Linking Verbs  

What is a linking verb?

Linking verbs (also known as copulas or copular verbs) are used to describe the state of being of the subject of a clause. Unlike action verbs (also called dynamic verbs), they connect the subject to the predicate of the clause without expressing any action.

To be

The verb to be is the most common linking verb. Unique among English verbs, be has eight different conjugations: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, and being. It can link the subject to an adjective (known as a predicative adjective) that describes it, or to a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that renames it. These are collectively known as subject complements.

General descriptions

We can use nearly any adjective after be to describe the subject. For example:
  • “You are wrong.”
  • “It is cold today.”
  • “It was hot yesterday.”
  • “The team is terrible this year.”
  • “They were fortunate to have won.”
  • “She has been so stubborn.”
  • “He is really annoying.”

Physical or emotional sensations

Be is very often used to describe a sensation belonging to the subject. These can be physical, as in:
  • “I am cold.”
  • “We are thirsty.”
  • “They were tired.”
Be can also describe emotional sensations:
  • “He is sad.”
  • “He has been anxious lately.”
  • “I can tell that you are upset.”

Precise physical descriptions

Be is also used for specific physical descriptions of the subject, such as exact age, weight, or height.

Age

When we describe a subject’s age, we can express it simply as a number, as in:
  • “I am 32.”
  • “Our daughter is one.”
We can also use a unit of time between the number and the adjective old, as in:
  • “I am 32 years old.”
  • “Our daughter is one week old.”
(However, we cannot use only the number and years or the number and old—“I am 32 years” and “Our daughter is one old” are both incorrect.)

Height

For height, we usually use the number, the unit, and the adjective tall all together, as in:
  • “They are five feet tall.”
  • “He is two meters tall.”
If we are using feet and inches as our units, there are a number of ways that we can write the sentence without using the adjective tall. These are especially prevalent in informal English. For example:
  • “He is six foot.”
  • “She is five foot three.”
  • “I am five feet, three inches.”

Weight

When describing the subject’s weight with be, we only use the number + the unit of measurement, as in:
  • “I am 185 pounds.”
  • “This brick is four kilograms.”

With prepositional phrases

A linking verb can also be followed by a prepositional phrase that acts as an adjective to describe the subject. These usually describe the subject’s location, though they can be used to provide other descriptions as well. For example:
  • “John is in the other room.” (John is physically located in the other room.)
  • “I will be away from the office this week.” (I will not be present in the office this week.)
  • “They are against this plan.” (They do not agree with or support this plan.)

Renaming the subject

We can also follow the linking verb be with a predicate noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that renames or re-identifies the subject. These add a descriptive element, without directly functioning as adjectives. For example:
  • “She is a bully.”
  • “That’s him; that’s the man we were looking for.”
  • “They are a lost cause.”
  • “I have been a mess lately.”

Be as an auxiliary verb

We must be careful not to confuse how be functions as a linking verb with how it functions as an auxiliary verb. When it is used as an auxiliary, be is no longer an independent verb describing the subject of the sentence. Instead, it helps other verbs to create the continuous tenses or to change the voice of the writing.

Creating verb tenses

Be frequently functions as an auxiliary verb by combining with the present participle of a verb to form one of the continuous tenses. For example:

Passive voice

We can also use be as an auxiliary to create the passive voice. For example:
  • “The book was written by an anonymous author.”
  • “The victory will be savored for years.”
  • “The hospitals were built in 1805.”

Sense verbs

Certain verbs are used to indicate perceptions, opinions, or bodily sensations. These are known as verbs of the senses, or “sense verbs” for short. The sense verbs are:
  • taste
  • smell
  • sound
  • seem
  • feel
  • look
  • appear
Sense verbs merely relate the means by which the speaker has arrived at such a sensation about the subject. When we use them like this, they are functioning as linking verbs (rather than action verbs) and we pair them with predicative adjectives. (However, unlike be, we do not follow sense verbs with predicative nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns.)
For example:
  • “I feel terrible today.” (A feeling inside of being very unwell.)
  • “You sound tired.” (A perception of tiredness in your voice.)
  • “She didn’t sound Italian.” (An opinion based on the way her voice sounds.)
  • “You look fabulous today.” (This is my opinion when I look at you.)
  • “He doesn’t look very happy.” (This is my opinion based on what he looks like. Note that the adverb very is modifying the adjective happy, not the verb look.)
  • “This doesn’t feel right.” (An opinion or perception of something not being as it should.)
  • “The car appears OK, but I’ll have to drive it to be sure.” (From what I can see, the car looks like it’s in good condition.)
  • “That smells nice.” (Sensation of a pleasant aroma.)
  • “This milk tastes funny*.” (Sensation of an odd or unpleasant taste.)
(*The adjective funny has two meanings. It can describe something that makes you laugh, or something that is strange, unpleasant, dubious, or not as it should be. It carries the latter meaning in the above example.)
If any of these verbs were used as action verbs, they could no longer be followed by an adjective—they would instead be modified by an adverb. For example:
  • “I felt gently around the table in the dark.” (Describes the action of feeling with one’s hand.)
  • “He looked quickly to the right.” (Describes the action of looking in a certain direction.)
  • “The car appeared out of nowhere.” (Describes the action of coming into sight, using a prepositional phrase as an adverb.)
  • “Yes, you heard right!” (Right in this case is an adverb meaning “accurately or correctly.”)

