“Become” and a Question of Syntax

background image 146

A sentence in a biographical piece in the Washington Post about the gifted librettist Randy Rainbow got me thinking about syntax and linking verbs:

His closest friend became his caustically funny maternal grandmother.

The writer may have chosen the verb became in order to avoid overused was, but, although numerous grammar resources assert that become is always a linking verb, it does not work like one in this sentence.

Here’s the typical definition of a linking verb:

A linking verb is a verb that links (connects) the subject of the sentence to information about that subject. Linking verbs do not describe action.

Although the verb become is generally recognized as a linking verb, the sentence in the Post jars because of syntax.

syntax: The set of rules and principles in a language according to which words, phrases, and clauses are arranged to create well-formed sentences.

Syntax has to do with word order. Because English is an analytic language and not a synthetic one, word order matters. Changing word order in English can change meaning.

The girl loves the boy.
The boy loves the girl.

In a synthetic language, like Latin, word order does not affect the meaning of a sentence because meaning lies with inflections (word endings). Puella puerum amat and Puerum puella amat both mean, “The girl loves the boy.” To change the meaning to “The boy loves the girl,” the noun endings must be changed: Puer puellam amat.

The conventional word order in an English sentence that contains an action verb is SVO (Subject, Verb, Object).

A linking verb does not take an object, but it does have a word that completes its meaning. This word is not an Object, but a Complement. The usual order of a sentence with a linking verb is SVC. However, because the linking verb is a connecting word and not an action word, it’s possible to change the word order from SVC to CVS without changing the meaning of the sentence.

The car is red.
Red is the car.

The friend is the grandmother.
The grandmother is the friend.

The boy seems sad.
Sad seems the boy.

Changing the word order in a sentence with a true linking verb may create peculiar syntax, but the meaning remains the same.

Now for the sentence that prompted this post.

His closest friend became his caustically funny maternal grandmother.

This sentence works only if Randy’s closest friend married Randy’s mother’s father. That, however, was not the case.

In the context of the article, when Randy was growing up, his grandmother appreciated his comic talent and supported his efforts to perform. As a result, they became close friends.

In the sentence under discussion, the verb became does denote an action—the action of coming to be.

When Randy was born, his grandmother was simply his grandmother. In time, his grandmother came to be his closest friend. To convey the intended thought, the sentence must be reversed.

His caustically funny maternal grandmother became his closest friend.

The ubiquitous definition of linking verbs quoted above is often followed by the declaration that “any form of the verb to be and the verbs become and seem are always linking verbs.”

I learned a long time ago that when it comes to a discussion of English grammar, the word always is best avoided.

Become is usually a linking verb.

Stop making those embarrassing mistakes! Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips today!

You will improve your English in only 5 minutes per day, guaranteed!

Each newsletter contains a writing tip, word of the day, and exercise!

You'll also get three bonus ebooks completely free!

Leave a Comment