Linking Verbs

Linking Verbs with Meanings of Appearance & Sense Perception

In English, when we want to describe someone or something, for example to say who or what they are or what qualities they have, we use one of a small (but very frequently used) group of verbs known as Linking Verbs.

Linking Verbs (also known as Copulas) are a special group of verbs that link a subject and a complement. The complement describes or identifies the subject.

A linking verb sentence has its structure built around either a predicate adjective or a predicate nominative.

Linking Verbs have the unique characteristic of taking predicate adjectivesOpens in new window and predicate nominativesOpens in new window as their complements as opposed to action verbs that take objects. (Learn more about this distinctive feature between linking and action verbsOpens in new window)

The following are some examples using the linking verb be:

Predicate adjective complements
  • Their son is quite tall for his age.

    → The predicate adjective tall refers back to the subject their son.

  • The performance was very enjoyable.

    → The predicate adjective enjoyable refers back to the subject the performance.

Predicate nominative complements
  • Their son is a high school student.

    → The predicate noun a high school student refers back to the subject their son.

  • The performance was a huge success.

    →The predicate noun a huge success refers back to the subject the performance.

Linking verbs are divided into two classes: stative linking verbs and dynamic linking verbs. Here some examples:

Stative Linking VerbsDynamic Linking Verbs

As you can see, stative linking verbs are the verb be (the most commonly used verb in English) and verbs of appearance and sense perception. The following are some examples of both classes used in the present and present progressive tenses.

The verb be is almost always used as a stative verb. Here is what happens when we try to use be in the progressive tense:

  • Their son is being quite tall for his age.
  • The performance was being very enjoyable.
  • Their son is being a high school student.
  • The performance was being a huge success.

However, we can use be as a dynamic verb in the special sense of “deliberately perform or act as”, for example:

  • Steven is being a total jerk.

The example sentence describes the way that Steven is acting at the moment. It does not mean that Steven is always a jerk. If we meant to say that, we would use the present tense:

  • Steven is a total jerk.

Here are examples of some stative and dynamic linking verbs:

Stative Linking Verbs (appear, taste)
Present tense
  • The situation appears to be getting worse.
Present progressive tense
  • The situation is appearing to be getting worse.
Present tense
  • The coffee tastes good.
Present progressive tense
  • The coffe is tasting good.
Dynamic Linking Verbs (become, get)
Present tense
  • Sally becomes a good tennis player.
Present progressive tense
  • Sally is becoming a good tennis player.
Present tense
  • The situation gets worse as time passes.
Present progressive tense
  • The situation is getting worse as time passes.

Linking Verbs & their complements

The ComplementsOpens in new window always refer back to the subject, hence the term “linking” refers to the relation between the complement of the linking verb and the subject.

In linking verb sentences, the verb “links” the complement following the linking verb back to the subject. In other words, the complement must give some information about or description of the subject.

Here are three examples of linking verb sentences:

    • Donald is funny.
    • →In this sentence, the predicate adjective funny describes Donald’s personality.

    • The novel became a bestseller.
    • →In this sentence, the noun phrase a bestseller tells us something about the success of the novel.

    • The soup smelled wonderful.
    • →In this sentence, the predicate adjective wonderful tells us something about the nature of the soup.

Sometimes linking verbs are compared to equal signs. That is, we can replace the linking verbs with equal signs:

  • Donald = funny
  • the novel = a bestseller
  • the soup = wonderful

While the analogy of linking verbs to equal signs is not perfect, it does convey a sense of the special relationship between the complement and the subject in sentences with linking verbs. This relationship is completely absent in action verbs.

The complements of linking verbs are collectively called subject complements. The term subject complementOpens in new window comes from the fact that the complements of linking verbs must refer back to and describe the subjects.

Two common subject complements are adjectivesOpens in new window (called predicate adjectivesOpens in new window) and noun phrasesOpens in new window (called predicate nominativesOpens in new window). Here are examples of sentences that illustrate each type of subject complement (subject complements are underlined):

Predicate adjective
  • Liam sounded happy.
Predicate nominative
  • Kamara is a bully.

Distinctive Feature Between Linking & Action Verbs

Linking Verbs have a unique grammatical feature that distinguishes them from all action verbs:

Only linking verbs can have predicate adjectives as complements. If a verb can be used with a predicate adjective complement, then we know for certain that the verb is a linking verb.

This extremely useful fact gives us a simple way to distinguish linking verbs from action verbs. If a verb can take a predicate adjective as a complement, then it must be a linking verb.

Linking verbs (as we observed in the beginning of this study) can also be followed by noun phrases. But even here, predicate nominatives, the type of noun phrase that follows a linking verb, are functionally different from the type of noun phrase that follows an action verb.

Here is a pair of examples:

Linking verb
  • Alice became a successful writer.
Action verb
  • Alice met a successful writer.

The same noun phrase a successful writer follows the verbs in the two examples, so how can the complements be different?

The complements are completely different in their relationship to their subjects. In the linking verb example, the predicate nominative a successful writer and the subject Alice must be one and the same person:

  • Alice = a successful writer

In the action verb example, the object a successful writer and the subject Alice cannot be the same person:

  • Alice ≠ a successful writer

By definition, predicate nominatives have two distinctive characteristics:

  1. They are always complements of linking verbs.
  2. They must identify or rename the subject—i.e., they must refer to the same person or things as the subject.

Many common linking verbs (as mentioned earlier) are verbs of appearance or sense perception. Survey the following examples:

  • They appeared angry about something.
  • Larry looked pleased with himself.
  • Kyle seemed a little sad today.
  • The tenor sounded flat to me.
  • The note rang true.
  • Some tropical fruit smells absolutely dreadful.
  • The fruitcake tasted stale.

The remaining common linking verbs describe the nature or condition of the subject. Survey the examples below:

  • The cook always gets upset when someone complains about the food.
  • The kittens soon grew strong.
  • The patient remained weak.
  • Tarzan stayed angry about the incident with the coconuts.
  • The explorer became faint with hunger.
  • I feel terrific.
  • His face turned bright red.

Although all the verbs used in the preceding examples are linking verbs, some can also be used as action verbs. When they are used as action verbs, their meaning are completely different from when they are used as linking verbs. Here is an example to survey, using the verb feel:

Linking verb:
  • The detective felt sick.
    → In this example, the linking verb felt is used to describe the detective.
Action verb:
  • The detective felt the victim’s body for the missing gun.
    → Here, the action verb felt tells us what the detective did: he or she engaged in the action of searching the body.

Notice also that the linking verb is followed by the predicate adjective sick, while the action verb is followed by an ordinary noun phrase object the victim’s body. The noun phrase the victim’s body cannot be a predicate nominative because it does not refer back to detective:

  • detective ≠ the victim’s body.
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  • References
    • The McGraw-Hill Handbook of English Grammar and Usage Linking Verbs and Their Complements By Marthus-Adden Zimboiant.
    • Practice Makes Perfect English Verb Tenses Up Close, Linking Verbs with Meanings of Appearance and Sense Perception (Pg 9-11) By Mark Lester.

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