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Concourse 2

Copular and pseudo-copular verbs and their complements

dog walking

If you have followed the initial plus guide to this section (new tab), which is much simpler, you will be familiar with:

I say, I say, I say.  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 lexical and sometimes as a copular verb.
Here we are dealing with the copular or linking use of the verbs in question.
If that confuses you, try the simpler guide to this area first.



copula (n.) /ˈkɒ.pjʊ.lə/
copulae or copulas (pl.)
copular (adj.)

Traditionally, a copula is defined as an item which links the subject of a clause with its predicate, like this (subject underlined, copula in bold black and predicate in blue):
    The book is on the shelf
    The car is enormous
    Peter is a musician
    That is what I need

and so on.
In English, the linkage is achieved with verbs of one kind or another but that need not be the case.

Some languages use a pronoun or set of pronouns to achieve the link and in others (such as Korean) there may be a suffix which does the same job.  Some languages, such as most forms of Arabic, do without a copula altogether and speakers of those languages may do so in English, producing, for example:
    *He teacher
which is, of course, perfectly comprehensible.
Japanese has a particle, da or desu, which follows the predicate performing a copular function.
Romance languages (excluding French and Romanian) generally have two copulas, one for permanent states and another for temporary conditions so the translations of, e.g.:
    Mary is happy
    Mary is a teacher
will be different with different forms of the verb be in each case.
There may, incidentally, be some disagreement among native speakers of such languages concerning what constitutes a permanent rather than temporary state but most get it right most of the time.
Languages which share this characteristic include Italian, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese and more.
Speakers of these languages may, at first, be slightly confused that there is no distinction in the verb use in English between:
    The book is old
    The book is in my car

In many analyses a distinction is made between the copula in English, the verb be and all other verbs which serve to link the subject and the predicate such as appear, seem, look, grow and so on which are referred to as semi- or pseudo-copular verbs.
In this guide we will shortly see why that should be the case.

In other analyses, these sorts of verbs are referred to as intensive verbs because they can only take one clause structures when acting as copulas.  That structure is: SVC (Subject – Verb – Complement) although we can, as is the case with all clauses add an adjunct adverbial to get SVCA.

At the outset, we should make it clear that the complement of a copula is not an adjunct.  An adjunct is an omissible extra piece of information in a verb structure.  For example, in:
    John waited at the bus stop
the adverbial at the bus stop is an adjunct and can be omitted to leave a well-formed sentence.
However, in:
    John was at the bus stop
we cannot omit the adverbial prepositional phrase because that would leave a non-sentence in English.
For more, see the guide to adverbials, linked below.


The colourless central copula and quasi-copular verbs

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 the semi- and pseudo-copular verbs.  For example:

  1. subject noun complement
        He is the boss
  2. adjective complement
        She was unhappy with that
  3. a subject noun complement linked with the preposition like to show comparison
        They are like their parents
  4. prepositional phrase complement
        She has been in London
  5. adverb complement
        She will be here
  6. non-finite to-infinitive clause complement
        His ambition had always been to make lots of money
  7. non-finite clause with an -ing form of the verb
        His aim was making lots of money (another )

We shall see later how these seven types of complementation affect which verbs can be used as copulas.

The pseudo-copular verbs fall into two categories.

  1. Verbs which indicate the current state of something
        She felt unwell
  2. Verbs which indicate a change in state which are known as inchoate verbs (the term inchoate means not fully formed).  You may also see them described as inceptive verbs.
        She became unwell

Like this:

Current condition / state Inchoate verbs
act the fool
appear unhappy
be on the table
feel sick
keep busy
lie on the lawn
look miserable
remain unhappy
represent the problem
smell revolting
sound awful
stand corrected
stay calm
taste like tomato
turn up dead
become involved
come undone
come out in spots
end up rich
get old
go stale
grow apprehensive
fall ill
prove impossible
to fat
turn aggressive
wax lyrical
† the verb represent is polysemous and for example in:
    He represents the company in France
it is not a copula but in:
    This figure represents the amount we have to pay
it is a pseudo-copula.

These two categories form teachable units but mixing them up can cause problems especially at lower levels.


Modification of copulas

The inchoate verbs allow a range of modification, especially with manner adverbs, that is disallowed with those in the left-hand column.  For example:
    He became gradually reconciled to the idea
    It quickly went stale

    *He looked rapidly miserable
    *She stood slowly in the corner

and so on are not allowed because of the stative nature of the verbs.

Current state verbs are subject to modification in other ways, however, often with intensifying adverbials or those of time or angle:
    She definitely appeared unhappy
    She really felt sick
    It eventually proved impossible
    They stubbornly remained dissatisfied
    She unexpectedly fell ill on holiday


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 inchoate nature of an event (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)


Subject complements

He is happy
He is a happy man

This is the simplest and most common way that copular verbs appear in the language and the verb be is the most frequent way the effect is achieved.
They are called subject complements because they refer solely to the subject of the verb.  Below, we consider the rarer object complements.

