Light Verbs

Definition

Light verbs (also known as delexical verbs, thin verbs, semantically weak verbs, or empty verbs) are verbs that do not carry unique meaning on their own, but instead rely on another word or words that follow them to become meaningful.
Because of this, light verbs can have a great variety of meanings, depending on the word(s) with which they are paired. Sometimes, the meaning of different light verbs can overlap if they share a common predicate.
Common examples of light verbs include do, have, make, get, take, and give, though there are others that can work the same way.

Using Light Verbs

Light verbs function by pairing with a word or words (usually, but not always, a noun or noun phrase) to achieve their meaning. The verb itself does not contribute very much meaning to the sentence; rather, we know what is meant by the word it’s paired with. For example:
  • Do your homework!”
  • “We did some jumping jacks to warm up.”
  • “I hope you do well on your exam.”
  • “Why don’t we have something to eat?”
  • “I took a shower before breakfast.”
  • “She’s taking a nap right now.”
  • “Do you take sugar in your coffee?”
  • Give me a break!”
  • Give your father a kiss before you go to bed.”
  • “I get so many emails every day.”
  • “Let’s try to get warm by the fire.”
  • “Stop making such a fuss!”
  • “Be sure to make your bed after you get up in the morning.”
In each of these examples, the verb itself does not describe a specific, unique action. We only know what’s happening because of the word or words that are collocated with the verb.

Shared meaning

In some cases, we can even use different light verbs to achieve the same or very similar meaning; this is particularly true for the verbs have and take. For example:
  • “I’m going to have a shower.”
  • “I’m going to take a shower.”
  • “OK, everyone, let’s have lunch!”
  • “OK, everyone, let’s take lunch!”
  • “She’s having a nap right now.”
  • “She’s taking a nap right now.”
However, this can also occur with other light verbs. For instance:
  • “Be sure to take a bow at the end of the performance.”
  • “Be sure to make a bow at the end of the performance.”
  • “Will you get a photo of all of us together?”
  • “Will you take a photo of all of us together?”
  • “Did you get some breakfast?”
  • “Did you have some breakfast?”

Full Verbs and Auxiliary Verbs

Most verbs carry a unique semantic meaning of their own, and they do not rely on any additional predicate information to make sense. When contrasted with light verbs, these are sometimes known as full verbs or heavy verbs.
Auxiliary verbs, meanwhile, are similar to light verbs in that they do not carry meaning on their own; however, unlike light verbs, these work with other verbs to create a complete, unique meaning. Auxiliary verbs are used to create different verb tenses, to make a verb negative, or to express modality—that is, to assert (or deny) possibility, likelihood, ability, permission, obligation, or future intention.
Certain light verbs function as full verbs depending on how they are used; likewise, do and have can function as either auxiliary verbs or light verbs. For example:
  • “Let’s take some lunch to a park.” (full verb, meaning “bring to a place”)
  • “Let’s all take a break.” (light verb, reliant on break for meaning)
  • “I like to make toy figurines in my spare time.” (full verb, meaning “to create or assemble”)
  • “I’m afraid I made a terrible mistake in hiring him.” (light verb, reliant on mistake for meaning)
  • Did you see the game last night?” (auxiliary verb, serves to modify the verb see to create an interrogative sentence)
  • “John did a few jobs for me this summer.” (light verb, dependent on the noun jobs for meaning)
  • “She had heard the rumors already.” (auxiliary verb, serves to modify the verb heard to create the past perfect tense)
  • “She had a snooze after lunch.” (light verb, dependent on the noun snooze for meaning)

Common Light Verbs

Unfortunately, the only way to become familiar with the various meanings and uses of light verbs is to study them in a dictionary or to come across them in day-to-day speech and writing.
Below, we’ll look at some examples using four particularly common light verbs that have a variety of different meanings—do, make, get, and take. Each sentence will be accompanied by an explanation of the light verb’s meaning.

