Copula Verbs

In the English language, we have nine word classes: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, pronouns, determiners, conjunctions, and interjections. These different types of words all perform different functions in sentences. For example, nouns and pronouns are used to represent the subjects and objects of sentences such as Zara and flowers in the sentence: 'Zara bought flowers.'

Copula Verbs Copula Verbs

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    In this sentence, we also have the verb bought. Verbs are regarded as doing words and are used to express actions, feelings, states, or processes.

    There are four types of verbs: main, auxiliary, copula, and imperative. In this article, we will look at copula verbs and how to use them in sentences.

    Copula Verb Definition

    So, what is a copula verb? A copula verb links the subject to the subject complement in a sentence. They are also known as linking verbs.

    A subject complement is a word or phrase that adds detail to and enhances our idea of the subject.

    The word 'copula' comes from the Latin prefix 'co-' (meaning together) and the Latin word 'apere' (meaning fasten). From these meanings, we can understand a copula verb to fasten the subject and subject complement together.

    'The grass was dewy.'

    Here, the copula verb is was. It connects the subject (the grass) with its complement (dewy).

    Copula Verbs chain links StudySmarterFig 1. Copula verbs act as linking verbs and link the subject to the subject complement, creating a chain of words that create a sentence

    To properly understand this, let's refresh ourselves on what subjects and subject complements are.

    Subject

    The subject of a sentence is the person, object, or place performing an action on something else. Subjects are the main focus of a sentence and can be represented by either a noun or a pronoun. They are often placed at the beginning of a sentence (but this isn't a steadfast rule).

    'The flowers smell beautiful.'

    In this sentence, the subject is the noun phrase the flowers.

    Subject complement

    The subject complement in a sentence is the word or phrase that gives us more information about the subject, i.e. complementing it. Subject complements can be either single words or multi-word phrases, adjectives, nouns, or pronouns.

    In 'The flowers smell beautiful', the subject complement is the adjective beautiful as it gives us more information about the subject (the flowers).

    Copula Verbs Image of flowers StudySmarterFig 2. When we say 'the flowers smell beautiful' or 'the flowers look beautiful', both smell and look are acting as copula verbs.

    As we've identified the subject and subject complement of 'The flowers smell beautiful,' we can state that smell is used here as a copula verb. It links the subject complement to the subject.

    Copula Verb Types

    In the English language, multiple verbs are used to link the subject and subject complement in a sentence. Some examples include; become, appear, look, taste, smell, and sound. Despite this, English, like many other languages, is considered to have one main copula: to be.

    The verb to be is an irregular verb and can appear in different forms depending on tense and person:

    • to be (infinitive)

    • am (first person present tense)

    • is (third person present tense)

    • are (second person present tense or first person present tense (plural))

    • was (first and third person past tense)

    • were (second person past tense or first person past tense (plural))

    The different forms of to be can all be used as copula verbs. For example, is can be used to link two nouns (or nouns to pronouns) such as:

    Toni is my friend.

    subject → is → subject complement

    Or, was can be used to link a noun and an adjective such as:

    The weather was stormy.

    subject → was → subject complement

    Copula and Auxiliary Verbs

    Copula verbs can be easily mistaken for auxiliary verbs. These are both types of verbs that perform specific functions within sentences.

    Copula verbs link subjects and subject complements.

    Auxiliary verbs add functional or grammatical meaning to main verbs.

    Auxiliary verbs consist of words such as be, might, do, have, and can, which work in conjunction with other verbs to create a verb phrase such as would have run in the sentence: 'Sienna would have run for the bus if she knew it was early.'

    This is also an example of how multiple auxiliary verbs, i.e. would and have can be used together to add meaning to a single main verb.

    Let's have a look at the main differences between copula and auxiliary verbs:

    Copula Verbs

    Auxiliary Verbs

    Function:Link subjects and subject complementsAdd meaning (tense, voice, or mood) to the main verb
    Appear with:Nouns and pronounsOther verbs
    Examples:Smell, taste, become, sound, seem, appear, feel, beBe, have, do, might, can, would, shall, could, will, should

    Copula Verb Examples

    Now let's have a look at some examples of copula verbs. There is no set list of verbs that are solely classified as copulas in the English language. Many verbs that behave as copula verbs can also be used as main verbs.