There are two sorts:

  1. Adjective phrase complements
  2. Noun phrase complements

Adjective-phrase complements

Dolphins are intelligent  

The predicative use of adjectives is generally achieved in English with the use of copulas and the most common is be.
Almost any adjective can be used in this way although there are some restrictions which are discussed in some length in the guide to adjectives.  The restrictions include the intensifiers such as entire, mere, sole, outright etc. which can never be used predicatively and non-inherent adjectives as in, e.g.:
    Mary is an old friend
which cannot be rephrased as
    My friend Mary is old
and carry the same meaning.
For more, see the guide to adjectives, linked below.

However, the form of the complement is quite variable and takes a little learning and practice.  In particular, the preposition which follows the adjective is unpredictable.  Additionally, as we note below, the use of a participle adjective often gives the copular verb construction the sense of a passive.  We get, therefore:

The be copula can, as we see, link any of these adjectives with the noun subject and form a predicative adjective or quasi-passive structure because it carries no semantic information.
The pseudo-copulas seem, appear, sound, taste, feel, look, become, end up, get, grow can be used with any appropriate adjective complement.
However, the pseudo-copulas do not all function in all cases for semantic reasons or because they imply that the adjective is being used dynamically and is under the control of the subject in some way.


Copulas with adjective complements can also be followed by that-clauses so we get:

Dummy it constructions

For more on dummy it constructions, see the guide to existential it and there clauses, linked below.

Infinitive constructions as adjective complements

These constructions are somewhat rarer.  Here are some examples:

Below, we consider how infinitive constructions can form complements on their own.


Noun-phrase complements

Can that be a unicorn?  

Again, the colourless copula can be used with any appropriate noun phrase so we get:
    He is a pilot
    She was an engineer
    That man could be a spy
    This program has been a great help

    My dog is an idiot
and so on, and on.

The pseudo-copulas are not so obliging.

English is slightly unusual (at least among European languages) in requiring the article with common noun complements so we do not allow, e.g.:
    *He became engineer
    *He was barman
    *I stayed amateur player
The exception is with some proper nouns for positions or when the noun is unique (much the same thing) so we can allow:
    He became President
    She ended up Mayor of the town
    I'll be mother
The article use is uncommon so learners will often forget to include it.

like + perception verbs

We saw above that be and pseudo-copular sense verbs can be used with adjectival complements so we encounter, e.g.:
    She appears delighted with her results
    The cloth felt very soft
    She looked really miserable
    It seemed expensive
    That smelt terrible
    This tastes delicious

    It is very sweet
However, when we want to use these verbs with a noun complement we need to insert the preposition like to link the verb and the complement.  We do not allow:
    *He looks a teacher
but we can have:
    She looks like a businesswoman
    They appeared like difficult customers
    It felt like velvet
    It might seem like a high price
    It smelt like a farmyard
    It tasted like ice cream
    It is like honey
Occasionally, appear and seem can be used without the preposition as in:
    It seemed a difficult job
    It appeared the best method
The other pseudo-copulas cannot do that and the safest bet is to include the preposition.
The verb be can do almost anything so a noun-phrase without like implies identity and one with like implies similarity.  Compare, e.g.:
    It was a plate
    It was like a plate


Object complements

She was crowned Queen  

There is a small class of verbs which bear a close resemblance to copulas insofar as they link the subject to the complement and cannot have no complement at all and make sense.
The difference with these verbs is that part of the complement forms the object of the copula.
They all imply some kind of naming or making and in that respect they are causative verbs.
The (possibly complete) list is:

bring up



They have parallel constructions with subject complements which can make their meaning clear for learners.  For example:

Example Parallel
She announced the food ready The food was ready
They brought up their children considerate The children were considerate
I christened the boat The Busted Flush The boat was The Busted Flush
We consider John a good friend John is a good friend
They crowned him King He was King
They elected her a Senator She was a Senator
I pronounced it good It was good

There is also a small class of verbs which require adverbial complementation and they, too, because the complement is obligatory, are copulas of a sort.  They include:
keep, lay, place, plonk, position, put, rest, set, site, situate, stay, stick, stuff.
Elsewhere on this site, these verbs are referred to a PP complement verbs because they must take a complement adverbial whereas most verbs of this sort take an optional adverbial complement.
We cannot for example, allow:
    *I put the book
    *I sited the house

etc. without providing an adverbial to say where.
In a way similar to the list above, they have parallel constructions which make the meanings clear:

Example Parallel
She put it in the corner It was in the corner
They stuffed the suitcase under the bed The suitcase was under the bed
I rested glass there The glass was there
We situated the house on the hill The house was on the hill
I stuck all the tools in the garage The tools were in the garage
They set the meeting for six o'clock The meeting was at six o'clock
We lay it on the floor It was on the floor

Unlike most copular verbs, these can all be used in the passive voice (because they have an object):
    She was made Queen
    The ship was called The Queen
    The meeting was set for six o'clock
    The suitcase was stuffed under the bed

Although the complement is sometimes ellipted, it is always understood so:
    We elected him
is only understandable if the nature of the complement is assumed.
With the second group, because the complement is an adverbial (often a prepositional phrase) it cannot be omitted if the clause is to retain any sense.


