Two of the most important parts of speech in all languages are nouns and verbs. While nouns are quite easy to learn, verbs are relatively more challenging.
Verbs are made up of several types, and one of them is what we refer to as “linking verbs.”
Perhaps, you may have heard of your grade-school teacher calling them “helping verbs’ back then.
Generally, linking verbs are easily and naturally acquired by native speakers of English but are easily confused by second-language learners.
To help you get rid of any confusion on this topic, this post covers everything you need to know about linking verbs, and then some.
Let’s begin with a quick answer.
What are linking verbs?
Also known as copulas, linking verbs are a type of verbs that connect a subject to a complement, in which the complement is usually a noun or an adjective. The most common linking verbs in English are the different forms of “be” as well as verbs like “taste,” “smell,” “seem,” and “become.”
The most common linking verbs in English
Linking verbs are a type of verbs that connect the subject to the predicate part of the sentence, particularly when the predicate is a complement to the subject.
The relationship of the subject to the predicate is grammatically expressed through the presence of linking verbs, which is what makes them utterly crucial in grammar.
While native English speakers learn linking verbs naturally while growing up, second-language learners tend to struggle in making sense of them as well as putting them to good use.
Most non-native speakers of English generally find linking verbs challenging to learn because of the complexity of the grammatical rules that these verbs entail.
In language studies, linking verbs are technically known as “copulas,” which are words or phrases used to link a subject to its complementary elements, such as nouns and adjectives.
In general, most languages contain one main copula. In English, the main copula or linking verb used is “to be” or simply “be.”
The verb “be” can be transformed into many forms, in which the most common ones are what we use for constructing the simple present tense; these are “am,” “is,” and “are.”
These three simple present forms of “be” can further be changed into their simple past forms. For sentences constructed in the simple past, the verbs “was” and “were” are used.
Furthermore, “been” is also another form of the verb “be.” This form is particularly used in constructing perfect tenses in English.
Apart from “be” and its multiple forms, the other most common types of linking verbs are those used in sensory perception such as “taste,” “hear,” and “smell.”
Those ones used to talk about states or conditions of things like “remain,” “become,” and “seem” are linking verbs too.
To really make sense of the most widely-used linking or helping verbs, let us look at each of them in ample detail.
The linking verb “am”
Just like most, if not all, languages out there, the English language contains the concepts of “grammatical person” and “grammatical number.”
Grammatical person refers to the type of participant involved in a communicative event, such as the speaker and the addressee.
The speaker takes the first-person perspective, the addressee takes the second-person perspective, and the other participants apart from the speaker and the addressee take on the third-person perspective.
Meanwhile, the grammatical number refers to the number of participants in a communicative event, and they are labeled either as singular or plural in language studies.
“Am” is defined as the first-person singular form of the linking verb “be,” which is specifically used along with the first-person singular pronoun “I” in simple present sentences.
That is to say, no other pronouns can be followed by the verb “am” except “I” in forming grammatical simple present sentences in English.
Also, “am” cannot be turned into any other part of speech such as adjectives and adverbs – not unless “am” is intentionally topicalized or used as the subject in the sentence.
In context, “am” connects “I” to a complementary element, which can either be a noun or an adjective.
Here’s an example of how to use “am” to connect “I” to a noun complement in a simple present sentence:
The example above is an affirmative statement, which means that it aims to validate rather than negate an idea.
To negate an idea or proposition in English, the adverb “not” needs to be placed right after “am,” such as in the next sentence:
And, here’s an example of a sentence using “am” to connect the subject “I” to an adjective complement in another simple present sentence:
You may also state the sentence above in its negative form, such as in the example below:
Now, let us proceed to another common linking verb in English, the verb “is.”
The linking verb “is”
“Is” is also used for creating simple present sentences. In particular, “is” is the third-person singular form of “be.”
In English, there are three third-person subject pronouns that are singular in their grammatical number. These pronouns are “he,” “she,” and “it.”
Similarly, the job of “is” is to also link noun and adjective complements to any of these three subject pronouns as well as any other subject that is singular in grammatical number.
The next examples are all in the affirmative form:
To negate the sentences above, the adverb “not” is also added after “is.”
In less formal language use, “is” and “not” can be shortened into a single word. This process is also known as contraction.