    For example, in the sentence 'I smell fresh bread', the verb smell behaves as a main verb with the subject (I) preceding it and the object (fresh bread) following it. This creates the structure of:

    subject → verb → object

    If we look instead at the sentence 'The flowers smell beautiful', the verb smell is used as a copula verb as it links the subject complement (beautiful) to the subject (the flowers). This creates the sentence structure of:

    subject → copula verb → subject complement

    So, with this in mind, let's look at some sentences with copula verbs.

    Sentence

    Copula verb and its infinitive form

    The flowers smell beautiful.smell (to smell)
    The caterpillar became a butterfly.became (to become)
    The music was loud.was (to be)
    My mother is Jane.is (to be)
    The weather is looking ghastly.looking (to look)
    Victory tastes sweet.tastes (to taste)
    She is the captain's wife.is (to be)
    The paint appeared dry.appeared (to appear)
    Abi's head felt tender.felt (to feel)

    In all of these examples, we can see that the subject complement is adding information to the subject. The copula verbs all appear between the subject and subject complement.

    If we look at 'She is the captain's wife' in more detail, we can see that the subject is represented by the pronoun she and that the subject complement is the noun phrase the captain's wife. In this instance, the noun phrase is used to describe who the subject is. We know that the phrase the captain's wife is referring to the subject due to the copula verb is linking the two parts of the sentence together.

    Subjects of Copula Verbs

    Can you spot the subject for each sentence given in the examples? The subject of a sentence is always a noun or pronoun, so it can most often be pretty easy to identify. In sentences where the subject complement is also a noun, it can become more difficult to differentiate the two. Don't worry; there are ways we can tell which is which.

    In a sentence with a copula verb, the subject will precede the verb, and the subject complement will follow the copula verb. Have a look at the following sentences:

    • Joni is my friend.
    • My friend is Joni.

    In these sentences, you might expect Joni to be the subject both times as it is a proper noun (the name given to a particular being or place which is often capitalised). This is incorrect, though.

    In the first sentence, Joni is the subject as it precedes the copula verb. In the second sentence, the noun phrase my friend is the subject as it precedes the copula verb.

    Hint: remember that the subject complement always follows the copula verb and that the subject precedes it.

    Copula Verbs - Key Takeaways

    • A copula verb is used to link the subject and the subject complement in a sentence.
    • The subject of a sentence precedes the copula verb and can be a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun.
    • The subject complement follows the copula verb and can be a noun, noun phrase, or adjective.
    • In the English language, the main copula verb is to be.
    • Copula verbs can be easily mixed up with auxiliary verbs, so remember that:
      • Copula verbs link subjects and subject complements.
      • Auxiliary verbs add meaning to or complete main verbs.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Copula Verbs

    What is a copula verb?

    A copula verb is used to link the subject of a sentence to the subject complement. They are also known as linking verbs.

    What are types of verbs?

    There are four different types of verb: main verbs, auxiliary verbs, copula verbs and imperative verbs.  

    What is the difference between copula and auxiliary verbs?

    Copula verbs are used to link subjects and subject complements. Auxiliary verbs are used to add functional or grammatical meaning, such as tense, voice, and aspect, to main verbs.

    How do you identify a copula verb?

    A copula verb is always sandwiched between the subject and the subject complement of a sentence. For example in 'the air smelled fresh', the verb smelled is copula as it links the subject complement (fresh) to the subject (the air).

    What is a copula in a sentence?

    A copula is a type of verb that has the specific purpose of linking the subject and the subject complement. In English, the verb to be is considered the main copula verb, however, there are other verbs that can be used as copulas such as to smell, to taste, to become and to appear.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    How many types of verb are there in the English language?

    What precedes a copula verb in a sentence?

    What follows a copula verb in a sentence?

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