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Concourse 2

Copular or linking verbs

dog walking

Hey.  My dog's got no nose.
No nose?  How does he smell?

Ha, ha.  But there's an important language point buried in the old joke.  The joke, if there is one, relies on the fact that the verb smell sometime operates as a 'normal' verb, describing what something does, and sometimes as a copular verb, linking it to what something is like (that's why copular verbs are sometimes referred to as 'linking verbs').
Compare these and work out the difference in meaning.  Then click here.

  1. The dog smelt badly
  2. She turned nastily
  3. He stayed happily
  1. The dog smelt bad
  2. She turned nasty
  3. He stayed happy


To be clear

A copular verb functions in the same way as the verb to be.  It links the subject with its complement.  The word copular is the adjective, by the way, and the noun is a copula (plural copulas or copulae, if you prefer the Latin).
In sentences such as these, the verb is a copula:
    He is a policeman
    He became furious
    It lay on the floor
In the first example, the noun policeman is not the object of the verb to be, it is its complement.  A subject complement is also called a subject predicate.
Subject complements are usually adjectives (second example) or nouns (first example) but they can be prepositional phrases (third example and as in example 9., below).
Copular verbs show the relationship between the subject and its complement as in:

  1. He appears angry and upset at the result
  2. She acted the fool
  3. Mary ended up in prison
  4. They became wealthy
  5. They grew distant
  6. It proved difficult to understand


The colourless copula

The verb be is the least meaningful but most flexible of the copular verbs in English.
It is the least meaningful, i.e., colourless, because unlike verbs such as taste, appear, turn, grow or become, it serves purely to link subject to complement and carries little intrinsic meaning.
It is, however, also the most flexible and can be followed by more types of complement than other copular verbs.  For example:

  • He is the boss (subject noun complement)
  • She was unhappy with that (adjective complement)
  • They are like their parents (a subject noun complement linked with be like to show comparison)
  • She has been in London (prepositional phrase adverbial complement)
  • She will be here (adverb complement)
  • His ambition had always been to make lots of money (non-finite clause complement)
  • His aim was making lots of money (another non-finite clause complement but with an -ing form of the verb rather than the infinitive)
  • He was discovered to be dishonest (a rarer object complementation with which it may be unwise to trouble your learners)


How to identify whether a verb is a copula or not and what it is doing

The simplest test is to replace it with the verb to be.  Obviously, in many cases this will alter the meaning but if the sentence remains grammatical, you have identified a copular verb.
In sentences 7 to 12, all the verbs can be replaced in this way.
In the following six, they can't, because the verbs are acting in the normal way:

  1. She appeared from out of nowhere
  2. She acted without any skill at all
  3. Mary ended up with a song
  4. The colour became them (i.e., suited)
  5. They grew oranges
  6. He proved his point

There are a lot of verbs in English that can act as copulas (or copulae, if you prefer).  Some grammarians will insist that only be is a true copula and that all the others are 'pseudo-copular verbs'.  So be it.
The reason for this is that only some of them (be, become, remain, end up, stay) can be used to link the subject and a noun-phrase object complement.
We can have, for example:
    She was a doctor
    She became a doctor
    She remained a doctor
    She ended up a doctor
    She stayed a doctor

One oddity is the verb look like which can be used in this way to link subject nouns to noun complements as in:
    She looked like a doctor
but cannot be used to link the subject with an complement adjective so
    *She looked like happy
is not available.
That is just about a complete list of the copular verbs that can be used this way.  We cannot have, therefore,
    *She seemed a doctor
    *She appeared a doctor
    *She sounded a doctor


A real distinction for teaching purposes is between copular verbs which refer to a current condition and those which indicate a change of state or a result.
Here's a list with some possible complements in black:

Current condition / state Change of state / result
act the fool
appear unhappy
be on the table
feel sick
keep busy
on the lawn
smell revolting
taste like tomato
become involved
come undone
come out
in spots
end up
to fat
turn up
There are almost certainly more.


Dynamic and stative uses

There is a guide to dynamic and stative uses of verbs on this site, linked from the list of related guides at the end but the distinction bears treatment here because it is often stated that we do not use copular verbs dynamically.  We do not, therefore, say:
    He is being unhappy
    Jane is appearing sad
    I am remaining content
    It is smelling vile
    They are seeming clever
    It is tasting good


As a rule of thumb, that's true, but we do use a range of copular verbs dynamically, especially if:

  1. We need to emphasise a temporary condition.  We can have, therefore:
    1. He is stupid (permanent condition)
      He is being stupid
      (current, non-permanent condition)
    2. They felt sick (and remained that way for an unstated period)
      They were feeling sick
      (a temporary state)
    3. It is kept in that cupboard (permanently)
      It is being kept in that cupboard
      (for the moment but that may change)
    4. Margate lies on the coast (permanent location)
      She is lying on the lawn
      (temporary location)
  2. We need to express the change of state that is occurring (column two, above):
    1. I am becoming uneasy (changing from calm)
    2. She is turning aggressive (changing from peaceful)
    3. it's getting cold (changing from warm)
    4. I am growing old (changing from young)
  3. Some verbs, too, change their meaning when they are used dynamically and cease to be copular at all:
    1. I remain unconvinced (my current opinion)
      I am remaining here
    2. Jane appears sad (has the look of being sad)
      Jane is appearing in the play
    3. It sounded dreadful (was)
      It is sounding
      (making a noise)
    4. He looks wonderful (appearance)
      He is looking in the cupboard
    5. They grew bored (became)
      They grew vegetables