The resulting word when “is” and “not” are combined is “isn’t.”
Remember to always put the apostrophe (the comma-like symbol hanging between “n” and “t”) after the letter “n,” not after “s,” to represent the omitted letter “o.”
The linking verb “are”
Thirdly, the linking verb “are” is used for both the second-person singular and plural subject pronouns, the first-person plural pronoun, as well as the third-person plural pronoun.
Other subjects apart from pronouns that are grammatically plural in number should also make use of “are” in sentence construction, just like “boys,” “children,” and “parents.”
The second-person subject pronoun “you” can either be singular or plural in its grammatical number depending on the context of the language use.
But, regardless of whether the second-person pronoun is singular or plural in number, the linking verb “are” needs to be used.
As you may figure, adverbs of degree like “quite,” “very,” or “really” may also be added to increase or decrease the extent of the idea being expressed, as in the example above.
To continue further, “are” is also used for connecting the first-person plural subject pronoun “we” to its complementary elements.
And, the third-person plural subject pronoun “they” should also make use of “are” when it is being connected to its complements.
As you may figure, sentences using “are” may also be negated by simply adding the adverb “not,” thereby forming the phrase “are not” or the contracted version “aren’t” in the process.
The linking verb “was”
The linking verb “was” connects any singular subjects such as “she,” “he,” or “it” to its complementary parts just like the verb “is.”
However, the linking verb “is” is specifically used in simple present sentence construction; on the other hand, “was” is meanwhile used for creating simple past sentences.
“Was” is specifically used when the event being described is already done or finished at the time of speaking or writing.
While adverbs of time indicative of the past such as “yesterday” or “last week” are usually present in simple past sentences, these expressions may also be conveniently omitted.
When the context dictates that the events being discussed are in the past, speakers may automatically drop the use of past time expressions.
We can use “was” in contextually describing past events such as follows:
Using “was” in the context of humans is something that both native and non-native speakers of English should be cautious of.
This is because the use of “was” may easily imply that the person being talked about is already deceased, hence the extra caution.
To use was in its negative form, one may simply add the adverb not after it in a sentence to form “was not.” The contracted form of “was not” is “wasn’t.”
The linking verb “were”
Like “was,” “were” is a form of “be” that is used in creating simple past sentences; however, “were” is specifically used for plural subjects.
In particular, plural subjects like “they,” “we,” “the children,” or “Mr. and Mrs. Jones” should make use of “were” rather than “was.”
But, take note that this should only happen when the event or idea being described is already finished or completed at the time of the utterance.
To use the negative form of “were,” the adverb “not” can simply be placed after “were.” “Were not” may also be contracted into “weren’t” in casual speech if the speaker wishes to.
In speaking, remember that the meaning and pronunciation of the linking verb “were” are different from the word “where.”
“Were” and “where” may have almost similar pronunciations, but their meanings are completely different from each other.
These words are also known as “synophones” in language studies, which we covered in detail in our other resource text titled “Where” vs. “Were” – The Ultimate Guide for your reference.
The linking verb “been”
“Been” is also another form of “be” that is particularly used in making the various perfect tenses in English.
The linking verb “been” cannot stand alone in a sentence, as it needs auxiliary verbs like “has,” “have,” or “had” to function.
To be able to form the present perfect tense, the grammatical number of the subject needs to be considered by the language user.
A singular subject needs to make use of the auxiliary verb “has” before the linking verb “been,” while a plural subject must be followed by “have” and “been.”
Perfect tenses are useful in describing general life achievements and experiences as well as recent occurrences of events.
The next example contains a singular subject in a sentence constructed in the present perfect tense:
Meanwhile, the example below has a plural subject:
To construct the negative form of the present perfect tense, the adverb “not” needs to be added after the auxiliary verb, thereby forming “has not been” or “have not been.”
“Hasn’t been” and “haven’t been” are the contracted forms of “has not been” and “have not been,” respectively.
But, remember that the phrases “I have got” and “I have gotten” are special cases in grammar that entails certain language conventions.
While “I have got” is more common in British English, “I have gotten” is relatively more common in American English.
“I have got” is similar to “I have” that means “I possess” or “I own” something and is not stated in the perfect tense but rather in the simple present.
