Linking Verbs and Action Verbs

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Verbs are divided into two functional categories: copular verbs and action verbs. This post discusses their differences.

Copular, or linking, verbs, which express a situation or a state rather than an action or a process (and thus are among the class of verbs called stative verbs), consist of several types of verbs. The basic ones are forms of the verb phrase “to be”: am, are, be, being, is, was, were, and been. However, become, get, grow, turn, and similar terms, and their tense forms (for example, became and “will become”), also perform this function, as do those in two other small groups.

First, there are the words such as appears and seems, and second, there are what are called the sensory verbs, referring to impressions based on the five senses: feels, looks, smells, sounds, and tastes. (These, of course, also have their tense forms, such as appeared and “will feel.”)

The default for use of copular verbs is that each clause has only one, as in “I am here, and you are there.” Some languages allow a zero copula — omission of a copular verb — but in American English, this is an informal usage recommended only in colloquial dialogue, as when one character drops the copular verb when asking another character something such as “Where you going?”

The double copula (for example, “What it is, is a disaster”) is also common in casual speech but is also discouraged in most writing; such constructions are organized that way for emphasis, but in formal prose, the sentiment is easily expressed more concisely: “It is a disaster.”

A variation of the copular verb is the copular prepositional verb, which includes a verb and a preposition, as in “feels like” and “gets into.”

Action verbs, by contrast, are the ones that actually describe an accomplishment, achievement, or activity. Accomplishment verbs describe the result of an effort, as in “He solved the problem just in time.” Achievement verbs describe an instantaneous action, as in “I saw the dog.” (Although one can continue to see a dog, the initial occurrence — the transition from not seeing the dog to seeing it — takes place in an instant.) An activity can be definite in duration (“I walked while I waited for him to get ready”) or indefinite (“I walked along the road.”)

One significant difference in sentence constructions that feature a copular verb and those that include an action verb is the part of speech that might follow the verb. If an action verb is modified, the modifier is an adverb (“She sifted carefully through the pile of documents”), while a copular verb is followed by an adjective (“I was careful as I sifted through the pile of documents”).

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6 thoughts on “Linking Verbs and Action Verbs”

  1. What I’ve always termed copulative verbs are now, it seems, copular verbs. Ah, the hegemony of euphemisms! Nevertheless, this is a useful article with only one error that I can see.

    The assertion that “Where you going?” is an example of the speaker dropping the so-called copular verb is entirely wrong.

    The complete sentence would be “Where are you going?” The main verb in the sentence is “go,” as in “Where go you?”—awkward, but correct. It’s made less awkward by adding “are,” making the sentence “Where are you going?” That’s got nothing whatsoever to do with so-called copular verbs. It’s the present progressive form of the sentence “Where go you?”

    The many uses of the many forms of the verb “to be” confuse many people. My experience with so-called copular verbs is to look for a predicate adjective or a predicate nominative. If one is there, then it’s a so-called copular verb. Certainly there are uses of so-called copular verbs that don’t involve predicate adjectives or predicate nominatives, but they’re landmarks.

    I can still recall the list of so-called copular verbs that I had to memorize ca. 58 years ago: appear, become, continue, feel, grow, look, remain, seem, smell, sound, and taste. There are certainly more, often made so by context.

    I think it’s easier to identify a so-called copular verb if one knows what they do rather than rely solely on the words themselves. If one can swap a form of the verb “to be” with the verb suspected of being a so-called copular verb, then it’s a so-called copular verb, e.g., “she seems angry” becomes “she is angry”—success!, while “I grow corn” becomes “I am corn”—failure!

  2. I agree with Mr. Gaffney completely:
    “The assertion that “Where you going?” is an example of the speaker dropping the so-called copular verb is entirely wrong.”
    How could anyone make a blunder this large?

    The forms of the verb “to be” are not always copular verbs.
    These verbs can also be used as auxiilary verbs, such as the progressive mood in English:
    I am sitting. You are standing. He was walking. Astronauts Bowman and Poole were talking in secret, they thought, but HAL 9000 was reading their lips.

  3. There is another set of verbs in English that consists of neither action verbs nor copulative verbs. This is because there is no action involved: {bear, contain, dwell, have, hold, know, mean, remain, possess, reside, sit, stand, and hundreds more}

    When advisers on writing, such as my 12th grade English teacher, say “Use action verbs whenever you can,” they are not referring to the verbs above, simply because those verbs do not express any actions.

    Here are some example sentences that use the above:
    1. This column bears the weight of 500 tons.
    2. This bucket contains ten gallons.
    3. Rip Van Winkle dwelt in New York during Colonial times and after the revolution. He slept for 20 years in between.
    4. Alaska remains in the United States. (Alaska is not doing anything.)
    5. The Houses of Parliament sit on the banks of the Thames River.
    6. The Washington Monument stands on The Mall in Wasington, D.C.
    The Washington Monument is not doing anything. Its role is entirely passive, and there is no action.

    The Washington Monument provides a wide view of the great city.
    Now, the Washington Monument is doing something: providing.

  4. I suggest that you allow you articles to be proofread by people like Mr. Gaffney and me – before publication – to avoid glaring errors.

  5. RE: Matt Gaffney
    “Certainly there are uses of so-called copular verbs that don’t involve predicate adjectives or predicate nominatives, but they’re landmarks.”

    To the contrary, the various declensions of the verb “to be” that are used as auxiliary verbs are VERY COMMON. In the progressive mood (which is what my teachers and my mother the Englsh teacher call it). For example {I am, you are, he is, we are, they are, I was, you were, she was,…, I have been, you have been,…, I will or shall be, you will or shall be,…} all followed by the present participle of a verb.

    By the way, German does not have a progressive mood or an emphatic mood (one with the auxiliary verb “to do)”. It is probably the same in some other languages.
    In German, progressive or emphatic verbs have to be expressed by the context or by adverbs.

    Im Augenblick gehe ich mit dem Fahrrad an die Arbeit.
    At the moment, I ride my bicycle to to work.
    Better translation by using the progressive mood in English:
    I am riding my bicycle to work.

    As is so often the case, it took 10 words and 14 syllables to say in German what can be said in English with seven words and 10 syllables.

    For those of you who don’t know about such things, the English is far more efficient. Efficiency in communication comes under the subject of Information Theory, which was invented by the American, Dr. Claude Shannon, of Bell Labs and M.I.T.

    I have tried watching the evening news on the German TV channel DEUTSCHE WELLE, but I couldn’t understand it because the announcer was speaking like a machine gun! The syllables came out that fast.

    Then, they had an on-the-spot report about a major fire in Germany, Austria, or Switzerland. Their reporter interviewed a man there in his yello emergency gear, and he talked a lot slower. On his helmet was printed the word CHEF. That made it easy to tell who he was, because “Chef” is the German word for “chief”. The reporter was interviewing the Fire Chief who was on the spot and in charge.

    The American word “chef” was adopted from French of German, and it is short for “chief cook”. CHEF was probably adopted into German from French, and the words with German roots that mean the same thing are der Leiter and der Vorgesetze.
    If that person is female, then she is die Leiterin or die Vorgesetze.
    Also, you can tell that Chef is a modern word in German because its plural is Chefs. This is true for lots of modern words that have been adopted into German, including Autos, Radios, Radars, Computers, Kameras, Kinos (cinemas).

    On this same subjct, another English word that has been adopted into German is der Boss.

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