light verb

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

light verbs
Examples of English verbs that sometimes function as light verbs. (Getty Images)


In English grammar, a light verb is a verb that has only a general meaning on its own (like do or take) but that expresses a more precise or complex meaning when combined with another word (usually a noun)—for example, do a trick or take a bath. This multi-word construction is sometimes called the "do"-strategy.

The term light verb was coined by linguist Otto Jespersen in A Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles (1931).

As Jespersen observed, "Such constructions . . . offer an easy way of adding some descriptive trait in the form of an adjunct: we had a delightful bath, a quiet smoke, etc."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

Examples and Observations

  • "A [light verb is a] common and versatile lexical verb like do, give, have, make or take, which is semantically weak in many of its uses, and can be combined with nouns in constructions such as do the cleaning, give (someone) a hug, have a drink, make a decision, take a break. The whole construction often seems equivalent to the use of a single verb: make a decision = decide."
    (Geoffrey Leech, A Glossary of English Grammar. Edinburgh University Press, 2006)
  • "In English, light-verb constructions can be illustrated by expressions such as take a bath, have a sleep, do a dance, render assistance, and so on. In an example such as render assistance, the verb render conveys effectively no meaning at all and merely serves as the locus of verbal inflection."
    (Andrew Spencer, Lexical Relatedness: A Paradigm-Based Model. Oxford University Press, 2013)
  • "Each time he took a walk, he felt as though he were leaving himself behind."
    (Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, 1987)
  • "You can't take a picture of this; it's already gone."
    (Nate Fisher, Jr., in Six Feet Under)
  • "Another way students had of undermining my confidence was to make fun of lessons I had meticulously prepared."
    (Herbert R. Kohl, The Herb Kohl Reader: Awakening the Heart of Teaching. The New Press, 2009)
  • "I've made our reservations for lunch at one, and I thought we'd have a swim and a sail first."
    (Madeleine L'Engle, A House Like a Lotus. Crosswicks, 1984)
  • "The Republicans were also hurt because they received the blame for the harsh partisanship, the gridlock, and all the political backbiting that led up to the impeachment."
    (Gary A. Donaldson, The Making of Modern America: The Nation from 1945 to the Present, 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield, 2012)
  • "Take a good step back, draw a deep breath and have a think about the long-term impact of looking for a new job."
    (James Caan, Get the Job You Really Want. Penguin, 2011)
  • "Give me a call and let me know if you're interested, and I can give you directions to the church, or you can give me directions to your place and—whatever, I'm babbling, I always do that on machines."
    (Alison Strobel, Worlds Collide. WaterBrook Press, 2005)
  • Light-Verb Constructions (LVC)
    "The light-verb construction is built by combining three elements: (i) a so-called light verb like make or have; (ii) an abstract noun like claim or hope; (iii) a phrasal modifier of the noun which supplies most of the content of the sentence. The following are typical examples of the construction:
    a. John made the claim that he was happy.
    b. Mary has hopes that she will win the championship.
    c. They have a chance to tell about their plans.
    d. They have opinions about politics.
    e. They cast votes for their favorite candidate.
    The light verb construction is set apart semantically by the fact that it usually can be paraphrased by similar sentences with a verb plus complement structure:
    a. John claimed that he was happy.
    b. Mary hopes that she will win the championship.
    c. They are enabled to tell about their plans.
    d. They voted for their favorite candidate.
    (Paul Douglas Deane, Grammar in Mind and Brain: Explorations in Cognitive Syntax. Walter de Gruyter, 1992)

    Also Known As: delexical verb, semantically weak verb, empty verb, stretched verb,