Linking Verbs

by Craig Shrives

What Are Linking Verbs? (with Examples)

A linking verb is used to re-identify or to describe its subject. A linking verb is called a linking verb because it links the subject to a subject complement (see graphic below).

Infographic Explaining Linking Verb

linking verb
A linking verb tells us what the subject is, not what the subject is doing.

Easy Examples of Linking Verbs

In each example, the linking verb is highlighted and the subject is bold.
  • Alan is a vampire.
  • (Here, the subject is re-identified as a vampire.)
  • Alan is thirsty.
  • (Here, the subject is described as thirsty.)

A Linking Verb Links the Subject to a Subject Complement

The word, phrase, or clause that follows a linking verb to re-identify or describe the subject is called the subject complement. In these next four examples, everything after the linking verb is the subject complement. Also note that a subject complement functions as either an adjective (when it describes) or a noun (when it re-identifies).
  • He seems drunk.
  • (Here, the subject complement describes. It is an adjective.)
  • The soup tastes too garlicky to eat.
  • (Here, the subject complement describes. It is an adjective phrase.)
  • His proposal is madness.
  • (Here, the subject complement re-identifies. It is a noun.)
  • Jenny is a star of the future.
  • (Here, the subject complement re-identifies. It is a noun phrase.)
Here is a short video explaining what we mean by linking verbs.

Real-Life Examples of Linking Verbs

The most common linking verb is the verb "to be" (in all of its forms, e.g., "am," "is," "are," "was," "were," "will be," "was being," "has been").
  • She got her looks from her father. He is a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Lawyers were children once. (Poet Charles Lamb)
Other common linking verbs relate to the five senses ("to look," "to feel," "to smell," "to sound," and "to taste").
  • A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. An old book smells like ancient Egypt. (American author Ray Bradbury)
  • It sounds really corny but inner beautiful shows on the outside, for sure. (Model Kate Moss)
"To appear," "to become," and "to seem" are common linking verbs too.
  • 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)

Linking Verbs Are Not Action Verbs

Linking verbs do not express actions. Bear in mind that some verbs can be linking verbs or non-linking verbs depending on the context.
  • Tony always smells like the soup.
  • (Here, "smells" is a linking verb. It describes "Tony," the subject.)
  • Tony always smells the soup.
  • (Here, "smells" is not a linking verb. Remember that a linking verb does not express an action.)
  • He felt sick when he felt the heat.
  • (Here, the first "felt" is a linking verb, but the second "felt" isn't.)
Here is a good way to think about linking verbs:

A Clear Thought

A linking verb tells us what the subject is, not what the subject is doing.
Linking verbs do not cause serious problems for native English speakers, but here are two noteworthy issues.

(Issue 1) Don't use an adverb for your subject complement.

Occasionally when speaking, you will hear someone (usually someone who is quite grammar savvy) use an adverb instead of an adjective after a linking verb.
  • Your hair smells amazingly. wrong cross
  • (This error occurs because speakers know that adverbs (here, "amazingly") modify verbs, and – having had that thought – they can't correct themselves before they've blurted the adverb. The subject complement (the thing that follows a linking verb to re-identify or describe the subject) will always be a noun or an adjective. In this example, the speaker should have used the adjective "amazing.")
  • Your dog smells badly. My dog smells bad.
  • (Here, the first "smells" is not a linking verb, and it is correctly modified by the adverb "badly." It means the dog has a poor sense of smell. The second "smells" is a linking verb, and it is correctly followed by the adjective "bad." It means the dog stinks. This difference is used in the old joke "My dog has no nose." "How does he smell?" "Terrible." When speakers mistakenly use an adverb after a linking verb, they are confusing the first structure with the second.)
Mistakenly using an adverb instead of adjective is quite rare. It is far more common the other way around.
  • The process is working fantastic. wrong cross
  • (It should be "fantastically." This is covered more in adverbs.)

(Issue 2) You can say "It was I" or "It was me."

A common question related to linking verbs is whether to say "It was me" or "It was I". Here's the quick answer. You can say either because the "It was me" version is what everyone says (and so acceptable), and the "It was I" version fits the ruling that subject complements are in the subjective case.

However, to most, the so-called correct "It was I" version sounds pretentious or wrong. Here's the final advice: If you're speaking, do whatever comes naturally to you. If you're writing, restructure your sentence to avoid both versions.
  • "It was her/she" could become "She was the one."
Read more about subject complements.

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