What Are Linking Verbs?

Learn the function of linking verbs in English

Girl eating a lemon outside
The lemon tastes sour. imagenavi/Getty Images 

A linking verb is a traditional term for a type of verb (such as a form of be or seem) that joins the subject of a sentence to a word or phrase that tells something about the subject. For example, is functions as a linking verb in the sentence "The boss is unhappy."

The word or phrase that follows the linking verb (in our example, unhappy) is called a subject complement. The subject complement that follows a linking verb is usually an adjective (or adjective phrase), a noun (or noun phrase) or a pronoun.

Linking verbs (in contrast to action verbs) relate either to a state of being (be, become, seem, remain, appear) or to the senses (look, hear, feel, taste, smell). 

In contemporary linguistics, linking verbs are usually called copulas, or copular verbs.

Examples and Observations of Linking Verbs

  • The Grinch is grumpy.
  • In the movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the mayor of Whoville is Augustus Maywho.
  • In the book Horton Hears a Who!, Ned McDodd is the mayor of Whoville.
  • This lemonade tastes sour, but the cookies smell delicious.
  • Beth felt bad and wanted to go home.
  • Tom felt Beth's forehead and then he became upset.
  • Though she appeared calm, Naomi was extremely happy about her promotion.
  • "How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?" (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of Four, 1890)
  • "If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself. Tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches." (Rainer Maria Rilke)
  • "If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is." (William Safire, How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar. W.W. Norton, 2005)
  • "I became a feminist as an alternative to becoming a masochist." (Sally Kempton)

Two Tests for Linking Verbs

"A good trick to determine if a verb is a linking verb is to substitute the word seems for the verb. If the sentence still makes sense, the verb is a linking verb.

The food looked spoiled.
The food seemed spoiled.

Seemed works, so looked is a linking verb in the sentence above.

I looked at the dark clouds.
I seemed at the dark clouds.

Seemed doesn't work, so looked is not a linking verb in the sentence above.

Verbs dealing with the senses (such as looks, smells, feels, tastes and sounds) can also be linking verbs. A good way to tell if one of these verbs is used as a linking verb is to substitute a form of be for the verb: If the sentence retains the same meaning, the verb is a linking verb. For example, look at the way feels, looks and tastes are used in the following sentences.

Jane feels (is) sick.
That color looks (is) awful on you.
The casserole tastes (is) terrible."

(Barbara Goldstein, Jack Waugh and Karen Linsky, Grammar to Go: How It Works and How To Use It, 3rd ed. Wadsworth, Cengage, 2010)

Two Types of Linking Verbs

"These copular verbs (also linking verbs) can be divided semantically into two types: (1) those like be that refer to a current state: appear, feel, remain, seem, sound; and (2) those that indicate a result of some kind: become, get (wet); go (bad); grow (old); turn (nasty). Be is the copula that most often takes adverbial complements that characterize or identify the subject: I felt cold; I felt a fool."

(Sylvia Chalker, "Copula," in The Oxford Companion to the English Language, edited by Tom McArthur. Oxford University Press, 1992)

Using Linking Verbs With Complements for Emphasis

"Like the be pattern, linking verbs may take nouns as complements. Some of the linking verbs have a little more acute verbal action than the be equations:

Everything became a mist.
(C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength, 380)

He became a castaway in broad daylight.
(William Golding, Pincher Martin, 56)

A simple syntactic structure--a linking verb with a noun and two adjectives--here makes an urgent point:

War remains the decisive human failure.
(John Kenneth Galbraith, The Economics of Innocent Fraud, 62)

As predicate complements, adjectives that follow linking verbs often carry the new information and draw the stress.

Argument remains inescapable.
(Julie Thompson Klein, Crossing Boundaries, 211)

She looked new and fresh.
(Carolyn See, The Handyman, 173)

In these linking examples, the major emphasis tends to fall on the predicate complement or, sometimes, whatever word or structure is at the end of the sentence."

(Virginia Tufte, Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style. Graphics Press, 2006)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Linking Verbs?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-linking-verb-1691243. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). What Are Linking Verbs? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-linking-verb-1691243 Nordquist, Richard. "What Are Linking Verbs?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-linking-verb-1691243 (accessed March 23, 2023).