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Copula Verbs

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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.'

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

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

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

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).

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.

Final Copula Verbs Quiz

Question

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

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Answer

4

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Question

What is a copula verb?

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Answer

A copula verb is used to link the subject to the subject complement in a sentence.

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Question

What precedes a copula verb in a sentence?

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Answer

The subject

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Question

What follows a copula verb in a sentence?

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Answer

The subject complement

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Question

What is the subject of a sentence?

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Answer

The subject of a sentence is the person, object or place that is performing an action on something else.

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Question

What is the subject complement of a sentence?

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Answer

The subject complement in a sentence is the word or phrase that gives us more information about the subject, complementing our idea of the subject. 

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Question

Which of these word types can't be used as a subject complement?

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Answer

Verb

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Question

True or false: Nouns, pronouns and adjectives can all act as subjects and subject complements. 

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Answer

False

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Question

True or false: The English language has a main copula verb.

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Answer

True

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Question

Which of these is the main copula verb in English?

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Answer

To be

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Question

What are 'am, is, are, were and was' all forms of?

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Answer

The main copula verb to be.

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Question

True or false: The subject and subject complement of a sentence can both be nouns.

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Answer

True

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Question

What links subjects and subject complements?

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Answer

Copula verbs

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Question

What adds meaning to or completes main verbs?

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Answer

Auxiliary verbs

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Question

True or false: Modal verbs are examples of copula verbs.

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Answer

False, they're examples of auxiliary verbs.

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Question

What sort of verb is used in the following sentence structure?

subject → verb → object

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Answer

Main verb

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Question

What sort of verb is used in the following sentence structure? 

subject   verb   subject complement

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Answer

Copula verb

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Question

Which of these sentences uses 'smells' as a copula verb?

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Answer

Janet smells clean.

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Question

Can you identify the subject in:

The meal was spaghetti Bolognese.

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Answer

The meal

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Question

Can you identify the subject complement in:

My cousin is Serena.

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Answer

Serena

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Question

Is a copula verb used in:

The critic tasted all of the dishes.

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Answer

No, 'tasted' is used as a main verb here.

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Question

What is the subject in:

Abi's head felt tender.

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Answer

Abi's head

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Question

Which of these sentences uses a copula verb?

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Answer

The paint appeared dry.

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Question

What can also be known as a linking verb?

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Answer

Copula verbs

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