Linking verbs are verbs that don’t show an action but rather describe the subject. While verbs like walk or jump represent an action, linking verbs like be or seem add more details to the subject, such as “he seems nice” or “she is an architect.”
Formally known as copulas or copulae, linking verbs are an important part of any language, especially in English where the most common verb, be, is a linking verb. In this guide, we explain the basics of linking verbs, show you how to use them, and give linking verb examples. But first, let’s take a closer look at the question, What are linking verbs?
What is a linking verb?
Unlike other verbs, linking verbs do not show an action—or more accurately, the only action they show is merely existing. Linking verbs simply explain the state of the subject, such as what it is or how it looks.
- I am thirteen years old.
- She seems sad today.
- This place looks like a mess!
This makes linking verbs different from other types of verbs like ditransitive verbs, phrasal verbs, or impersonal verbs, which all describe specific actions. In fact, you can categorize all verbs into two groups, action verbs and linking verbs. However, sometimes a verb can be either, depending on how it’s used.
Linking verbs define the subject or add more details about it. That means sensory verbs like appear, look, feel, smell, sound, or taste can act as linking verbs when they describe the subject.
- Dinner smells burnt.
- The cat’s fur felt silky.
While the verbs be, become, and seem are always linking verbs, some other verbs have one or two particular contexts where they act as linking verbs. (We explain more on how to tell the difference below.)
How do you use linking verbs?
Every sentence has two parts: a subject and a predicate. The subject is a noun that performs the action of the verb and typically comes at the beginning of a sentence. With normal verbs, the predicate describes the action done by the subject, as with this example:
- Tamara went to the store.
Here, Tamara is the subject, the person who does the action, and went to the store is the predicate. The verb went, the past tense of the irregular verb go, is an action verb when used like this. The prepositional phrase to the store is also part of the predicate because it explains where the action took place.
However, linking verbs have special predicates called subject complements that do not describe the action but instead describe the subject. Specifically, there are two types of subject complements, or two types of predicates, for linking verbs:
1 predicate nominative (predicate noun): when the words describing the subject are nouns or noun phrases.
- At college, she became an athlete and a scholar.
- I was awake but still sleepy when the sun came up.
Keep in mind that subject complements can also include phrases as part of the predicate nominatives or predicate adjectives. Let’s look at an example . . .
- They were hungry after a long workout.
In this sentence, the linking verb is were, the past-tense plural form of be. The subject complement is a predicate adjective centered on the adjective hungry. The prepositional phrase after a long workout explains why and when they were hungry, so it’s also part of the predicate adjective.
Rules for linking verbs
1 Don’t use adverbs as the subject complement.
Adverbs describe verbs in the same way that adjectives describe nouns. But subject complements describe the subject, which is a noun, so we use adjectives instead of adverbs.
However, adverbs are okay if they describe the linking verb and not the subject.
- He gradually became kinder and more compassionate.
- She hardly seems shy.
2 In subject-verb agreement, linking verbs match the subject.
When it comes to subject-verb agreement, the linking verb still matches the subject. This remains true even if the subject is singular and the predicate nominative is plural or vice versa.
- The weirdest animal is giraffes.
- Giraffes are the weirdest animal.
If the sentence still sounds awkward, even though it’s grammatically correct, you can always rephrase it.
- The weirdest animal is the giraffe.
How do you identify linking verbs?
Aside from the three main linking verbs that are always linking verbs (be, become, and seem), some verbs can be either linking verbs or action verbs. The difference depends on how they’re used. This is especially true when it comes to sensory verbs, which can be both.
A verb is a linking verb if it’s used to describe the subject. Linking verbs always have a subject complement afterward (except in rare cases like “I think therefore I am”), so look for a subject complement to determine if the sentence uses a linking verb.
- Liz looks great today.
Here, the verb look is a linking verb because it describes Liz’s appearance. You can also identify it as a linking verb by the subject complement great today, which explains how Liz looks.
- Liz looks through the microscope.
Here, the verb look is an action verb, which is to say, not a linking verb. It describes the action that Liz is doing, not Liz herself. The phrase through the microscope also relates to the action, describing where she looked.
Some common action verbs have one or two particular meanings where they act as linking verbs. A lot of times these verbs appear with certain other words to signal they’re used as linking verbs. You’ll become familiar with these words as your grammatical skills improve, but here’s a short list of the most confusing linking verbs to help you get started.
Go is a linking verb when it means become.
- The dog goes wild if she stays indoors too long.
- The fruit went bad because it was old.
Fall is a linking verb when talking about illness or used with the word silent.
- I’m afraid they have fallen ill.
- At once, the room fell silent.
Prove is a linking verb with its meaning “to show a certain quality,” but it’s an action verb with its more common meaning, “to demonstrate with evidence.”
- [linking verb] The theory proved true after experimentation.
- [action verb] The trial proved his innocence.
Act is a linking verb when discussing someone’s behavior or demeanor but an action verb when discussing dramatic acting as in movies or plays.
- [linking verb] Why do you act suspicious when I mention him?
- [action verb] He acts in the local theater group on weekends.
Come, grow, get, and turn are linking verbs when used to show a change.
- My belt came loose so I made a new hole.
- He grew tired of the mind games.
- We get bored waiting for the after-credits scenes.
- His hair turned gray, but he’s not any wiser.
Remain and stay are linking verbs when used in the sense of “continue to be like this,” but they are action verbs when they describe not moving.
- [linking verb] They remained angry the entire car ride.
- [action verb] They remained in the auditorium after everyone left.
Keep is also a linking verb when it means “continue to be like this,” but it is an action verb in its more common meaning of possession or ownership
- [linking verb] Keep calm and carry on.
- [action verb] She keeps a glass of water by her bed.
Linking verb list: common linking verb examples
Permanent linking verbs
Sensory linking verbs
Conditional linking verbs
Linking verb FAQs
What are linking verbs?
Linking verbs are verbs that describe the subject rather than the action like other verbs. With linking verbs like be, become, or seem, the action in the sentence is merely existing.
How do you use linking verbs?
Linking verbs use subject complements, which give details about the sentence’s subject. Subject complements can either be adjectives (predicate adjectives) or nouns (predicate nominatives/predicate nouns).
How do you identify linking verbs?
The fastest way to identify linking verbs is to look for the subject complement, but this can get confusing. If you’re having trouble, try to determine whether the verb is describing an action (action verb) or the state of the subject (linking verb).