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Copulative verbs

The copula-verb in so-called nominal predicate has no independent meaning and functions to connect the subject with the predicative comple-ment expressing the categories of the finite verb: person, number, mood, aspect, tense and voice.

Grammarians estimate that there are about sixty copulative verbs in English. The oldest and most common copula is the verb to be, which in this use is practically devoid of semantic significance and serves to connect the predicative with the subject.

A large number of other verbs used in nominal predicates do not suffer such semantic decline as the true copula be. These may reasonably be called semi-copulative verbs. In modern English they are in various stages of development towards copula-state, all containing more or less of their original concrete meaning and as such differentiated one from another and from the copula be.


When a verb is used as a link-verb, it weakens its primary lexical meaning and acquires the abstract meaning of being in a certain state (He is happy), of passing into a new state (He became a teacher) or of remaining in a certain state (The weather continued fine). There are in the main three kinds of compound nominal predicates: compound nominal predicates of being, becoming and remaining.

Entrance into a state may call attention to the first point or the final point in a development.

Cf. He became (or got) sick. He became a great master.

All the verbs doing duty as copulas are naturally intransitive. Several of them were originally transitive and are still frequently used as transitives in some of their applications. Their assuming the character of copulas often originated in throwing off the reflexive pronoun and thus becoming intransitive, e. g.: He felt much depressed, originally He felt himself much depressed.

On the other hand the transitive verb make often retains its object but loses so much of its concrete force that it is felt as a copula with the meaning become, turn out, to be, e. g.:

She will make him a good wife.

It is to be observed that the classification of some of the combinations may appear more or less arbitrary or even open to exception. Besides the verbs which may be regarded as genuine copulas, there are not a few which serve this function only in some special sense. Such are, for instance, verbs of seeming and appearing quite different from the real copulas and the verbs which may be considered to do duty as such. The fact is that as regards their function they approach modal verbs and such adverbial adjuncts as seemingly and apparently, expressing as they do some attitude on the part of the speaker towards the fulfilment of the action or state referred to the subject. They have this modal force irrespective of the nature of the predicate, e. g.: He seems to know you; he seems to be happy; he seems happy.

But in whatever connection the verbs to seem and to appear are used, they naturally preserve their full meaning. This distinguishes them from copulas and the verbs doing duty as such whose outstanding feature, as has already been observed, is that their meaning is a more or less weakened reflex of that which they have in other functions.

Not less characteristic is the use of the so-called "move and change" class of verbs whose pattern value in Modern English is most idiosyncratic.

Followed by qualitative adjectives verbs of this class give such patterns as, for instance, to go dry, to go wrong, to go wet, to come right, to go sour, to come easy, to come true, to grow bald, to grow old, to get old, to grow dark, to get dark, to grow pale, to grow short, to grow calm, to fall asleep, to fall dark, to fall ill, to fall silent, to fall short, to run dry, to run short, to turn cold, to wear thin, to taste sweet, etc.

The first element in such verb-phrases is virtually drained of its primary semantic value and made to perform the function of a grammatical


order, assuming the character of the link-verb to be or, much more often, to become, e. g.: to go hungry = to be hungry; to go pale to become pale, to grow dark = to become dark, etc.

Copulative verbs differ significantly in the range of their collocation, which is naturally conditioned by the degree of their semantic decline and grammaticalisation.

The predicative complement can be expressed by such morphological classes of words as:

  1. nouns in common case: She is an actress;

  2. adjectives: She is so young;

  3. possessive pronouns (absolute use): This is yours;

  4. infinitives: He seemed to be surprised;

  5. participles I: This was rather annoying;

  6. participles II: She looked surprised;

  7. gerund: Seeing is believing;

  1. prepositional noun phrases: It is of interest. We are of the same age. This matter is of considerable importance.

  1. ordinal numerals: He was the first to help me.

10) words of the category of state: She was not alone.

The verb to be in its copulative function may be used with all kinds of complements tabulated above.

The verb to become may be used with any kind of complement except the infinitive and gerund, e. g.: to become famous, become interested, become worthy of something, etc.

The copulative use of such verbs as to appear, to sound, to smell, to taste and others is more limited.

The copulative verbs to come, to go, to fall, to keep, to turn are fairly common in patterns with adjectives and occasional with nouns as in: I'm Jenny Blanchard and I am going to keep Jenny Blanchard. (Poutsma).

The verb to rest is used in such standardised phrases as rest assured, rest satisfied.

To get and to grow functioning as copula-verbs are most common with adjectives and participles II: to get surprised, to get younger, to grow old, to grow young, to grow comforted, to get excited, etc.

