Linking Verbs

Linking verbs are verbs that describe a subject’s state of being by linking the subject to an adjective that describes it (predicate adjective) or to another noun that renames it (predicate nominative). Linking verbs only connect the subject to other words; they do not show action. Linking verbs are also called copulas or copular verbs. These names come from Latin roots that mean to fasten together, or link, so it really doesn’t matter what you prefer to call them. It all means the same thing. There are several categories of linking verbs to keep in mind, and some verbs can function as linking verbs or as other types of verbs. Although it may be helpful to remember linking verbs according to their different categories, it’s most important to understand how they function in contrast to other types of verbs to avoid being misled by appearance.

Being Verbs

As their name implies, being verbs are the different forms of the verb to be: am, is, are, was, were, be, being, been. Being verbs are frequently used as linking verbs in conjunction with adjectives, prepositional phrases, or nouns to describe or rename the subject, although they may also be used on their own or as auxiliary verbs. Being verbs are also called state-of-being verbs.

Steven is a good student.

The linking verb is links the subject Steven to the predicate nominative student. The noun student renames the subject Steven. The linking verb is could essentially be replaced with an equal sign to say, “Steven = student.” This is a good logic test to help you determine if you are dealing with a linking verb.

Robin was very stubborn as a child.

Was functions as a linking verb connecting the subject Robbin to the predicate adjective stubborn. As when linking the subject to a noun, you can try replacing the linking verb with an equal sign to see if it makes logical sense. Could we say, “Robin = stubborn”? Yes, so clearly was is linking the subject to an adjective that describes it.

Stephanie is running to the store.

This time is is not acting as a linking verb. Instead, it’s functioning as an auxiliary verb to the participle running. Together they form the present continuous tense of run, an action verb.

Sense Verbs

Sense verbs are verbs having to do with our five senses and are sometimes used as linking verbs. These verbs include appear, feel, look, seem, smell, sound, and taste. Think carefully about how these verbs are being used when you see them in a sentence. Sometimes they are being used as action verbs, but sometimes they are being used as linking verbs.

Tim looks tired today.

In this sentence, Tim is not looking at anything. Looks is not being used to show an action that Tim is doing. It is being used to describe how Tim appears to us. Looks is a linking verb appealing to our sense of sight, not an action verb describing how Tim is using his own. Looks is linking the adjective tired to the subject Tim.

Tim looks out the window.

This is an example of looks being used as an action verb. Now Tim is performing the action of looking with his own eyes. The prepositional phrase out the window serves as an adverb modifying looks to describe where Tim is looking.

This semester is looking promising.

Notice that linking verbs can also be accompanied by auxiliary verbs. Looking, accompanied by the auxiliary verb is, links the participle promising, which is functioning as an adjective, to the subject semester.

The cookies smelled delicious.

Cookies do not have noses, so they are clearly not performing the action of smelling anything. Smelled is a linking verb connecting the adjective delicious to the cookies it describes.

Jan smelled the cookies.

Jan does have a nose, and she can perform the action of smelling the cookies. Here smelled is not describing how Jan smells to others. It is showing Jan doing the action of smelling the cookies, in this case smelled is an action verb with cookies as its object.

Progression Verbs

Progression verbs are similar to sense verbs in that some of them may function as linking or action verbs. When they are functioning as linking verbs, they do not describe an action the subject is literally doing. They instead indicate a change or progression (or the lack thereof) the subject goes through. Common progression verbs include become, get, grow, prove, remain, turn, stay.

This class just got more difficult.

As with sense verbs, we can use simple logic to see what’s really happening in the sentence and see that getting does not mean the class in this sentence is obtaining something. Getting clearly refers to an increase in difficulty. Class is not obtaining something. It is progressing in a quality—the quality of being difficult. Getting is then functioning as a linking verb, connecting the adjective difficult to the subject class.

Thomas got a new car.

This time got is an action verb because it is being used to show Thomas performing the action of buying or obtaining the object car. Thomas is not becoming a car or becoming more car-like in quality as the linking function of get might indicate.

The boss grew impatient.

Clearly the boss is not physically growing in size or cultivating a plant here. The boss is rather becoming progressively more impatient. Grew is linking the adjective impatient to the subject boss to indicate the development of a quality.

The beans are growing rapidly.

In this sentence, the subject beans is really performing the action of growing. Thus, are growing functions as an action verb.

Be careful not to get confused or overwhelmed by the dual functionality of sense and progression verbs. If the verb tells what the subject is doing and has an object, it’s an action verb. If the verb is being used to describe the subject and precedes a predicate nominative or predicate adjective, then it’s a linking verb. Just slow down and think logically about what is actually happening in the sentence, and you should have no problem deciding how a verb is being used.

Prepositional Phrases after Linking Verbs

Sometimes when a linking verb is followed by a prepositional phrase, things get a bit messy, and there are multiple opinions on how to deal with the issue.

The boys were in the treehouse.

