felt sure they had done well

  • You look wonderful in that dress
  • Why do you look sad today?

Change or Continuation

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. 

Change

Become refers to a change from one state to another:

  • It has become clear that he is not ready for the promotion
  • John became aware that somebody was following him
  • It is becoming apparent to the government that they must increase spending

Get is commonly used to express the way a person is physically or mentally changing:

  • Her health is getting worse
  • I get upset very easily by noise
  • I always get dressed up to go out

Go is usually used to express a change to a more negative or undesirable state:

  • I think I'm going crazy
  • I didn't think things would go so wrong
  • She has gone quiet

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:

  • I hope we grow old together (gradual change)
  • I come alive when I listen to his music (change to a better state)
  • She is turning bright red (change in appearance)
  • I always end up angry when I read the news (change to an unintentional state)

Continuation

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:

  • The chances of war remain high
  • The shop remained closed for the week

  • I keep busy at the weekend
  • She kept warm by jumping up and down

  • My friends stayed very loyal to me
  • I stay sober most the time now

Copular Verbs and the Passive Voice

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:

  • My father drove the car - active
  • The car was driven by my father - passive

When we have a copular verb though, there is no object to make the subject.

Copular verbs are therefore intransitive.

Summary

  • They are not action verbs
  • They do not take objects (as action verbs do)
  • The most common is the verb 'to be' e.g. is, am, are etc.
  • They can be followed by adjectives and nouns
  • When a copular verb is followed by an adjective/s, the preceding word, phrase etc. is called the predicative adjective (or adjective complement)
  • When a copular verb is followed by noun/s, the preceeding words, phrase etc. is called the predicative nominative (or noun complement)
  • Clauses with a copular verb cannot be made passive


 

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