The verb to get presents a striking variety of its uses in Modern English and deserves special consideration. Its distributional value may be briefly characterised as follows:

get + Ven

to get married (the so-called "passive-auxiliary"1)

get + A

to get angry

to get ill (Cf. to fall ill) (a "copula-type verb")

to get cool

1 The passive formed with get as auxiliary and the past participle seems to be increasing in frequency, though grammarians are at present not all agreed as to its status. It will be remembered that the activo-passive use of get + Ven may present some difficulty in grammatical analysis. Compare the following: (a) I like the game to get started before I bust into it. (b) I can get started on a monograph if there is a desk I can hope up at; or: You don't know how keen I am to get started.


to get dark

have got + Vinf

I've got to go to the library (a modal verb, implying obli-

(grammatical pleonasm; syn.: gation, a stylistic alternative

I have to go) to must)

get + smb (smth) + Vinf

I'll get her to repeat the task (causative meaning)

get + smb (smth) + Ving

Can you get the clock going? (causative meaning)

get + smb (smth) + Ven

Get the car started! (causative meaning)

Note. Patterns with get are more lively and suggestive and may also imply some difficulty overcome or effort made. Compare such synonymic phrases as: I have my shoes made to order and I get my shoes made to order.

get + Ving

He got thinking.

get + p + Ving (a semi-auxiliary verb of

He got to thinking. the inchoative aspect)

He got to shivering.

get + Vinf

He got to think.

The distributional meaning of the verbs to come and to go used as function-verbs may be briefly characterised as follows:

come + A

Things will come right. (a "copula-type" verb)

come + Ving

She came running. (a phrasal verb)

come + Ven

The knot came untied.

The string has come undone. (a "copula-type" verb)

The door came unhinged.

The seam came unstitched (unsewn)1.

go + A

go red

go wet (a "copula-type" verb)

go pale

go wrong

go + Vinf

So Xury and I went to work

with him. (a semi-auxiliary verb of

go + p + Ving aspect denoting the inchoa-

They went to dancing. tive character of the action;

1 The verb to come as a copulative verb may be associated with the change for the worse, in combination with adjectivised participles with the negative prefix un-. In other cases the change for the worse will be denoted by patterns with the verb to go, e. g.: The meat has gone bad. All has gone wrong. The milk went sour, etc. Cf.: Things have come all right.


go + Ving often associated with the

go hunting iterative character of the

go rowing action)

Deep-rooted in English idiom is the use of the versatile verb to do which may appear in six different functions:

  1. a notional verb, e. g.: He does a great deal for other people; What is done cannot be undone.

  2. an auxiliary verb, e. g.: Do you often go to the movies? He didn't want to argue.

  3. a half-auxiliary of aspect, as in: to do lecturing, to do shopping, to do talking, e. g.: Will you do lecturing this year?

  4. a verb-substitute; in this function do may be used in place of any notional verb that has already appeared in the immediate linguistic context, e. g.: (1) He works harder than I do. (2) The music sounds better than it did yesterday. (3) He has accomplished more in a week than she has done in a year. (4) Please mend my shirt at once. I'm already doing it.

In cases like the last two, involving analytical verb forms, the English language in America is inclined to use an auxiliary rather than a substitute verb do, and these two would more commonly appear as: He has accomplished more in a week than she has in a year. Please mend my shirt at once. I already am.

e) an emphatic auxiliary, e. g.: Do be careful! Fleur, you do look splendid! Well did I remember that day.

Patterns with the emphatic do may be used to express various emotions, such as: insistence, assurance, affirmation of a reply to a question in the affirmative or agreement with what has been said, sympathy, surprise, indignation, irony, mild reproach, admonition, etc. These subtle shades of subjective modal meaning are always signalled by the speech context or situation.

Rendering the precise effect of the emphatic auxiliary do in all the variety of its idiosyncratic use is not always easy for a foreign student to master. Instances are not few when in the process of translation our linguistic knowledge is severely put to the test. Depending on the situation, the equivalents of this English idiom will vary. Different kind of modal words or phrases will generally serve this purpose in other languages.

Consider the examples quoted in Stylistique Comparée du Français et de l'Anglais by J. P. V і n a y and J. Darbelnet:



Do be careful!

Surtout faites bien attention!

Do come!

Venez donc!

He did answer my letter but he evaded the point.

Il a bien repondu a ma lettre, mais il a éludé la question.

I did check the oil.

Mais si, j'ai vérifié l'huile.

He did do it (as he said he would). He had decided not to join us but he did come.

Mais il a fait cela. Il avait décidé de ne pas se joindre à nous, mais il est tout de même venu.


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