One interpretation of this example would say that the prepositional phrase in the treehouse functions as an adjective describing the location of the subject boys. So, let’s try the logic test we used in the other examples. Does it make sense to say that “boys = in the treehouse”? In a way, but not exactly. A subject is not really equal to a location in the same way that it is to another noun or an adjective. But let’s consider one other way of looking at things. Since linking verbs indicate a subject’s state of being, we could say something like, “The boys exist in a state of being located in the treehouse.”

However, since in the treehouse indicates a location, or describes where the boys were, some consider it much more logical to categorize in the treehouse as an adverb modifying were, not an adjective modifying boys. In this view, were simply states existence, and in the treehouse modifies were to describe where the boys exist. Were then would not be linking the subject to anything; it would just be stating existence. However, some favoring the first interpretation where in the treehouse functions as an adjective might argue that adverbs can’t modify being verbs, and therefore in the treehouse must still be an adjective modifying the subject. Others would simply say that everything depends on the situation and what seems to be the most logical function of the word or phrase in question. In some cases, more than one interpretation might even seem equally logical.

The traditional view, is that if the prepositional phrase is answering an adverb question, like where or when, then it should be treated as an adverb, not an adjective, even after a linking verb. If it looks like a duck, and it acts like a duck, it’s probably a duck. If it looks like an adverb, and it acts like an adverb, it’s probably an adverb. One issue some have with this is that they think a linking verb must be linking something. If the prepositional phrase is an adverb, which cannot be referring to the subject, then the linking verb is standing alone, not linking anything to the subject. However, this is perfectly fine. A linking verb can stand alone if necessary. Consider Descartes’ famous statement,

“I think, therefore I am.”

There is nothing after the linking verb am for it to link to the subject I. However, this is still a perfectly acceptable statement. Am is simply indicating the subject’s existence, and it accomplishes that job just fine without an adjective or noun to link back to the subject. There is no need to get hung up on a lack of “linkable” words in the predicate and throw logic out the window by attempting to give adverbials the job of adjectives.

Getting back to the example, in the treehouse answers the question where. That’s adverb territory, so the prepositional phrase in the treehouse is an adverb modifying were. If you’re taking a grammar class, and your instructor says otherwise, then, for your grade’s sake, go with the flow. However, in lessons on this site, I’ll be treating such phrases according to their function.

Adverbs After Linking Verbs

As with adverbial prepositional phrases, adverbs on their own can also modify linking verbs. Like I already said before, don’t confuse yourself and abandon logic when there is clearly an adverb modifying a linking verb.

The cat is there.

Clearly there answers the adverb question where. There could not be an adjective being linked to cat no matter how we try to look at it. We could not say something like, The there cat exists.” There just simply cannot be an adjective. Try it another way.

That cat over there exists.

Now what do we do with the there? The sentence looks even more confusing now. Obviously we’re not trying to use over there to modify the verb exists. This would be a very unnatural order to say things if that’s what we meant. In that case, we could more naturally order things: “That cat exists over there.” Although this is also true and means pretty much the same thing, that’s not really what is meant by the original sentence. The original sentence is essentially saying, “That cat that is over there exists,” or maybe, “The cat that is over there exists.” Thus, we are not trying to use the adverbial phrase over there to describe cat, which would obviously not make grammatical sense. Rather, we have simply cut out the that is part, which is clearly understood and usually left out in natural speech. Over there does not then describe cat, but rather the omitted verb is from the complete adjective clause that is over there. Sometimes the way we omit words when we talk does not make perfect grammatical sense, even though we clearly understand what is meant.

Ron frequently feels sleepy in class.

Ron is not performing the action of feeling something with his sense of touch. Feels is clearly linking the adjective sleepy to Ron to describe a state of sleepiness. Now that that’s established, let’s consider the adverb frequently. Adverbs answer the questions where, when, how, how often, and to what extent. Does frequently answer any of these questions about sleepy? Well, if we had to categorize frequently, it would have to fall under how often. But does an adjective like sleepy lend itself to a question of how often in and of itself? Not really. Ron frequently feels sleepy. This makes much more sense. We could ask, “How often does Ron feel a certain way?” He frequently feels that way.

How are you?

Since this is a question, the word order is reversed, but we dissect it the same. If it makes it easier to think about, we could turn it back around to say, “You are how?” Whichever way you want to look at it, You is the subject, are is the verb, and how must be an adverb modifying are because how is an adverb question.

As you can probably tell, or will soon find out if you do a quick search on the topic, the issue of adverbs modifying linking verbs has been, and still is, a matter of debate among grammar scholars, and it is unlikely to be permanently settled any time soon. But don’t worry. You likely won’t run into such conundrums very often, if at all, in most typical grammar classes, and when you’re just speaking or writing naturally, you probably won’t even be worrying about such things. For the most part, applying basic grammar rules and definitions with simple logic and common sense should help you figure out most sentences you’ll encounter.

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