There is clearly a need to make sure we give our learners enough context to understand the differences here.


like plus a complement

The use of like to link to the complement is often troublesome.  We have seen above how flexible the colourless copula be is in this respect so we can have, e.g.:
    He is like a tiger
    My bedroom is like a luxurious hotel room
    It was like a bomb going off


Other verbs have different characteristics.

  • Verbs of perception (smell, sound, taste, feel, look) can all take a simple adjectival complement as in, e.g.:
        It looks interesting
        She sounds unhappy
        They taste delicious
        It smells awful
        It feels wonderful

    but these verbs must also take a complement prepositional phrase with the troublesome word like when used with a noun complement.  For example:
        It looks like paradise
        It sounds like a train
        They taste like pears
        It smells like strawberries
        It feels like silk
  • The verb + like formulation can also link to a complement clause as in, e.g.:
        It looks like it will be a problem
        It sounds like he is playing the piano
        It smells like it's going off
        She looks like she's getting angry
        They seem like they are studying hard
  • Some other copular verbs can also link with like when they are used in often clich├ęd analogies such as
        It went like smoke
    but these are better analysed as simple comparisons and put together with expressions such as:
        He is as deaf as a post
        It's as pretty as a picture
  • The verbs grow and become are also commonly used with like as in, e.g.:
        She grew more and more like her grandmother
        He became like his father as he got older
  • Most copular verbs do not link with like and this causes problems for learners because they may extend the use of like beyond verbs of perception and be and they may also be tempted to use like to link the verb and an adjective complement so we get errors such as:
        *It proved like a problem
        *It looks like interesting
        *She seems like unhappy


The problems are not, of course, helped by exposure to the use of like as an informal, and somewhat irritating, conversational filler in expressions such as
    He spoke like really rudely
    She was like really unhappy

and so on.


Teaching implications and ideas

One issue for learners is that the same distinctions do not apply universally across languages so they may be tempted to use adverbs with copular verbs and produce sentences such as
    *I feel badly.
Because there are so many verbs in English that act as copulas, learners may become confused and fail to recognise them.  However, the range is also a resource which can be used to make texts more interesting and vivid.


Making texts more interesting

Here's an example which can be adapted for a lesson on the area at any level.

Text 1: using only to be as the copula, in black italics.

Tom was late at the restaurant and Mary was unhappy because she was alone at the table for an hour.  Tom was apologetic but excused himself by saying he had been late at work because the job was more difficult than he expected.
Mary was unimpressed and said she would not be so forgiving next time.

Now replace the copular uses of be with more interesting alternatives to see what effect it has on the text.  Then click here for a suggestion.


Getting concepts clear

turning nasty  

Because English has such a range of copular verbs, it makes sense to raise learners' awareness of the two fundamental types (see above for a list): those which describe a present state and those which describe the transitions from one state to another.
For example:

Put the verbs in red in the correct column and mark the sentences on the right as correct or wrong Correct tick or Wrong x?
Example was was changing
It appeared impossible     The job is appearing impossible
The job appears impossible
It became impossible     The calculation is becoming impossible
The calculation becomes impossible
The weather turned cold     The climate is turning warmer
The climate turned warmer
The weather remained cold     The water is remaining cold
The water remains cold
The crocodile seemed aggressive     It seems aggressive
It is seeming aggressive
The crocodile grew aggressive     The weather grew colder
The weather was growing colder



Helping learners to notice copular verbs

Because languages differ in how copular verbs are used and in what verbs qualify as copulas, we need to make sure that when learners encounter them, in a written or spoken text, that we draw their attention to them in some way or they will pass unnoticed.
The test above, replacement with the verb be, is one way to do this.  Exercises like this may help:

Which verbs in red can we replace with a form of be?
Sentences yes tick no x
It appeared impossible    
It became impossible    
The weather turned cold    
He looked ill    
She is looking tired    
She looked in the cupboard    
They seem rich    
They grew old together    



Dealing with like

As we noted, the use of like is sometimes troublesome and leads to error.  It can be tackled with transformation exercises:

Rephrase these sentences using or removing like.  You can use a noun or a clause to make the changes.
Maud and Elizabeth look similar Maud looks like Elizabeth
Elizabeth looks like Maud
It tastes creamy It tastes like it is made with cream
It tastes like cream
(identical) She sounds exactly like her mother
It looks fierce (animal)
(sugary) It tastes like sugar
He seems unhappy (man)
He seems like an intelligent child


Related guides
dynamic and stative for the distinctions between these concepts in verb use
verb types for a more technical guide to the six common clause types
what verbs do which considers the kinds of meaning verbs express