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Grammarology 2.0: What are linking verbs?

Q: What the heck is a linking verb, and why would I teach it?

A: When learning any new verb, it’s important for learners to know its complementation pattern, or what can follow it. Some verbs are intransitive, some transitive. Some verbs take infinitival complements (e.g., I want to go,) and some don’t (e.g., *I enjoy to go; that star indicates something ungrammatical). Some allow content clauses or “noun clauses” (e.g., I hope that it works), and on it goes. Linking verbs present a number of other combinations that students need to be aware of.

linking verb is a verb that takes a predicative complement (remember: complements complete & compliments praise), which is a little different from an object. Typically the predicative complement is in the form of an adjective phrase (e.g., it looks good), noun phrase (e.g., it became a problem), or preposition phrase(e.g., it is against the law). In other words, a linking verb is a verb that can be followed by a phrase and which attributes the properties represented by that phrase (identity, size, location, etc.) to the subject.

Interestingly, the term linking verb doesn’t appear in any of the grammars mentioned in the introduction. It’s a 20th century gloss of copulative, which means basically the same thing1CGEL uses the term complex intransitive both for clauses and the verbs that head them. This has some advantages, as we’ll see at the end, but is so unfamiliar to teachers and learners that it is unlikely to be adopted.

The most common linking verb is be. Others include sensing verbs: feel, look, smell, sound, taste, seem, and appear; verbs indicating a continuation of state: remain, keep, continue, and stay; and verbs of change of state: become, get, go, grow, and turn. This covers the most central members, but it is not a complete list.

Here are some more examples with the linking verb underlined and an AdjP complement in bold:

  1. He seems very nice.
  2. It was good.
  3. She became pregnant.
  4. The soup smelled more delicious than ever.

Most linking verbs can take all three types of complement (i.e., AdjP, NP, or PP), but that is not always the case as illustrated in 9 and 11 below:

  1. It seems a crying shame(NP)
  2. He doesn’t seem up to it(PP)
  3. It is pie(NP)
  4. It smelled like pie(PP)
  5. It smelled pie. (here the NP pie is an object, not a predicative complement.)
  6. Did she become president(NP)
  7. *Did she become on the desk? (PP)

Linking verb smell does not take NP complements. In 9, we have the transitive verb smelled, not the linking verb of 8. You can see that in 7, it and pie are the same thing, but in 8, it is something else, perhaps an animal, but not pie. Linking verb become doesn’t take PP complements, and so 11 is simply ungrammatical.

In the introduction, we saw linking verbs defined as “verbs that express state or feeling rather than action,” and I said that this needed some reconsideration. There are some elements of truth in it: some linking verbs are indeed more common in stative verb phrases (VP). We don’t typically say *the table is seeming brown or *the soup is feeling hot. But lots of verbs that are not linking verbs (e.g., have like) typically appear in stative VPs, and there are many linking verbs that make dynamic VPs (e.g., The kids are getting rowdy/tired.) So it’s best to forget the notion that linking verbs expresses states rather than actions and focus just on the complementation pattern.

And certainly, a number of linking verbs do express feelings (e.g., felt safe) but many don’t (e.g., goldfinches turn brown in the fall) and conversely, many verbs expressing feelings aren’t linking verbs (e.g., I’m enjoying the concert). Again, we should stay focused on type of complements allowed.

Some complications

It can get a little complicated though, because some verbs take multiple complements, usually with a direct object, and these are not consistently included with lists of linking verbs:

  1. That makes me + happy. (Direct Object:NP + Predicative Complement:AdjP)
  2. That makes us + part of something bigger. (Direct Object:NP + Predicative Complement:NP)

This is why CGEL uses the terms complex intransitive and complex transitive. Verbs like make that take complements of the form Direct Object + Predicative Complement would, in their terminology, be complex transitive.

Also, as we saw with 8 and 9 above, some verbs have different meanings, some of which are linking and some of which aren’t2. One example is feel, which takes predicative AdjP complements in the sense of one’s emotions and direct objects in the sense of touching something:

  1. She felt miserable(AdjP; linking)
  2. She felt his hand. (Obj; transitive)


Grammarology 2.0 aims to take the dicsussion of grammar up a notch or two (your mileage may vary) and should appear about once every two weeks. It’s written by Brett Reynolds, who teaches EAP at Humber College and is just about as nerdy about grammar as you can get. He’s is always happy to take questions, which you can send to



[1] Reed and Kellogg address this point very briefly calling these verbs copula and their complements predicate adjectives and predicate nouns.

[2] The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language treats all these as simply “verbs taking predicative complements” (p. 263).

Brett Reynolds teaches English in Humber's EAP program. (OK, who's fooling who with this third-person stuff?) I speak Japanese, remember a fair bit of French, and know something about a few other languages too. I'm crazy about grammar, and spend too much time online for my own good.

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  • Lois Francis - September 28, 2011

    Wonderful stuff! What of course is most challenging is that the pace of a normal classroom (plus the grammatical endurance level of the class) necessitates simplifying these ideas – and that’s where the trouble starts, I think. We tell ourselves, “they can only handle this in Level 3 – the complexities will get sorted in the next few levels”. That said, this was a refreshing clarification. I’ll be back …..

    • Brett - September 29, 2011

      Hi, Lois

      Certainly simplification is needed–I hope nobody takes this post and presents it as is to the typical ESL class. But it’s important for teachers to understand to what extent and in what way their explanations are simplified. You also have to guard against mismemory. You say, “many verbs of sensation are linking verbs,” and your students remember, “linking verbs are verbs of feeling.”

      How would you simplify this?

      • Lois Francis - October 1, 2011

        Having read your previous blog post carefully, I would not be caught in such a misstep!

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