Copular Verbs

by Craig Shrives

What Are Copular Verbs? (with Examples)

A copular verb links the subject to an identity or a description. For example (copular verbs highlighted):
  • John is a pirate.
  • (Here, "a pirate" is an identity of the subject "John.")
  • John looks dangerous.
  • (Here, "dangerous" is a description of the subject "John.")
More specifically, a copular verb (commonly called a linking verb) links the subject to a subject complement. In the examples above, the subject complements are "a pirate" and "dangerous."
What is a copular verb?
A copular verb links the subject to an identity (a noun) or a description (an adjective). That noun or adjective is called the subject complement.

Copula or Copular?

The noun "copula" means "link" or "connector." "Copular" (with "r" on the end) is the adjective of "copula." When discussing grammar, the terms "copula" and "copular verb" are used interchangeably. For example:
  • In the sentence "John seems happy," the copula is "seems."
  • In the sentence "John seems happy," the copular verb is "seems."

Key Observation

A copular verb tells us what the subject is, not what the subject is doing. For example:
  • John is the captain.
  • (Here, "is" is a copular verb. It links John (the subject) to an identity.)
  • John is talented.
  • ("Is" is a copular verb. It links John to a description.)
The words "the captain" and "talented" are called subject complements. Subject complements are always words that function as nouns or adjectives.

Now look at these examples with action verbs:
  • John plays football.
  • (In this example, "plays" is an action verb, not a copular verb. It tells us what John (the subject) is doing.)
  • John is running a marathon.
  • (Here, "is running" is an action verb, not a copular verb. It tells us what John is doing.)

Easy Examples of Copular Verbs

In each example, the copular verb is highlighted and the subject is bold.
  • Alfred was a wizard.
  • (Here, the subject is identified as a wizard.)
  • Alfred was impatient.
  • (Here, the subject is described as impatient.)

A Copular Verb Links the Subject to a Subject Complement

The word, phrase, or clause that follows a copular verb to identify or describe the subject is called the subject complement. Remember that a subject complement is a word or group of words that functions as either a noun (when identifies) or an adjective (when it describes).
  • Her solution is madness!
  • (Here, the subject complement identifies. It is a noun.)
  • Molly is a future star.
  • (Here, the subject complement identifies. It is a noun phrase.)
  • She seems happy.
  • (Here, the subject complement describes. It is an adjective.)
  • The sauce tastes too spicy for me.
  • (Here, the subject complement describes. It is an adjective phrase.)

Real-Life Examples of Copular Verbs

The most common copular verb is the verb "to be" (in all of its forms, e.g., "am," "is," "are," "was," "were," "will be," "was being," "has been").
  • My mother is a strong woman.
  • Lawyers were children once. (Poet Charles Lamb)
Other common copular verbs relate to the senses ("to look," "to feel," "to smell," "to sound," and "to taste").
  • Farming looks easy when you're a thousand miles from the corn field. (US President Dwight Eisenhower)
  • It sounds really corny but inner beautiful shows on the outside, for sure. (Model Kate Moss)
"To appear," "to become," and "to seem" are also common copular verbs.
  • Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior. (Greek philosopher Socrates)
  • It always seems impossible until it's done. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)

Copular Verbs Are Not Action Verbs

Copular verbs do not express actions. Of note, some verbs can be copular verbs or action verbs depending on the context.
  • Mark smells like the soup.
  • (Here, "smells" is a copular verb. It describes "Mark," the subject.)
  • Mark smells the soup.
  • (Here, "smells" is not a copular verb. It is an action verb.)
  • Anna felt nervous when she felt the cold.
  • (Here, the first "felt" is a copular verb, but the second "felt" isn't.)
Remember that a copular verb tells us what the subject is, not what the subject is doing. Remember that copular verbs are more commonly called "linking verbs." Here is a short video on linking verbs.
Here is the most common issue related to copular verbs:

Don't use an adverb for your subject complement.

Remember that a subject complement is always a noun or adjective. It is never an adverb.
  • The soup smells amazingly.
  • (People make this mistake because they know that adverbs ("like amazingly") modify verbs. However, this is not how copular verbs work.)
  • The soup smells amazing.
  • (This is correct. "Amazing" is an adjective.)
Read more about subject complements.

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See Also

What is a subject complement? What is a predicate? What are verbs? What is a subject? What is a direct object? Glossary of grammatical terms

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