Verbs of progression

Verbs that show progression, growth, or development are also often used as linking verbs. Become is a prime example of this kind of verb—it links an adjective that describes a development or progression by the subject. Here are some other verbs that can function as linking verbs in a similar way:
  • get
  • grow
  • prove
  • remain
  • turn
As with the sense verbs, these can be followed by an adjective that describes the subject. For example:
  • “The crowd grew quiet.”
  • “The kids are becoming restless.”
  • “I hope you get well soon.”
  • “Try to remain upbeat.”
  • “Hopefully things don’t turn ugly.”
These verbs can sometimes be followed by nouns, noun phrases, or pronouns that rename or re-identify the subject, as in:
  • “The leader became a dictator after so many years in power.”
  • “He’ll always remain my friend.”
  • “They have proven valuable allies.”

Linking verbs vs. action verbs

The verbs be, seem, and become are always used as linking verbs (except when be is an auxiliary verb, as we looked at already). However, the other linking verbs all have the capacity to behave as action verbs in a sentence. Sometimes it is tricky to know whether a verb is functioning as a linking verb or as an action verb, but there are ways that we can be sure.

Checking the predicate

The predicate of a linking verb is, by definition, an adjective, noun, noun phrase, or pronoun that directly describes, renames, or re-identifies the subject of the clause.
If we want to see if a verb is functioning as a linking verb, we can simply check whether the predicate that follows is describing the subject. If it is, then it is a linking verb; if it is not, then it is functioning as an action verb. For example:
  • “He looked unwell yesterday.” (Linking verb—the predicate unwell yesterday describes the subject of the clause, he.)
  • “He looked quickly to the right.” (Action verb—the predicate quickly to the right describes the action of the verb.)
  • “I hope you get better soon.” (Linking verb—the predicate better soon describes the subject of the clause, you.)
  • “Would you please get a glass of water for me?” (Action verb—the predicate a glass of water is the direct object of the verb.)

Replacing the verb with be

If we are still not certain about the kind of verb we’re dealing with, we can also try replacing the verb in question with be. Because be is only a linking verb when it functions on its own, the resulting sentence will only make sense if the original verb was also a linking verb.
Let’s look at the two sets of examples above, this time replacing the verb in each case with be:
  • “He looked unwell yesterday.”
  • “He was unwell yesterday.” (The sentence makes sense, so the verb looked was a linking verb.)
  • “He looked quickly to the right.”
  • “He was quickly to the right.” (The sentence no longer makes sense, so the verb looked was an action verb.)
  • “I hope you get better soon.”
  • “I hope you are better soon.” (The sentence makes sense, so the verb get was a linking verb.)
  • “Would you please get a glass of water for me?”
  • “Would you please are a glass of water for me?” (The sentence no longer makes sense, so the verb get was an action verb.)

Sources of confusion – Good vs. Well

A common stumbling block for native speakers and learners of English alike is the correct usage of good versus well.
In most instances, good is an attributive adjective directly describing a noun, while well is an adverb describing a verb, adjective, or other adverb. For example:
  • “He is a good driver.”
  • “She writes well.”
We cannot use good and well interchangeably in these instances, and we can see immediately that the following would be incorrect:
However, well can also function as a predicative adjective, where it usually means “healthy” or “not ill.” We use it in this sense after linking verbs such as be, get, or the sense verbs we looked above:
  • “Jenny looks well lately.”
  • Get well soon!”
In these examples, well does not modify the verbs, but rather describes the subjects of the clauses (implied in the second example).
Good can be used as a predicative adjective as well, meaning “of a high or satisfactory quality.” This can be used after linking verbs to talk about an opinion of something, an emotional state, or general well-being (as opposed to physical health, specifically). For example:
  • “The movie was good.” (opinion of the quality of the movie)
  • “I’m feeling good about my chances!” (emotional state)
  • “Janet looks good lately.” (opinion of Janet’s appearance)
  • A: “How are you, Bob?” B: “I’m good, thanks!” (general well-being)
The last example is perfectly correct, and it is very frequently used as a stock response to the question “How are you?” You could also say “I’m well,” and no one is likely to take issue with it. However, if someone asks how you are after an illness or injury, for instance, it would be better to respond with “I’m well.”
If saying “I’m good” still does not sound quite right to you, you could also say “I am doing well,” in which case well is used adverbially once more.
You can learn more about such adjective/adverb oddities in the irregular adverbs section of the chapter on Adverbs.
Quiz

1. Which of the following is described or modified by the predicate of a linking verb?





2. A prepositional phrase that follows a linking verb does which of the following?





3. Which of the following can be the predicate of a linking verb of the senses?





4. Which of the following can be the predicate of a linking verb of progression?







5. What kind of linking verb is used in the following sentence?
“I’m not sure why, but David seems a bit unhappy today.”





6. If we are unsure whether a verb is an action verb or a linking verb, which kind of verb can we use as a substitute to check?





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