Linking verbs for sensory perception
Linking verbs are not only composed of the different forms of “be” because verbs used for sensory perception like “taste,” “hear,” and “smell” are often used as linking verbs too.
Remember that these sensory perception verbs must be followed by a subject complement in order to be considered linking verbs.
Again, the complement can either be a noun or an adjective that describes or refers back the subject, such as in the next example:
However, sometimes, verbs for sensory perception can also be used as transitive action verbs in sentence construction.
Observe the following example to see the difference:
As you can see, the verb “smell” in the sentence above is used to denote the transitive action of smelling or sniffing.
However, in the sentence below, the verb “smell” is used as a linking verb instead:
Other common linking verbs
Apart from those verbs used in sensory perception, other verbs like “remain,” “become,” and “seem” may also be used as linking verbs.
For example, to use “remain” as a linking verb, it has to be followed by a subject complement that can either be a noun or adjective.
In the example below, the job of the verb “remain” is to link the subject to its adjectival complement “calm.”
Similarly, the verb “become” in the example below is also used as a linking verb, which is then followed by a noun complement:
Last but not least, the verb “seem” is also another common linking verb in English. “Seem” means the same as the verbs “appear” and “look.”
Recognizing linking verbs
Recognizing linking verbs can be a tough battle for many non-native speakers of English, as these verbs are quite tricky to distinguish from the others.
One thing we can remember, though, is that linking verbs are never followed by an object because this is specifically something that transitive verbs do.
On the other hand, verbs that are unable to take direct objects are meanwhile called intransitive verbs in grammar studies.
A direct object is a word that receives or takes the action denoted by the transitive verb, such as the phrase “the ball” in the next example:
Moreover, verbs for sensory perception are considered linking verbs when they are grammatically replaceable with be-verbs.
For example, the verb “look” is considered a linking verb in the next example because it can be substituted with “is”:
However, “look” in the next example is used as an action verb rather than a linking verb:
Apart from noun and adjective complements, linking verbs may also be followed by numeral items, just like in the next example:
Linking verbs may also be followed by adverbs of place:
Or, linking verbs may also be followed by participles or adjectives ending in -ing. Participles are especially tricky because they may look like verbs in the progressive form.
Even pronouns may also be placed after linking verbs:
In a nutshell, the easiest way to recognize a linking verb is by checking the element that comes after it in a sentence.
Linking verbs are followed by a subject complement that can be a noun, an adjective, an adverb, a participle, or even a pronoun.
The purpose of linking verbs
Linking verbs exist for the purpose of connecting or linking the subject to its complementary elements rather than denoting an actual action or movement.
Linking verbs are vital in expressing ideas that denote a state of being or existence rather than real actions that can be transferred to an object.
In other words, linking verbs exist so that people can express what they think about a particular subject instead of describing what the subject does.
These ideas about the subject are what we refer to as subject complements, which can be a noun, adjective, adverb, pronoun, participle, and so on.
Subject complements are also equally important as linking verbs because they complete the meaning of the argument that the speaker or writer wants to convey.
Frequently Asked Questions on “Linking Verbs”
What are some examples of “action verbs” and “linking verbs”?
Some examples of action verbs include “kick,” “dance,” “pray,” and “drink.” Meanwhile, examples of linking verbs include the various forms of “be,” “seem,” “smell,” and “become.”
What linking verbs can also be action verbs?
Verbs like “look,” “feel,” “smell,” “grow,” “stay,” and “sound” can either be linking or action verbs depending on the usage. When these verbs are used to link the subject to its complement, they are considered linking verbs. If they are used to denote movement, they function as action verbs.
Is “felt” a linking or an action verb?
The simple past verb “felt” can either be an action or linking verb. “Felt” is a linking verb when it is followed by a complement, such as in the sentence “He felt bad about what happened.” However, it is an action verb when it refers to a type of movement, as in “He felt for the light switch as he entered his room.”
The importance of copulas or linking verbs in English is inarguable because without them, conditions, perceptions, as well as other forms of observations cannot be conveyed.
While it is true that linking verbs are naturally challenging to learn at first, they become much easier in actual language practice and exposure.
So, do not worry if you are only beginning to get the hang of them because you will be able to master linking verbs in no time as long as you keep immersing yourself in the English language.
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