Adverbial-phrase complements

The huts stand by the sea  

The colourless be copula routinely links the subject and an adverbial complement so we see:
    She is at school
    They have been in the garden
    We will be there
    They are in debt

(A small ambiguity arises with the prefect aspect forms of the verb be in these sorts of clauses because the verb is also routinely used as the past participle form of go in which case it means something like go and return as in, for example:
    She has been to Margate
In the example above of
    They have been in the garden
the interpretation could be that the verb is copular, linking the subject and the adverbial complement, but it could also imply that the people in question have visited the garden and returned.
In the latter case the verb is not a copula.)

Pseudo-copulas cannot do this so easily.  Some can, so we allow:
    He kept out of sight
    She remained in the college
    They stayed under the bedclothes
    We stood by the door
    They ended up in the centre of town
    It turned up in the bedroom

but none of the other verbs in the main list above can be used in this way.
That is not a restriction which is intuitively obvious, of course, and it doesn't apply to the verbs in the previous section which always require adverbial complementation.
If we want to use the other pseudo-copulas appear and seem in this way, the trick is to insert the be copula as in, e.g.:
    She appears to be out
    They seem to be at the supermarket


Non-finite clause complements

My ambition is to make money  

There are two kinds of non-finite clauses which can act as complements with copular verbs:

  1. The to-infinitive
  2. The -ing form

Naturally, the colourless copula works with both so we see, e.g.:
    Her hope was to see Paris in the spring
    May aim is helping you to understand

The subject of the copula in this case has to be an abstract noun of some kind such as hope, ambition, joy, disappointment, aim etc.

Only a few of the pseudo-copulas work with non-finite clauses at all.  We may see:
    His aim remained to see his property returned
    His aim remained seeing his property returned
    His ambition became training as a concert pianist
    His ambition became to train as a concert pianist
    She ended up taking a third degree at university

Of these, the last only works with the -ing form because of the nature of the preposition, up.  We cannot have:
    *She ended up to take a third degree at university


A summary of the analysis

The following leaves out a good deal of detail, in particular, the issues surrounding temporary and permanent states with all copulas.  It should, therefore, serve as no more than an aide memoire.



Teaching implications and ideas

The problem with copular verbs is not so much with the form and structure but with the types of complement that the verbs can take.
This section repeats in part but with some additions what has been said in the initial plus guide to this area.  If you have already followed that guide you don't need most of it, but you do need to bear in mind that whenever a copula is the focus of teaching, that you consider carefully what kinds of complement it can take and alert your learners to any restrictions.  As we have seen, there are lots of them.

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.

You can, naturally, make the exercise less challenging by providing a list of pseudo-copulas that you want the learners to use.
You can select from the list given above.
This exercise, incidentally, mixes choate and inchoate verbs and that may, at least at first, be something you want to avoid.
One way to alert learners to the difference is to take the second text and insert adverbs which may or may not be allowable.  Like this:

In this text, there are some adverbs which may or may not be correct.  Find the incorrect ones and correct them with something more appropriate:

Tom gradually turned up late at the restaurant and Mary quickly appeared unhappy because she slowly ended up alone at the table for an hour.  Tom rapidly grew apologetic but excused himself by saying he had reluctantly stayed late at work because the job quickly proved more difficult than he expected.
Mary stubbornly remained unimpressed and said she would not slightly prove so forgiving next time.

The exercise alerts people to the two forms of pseudo-copulas.


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

She is so like her sister  

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

The issue with this word is one of gradience because it slides easily between word classes, acting as a conjunction, an adjective, a preposition (here) and even a pro-form.  Even when it is a preposition, it retains its adjective characteristic in being modifiable by an adverb (as in the example with so above).


Selecting appropriate complements

The restrictions we identified above concern mostly pseudo-copular verbs because the colourless copula is far more flexible (and, therefore, common).
Exercises which can alert people to the acceptable and non-acceptable uses can be a spur to discussion and discovery of the semantic features that control the choices.
For example:

Choose the sentence completions on the right which are possible to finish the sentence beginnings on the left.

1 He appeared ... a ... desperately unhappy
2 She was ... b ... in trouble
3 They stayed ... c ... to be a problem
4 Mary stood ... d ... aggressive
5 John became ... e ... to be a singer
6 It proved ... f ... a doctor
7 It tastes ... g ... by her father
8 That smells ... h ... making it in Hollywood
9 It turned ... i ... colder and colder
10 Her aim remained ... j ... of pineapple

This sort of exercise is authorable, of course, so you can select the kinds of copulas and the forms of complements on which you want to focus.

Related guides
dynamic and stative for the distinctions between these concepts in verb use
adjectives this guide includes much more about possible adjective complementation and non-predicative-use adjectives
the passive for more on quasi-agentive structures
existential it / there clauses for the guide to how these dummy subjects are used
verb types and clause structures for a more technical guide to the six common clause types
adverbials for a little more on adjuncts vs. adverbials which cannot be omitted