Do

Do is used for general actions; these actions are dictated by the word or words that follow do.
  • “You can play if you do your homework.” (finish or complete your homework)
  • “Will you please do the dishes?” (wash the dishes)
  • “Will you please do the washing up?” (This is a British English expression with the same meaning as “do the dishes.”)
  • “I hope you do well on your exam.” (perform well; in this context, do relies on an adverb for its meaning)
  • “He was always willing to do someone a favor.” (give or perform a favor)
  • “My husband always does the cooking.” (prepare and cook food)
  • “I’m trying to avoid doing the ironing.” (iron clothes)
  • “John, will you do the dusting?” (clean the dust from the furniture and around the house)
  • “It always falls on me to do the housework.” (clean and tidy up around the house)
  • “She has to do her hair before we go.” (style her hair)
  • “I hope you can continue to do business together.” (engage in or perform business activities)

Make

As a light verb, make carries the general meaning of “create” or “assemble”; the specific meaning comes from what accompanies the verb.
  • “I made many mistakes in my exam.” (commit errors)
  • “Be sure to make your bed after you get up in the morning.” (put in order or neaten the sheets, covers, and pillows on one’s bed)
  • “After years of fighting, they decided to make peace.” (achieve, arrange, produce, or attain a state of peace)
  • “My mother is going to make a chocolate cake tonight.” (prepare and/or bake a cake)
  • “I just need to make dinner.” (prepare and cook dinner)
  • “I made friends with my new neighbors.” (earn or acquire the friendship of the neighbors)
  • “You need to make a decision.” (form or arrive at a decision)
  • “The neighbors make so much noise.” (create a lot of noise)
  • “He made an excellent speech at his brother’s wedding.” (orally perform or deliver a speech)
  • “Have you made any plans for the summer yet?” (form or establish plans)
  • “He called the restaurant and made a reservation for four.” (arrange or establish a reservation)
  • “You would make a great teacher!” (be suited for the role of a teacher)
  • “He really made a good impression at the job interview yesterday.” (achieve or produce a good impression)
  • “I will make an exception this time.” (allow an exception)
  • “This doesn’t make any sense to me.” (to be coherent or intelligible)
  • Make it a priority to turn off the gas before you go out.” (establish it as a priority)
  • “I’m making a fortune in my new job.” (earn a large amount of money)
  • “It will make a big difference to the house if we paint all the rooms white.” (create or amount to a significant difference)

Get

Get is a particularly versatile verb. For example, it can mean any of the following depending on the context: fetch, obtain, understand, answer, receive, hit, be, become, hear, understand, earn, buy, win, secure, reach/arrive at, cause, convince, open, or succeed.
We are entirely dependent upon what is collocated with get to know which meaning it carries:
  • “I get so many emails every day.” (receive emails)
  • “I got good grades on my exams.” (obtain/earn good grades)
  • “How do you get to the station from here?” (reach/arrive at the station)
  • “I got a really good price for the car I sold.” (obtain a good price)
  • “We managed to get an excellent deal.” (secure an excellent deal)
  • “He didn’t laugh at the joke because he didn’t get it.” (understand it (the joke))
  • “I didn’t get the job because I didn’t have the right qualifications.” (succeed in obtaining the job)
  • How much do you get per month in your new job?” (earn what amount?)
  • “Did you get these shoes at the new mall?” (buy the shoes)
  • “She got a medal for coming in first.” (win/be awarded a medal)
  • “I can’t get the children to go to bed early.” (convince or force the children)
  • “I finally got the computer to work again after it had crashed.” (cause the computer to work)
  • “Can you get the phone, please?” (answer the phone)
  • “My hands are full; could you get the door for me?” (open the door)
  • “Sorry, I didn’t get your name.” (hear/understand your name)
  • “I got really sick while I was on vacation, but I’m feeling a lot better now.” (became sick)
  • “He got arrested for robbing a bank.” (was arrested)
  • “The bullet got him in the head.” (hit him)

Take

As a light verb, take broadly means have, obtain, or use, but it has some other specific meanings in certain circumstances:
  • “Let’s all take a break.” (have a brief rest)
  • “Would you like to take a walk?” (engage in a walk)
  • “We’ll take a taxi home.” (use a taxi to travel)
  • “I have to take the bus into town.” (use the bus to travel)
  • “Don’t forget to take your medicine.” (ingest your medicine)
  • “He’s taking an exam in the morning.” (complete an exam)
  • “Will you take notes for me in class today?” (write notes)
  • “He’s been so sick that we’ve had to take his temperature every hour.” (obtain (through measurement) his temperature)
  • “It might not work, but I’m willing to take that chance.” (behave or act in a risky way)
  • “Hey, come here and take a look at this!” (examine or view this)
  • “We’ll just have to take your word for it.” (trust in what you say)
  • “She took a seat near the back.” (assume occupancy of a seat)
Quiz

1. Which of the following do light verbs rely on for their meaning?





2. Identify the light verb in the following sentence:
“I’m hoping to train with the Olympic squad this summer, but I am not sure they will take me.”






3. Which of the following is not another name for light verbs?





4. True or False: Sometimes different light verbs can have the same meaning if they have the same predicate.



5. Which of the following can be both a light verb and an auxiliary verb?





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