Linking verbs: when an adjective—not an adverb—should follow a verb

Action verbs are the type of verbs that elementary students learn first. They also learn that if we want to say how we do something we should use an adverb (quickly, badly, well, etc.) with the verb.

So, we say:

She sings badly.
He speaks quickly.
The team played well.
I waited patiently.

However, there is a group of verbs—called linking verbs—which are not action verbs and are not used with an adverb. Instead we should use an adjective (quick, bad, good, etc.) after these verbs.

What is a linking verb?

A linking verb is so called because it links the subject of a sentence with additional information about the character of that subject:

  • In the sentence ‘Caroline is beautiful’, the verb be (is) links Caroline and the word beautiful.
  • In the sentence ‘Martina sounds nice’, the verb sound links the subject, Martina, with the fact of her being nice.

Verbs which are always linking verbs (called true linking verbs):

The most common are:

Verb Example sentence
be He is horrible.
seem She seems nice.
become It became dark.

 

Some other linking verbs

Some other verbs can act as linking verbs (although in other contexts these verbs may function as action verbs).

The verbs of the senses are linking verbs:

Verb Example sentence
look She looks good.
sound This song sounds great.
smell The roses smell beautiful.
taste This sauce tastes awful!
feel I feel weak today.


Get
and stay are also linking verbs when used in a certain context:

It is getting cold.
Stay calm, please!

The rule

So, the rule to remember is:

  • with an action verb use an adverb;
  • with a linking verb use an adjective.

 

Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years. Follow Stuart and contact him by subscribing to his monthly newsletter.

25 Comments

  1. Hugo Voskamp - July 15, 2012, 12:16 pm Reply

    Dear Stuart Cook,

    My name is Hugo Voskamp, from The Netherlands. I would kindly ask you to help me with the following question.

    Very often, one notices in written and in spoken language sentences with the verb ‘to stay + Ving”, like “I could stay watching this for ever”, “sooner or later, your engine won’t want to start or stay running long enough for you to get up on the drivers’ stand”, etc.

    Is the verb ‘to stay’ still a linking verb here and the Ving and adjective? Or is ‘to stay’ a synonym for ‘keep’ and therefor followed by a gerund? if so, is there a rule that says: “When to stay is used as a catenative, then it will always be followed by Ving”, as is the case with all those verbs (catenatives) followed by a gerund? For I never see the verb ‘to stay’ listed in the collection of verbs followed by a gerund.

    I would apprecaite your helping me out with this! Thank you very much on forehand!

    Kind regards, Hugo Voskamp, Amsterdam

    • Stuart Cook - July 16, 2012, 11:02 am Reply

      Thanks for the interesting question, Hugo.

      The verb ‘stay’ is a linking verb (also known as a copular verb) and so, as you correctly said, the following word is therefore a verbal adjective. ‘Stay’ isn’t catenative, i.e. it isn’t followed directly by another verb. The ‘ing’ form that we see after ‘stay’ is always a verbal adjective.

      A synonym for ‘stay’ is ‘remain’, e.g. ‘he stayed/remained healthy’ or ‘the crowd remained standing’. If you want to follow ‘stay’ with another verb, the way to do that is to say: ‘I could stay and watch this for ever’ or ‘He stayed and waited.’ Otherwise say ‘keep watching’ or ‘keep waiting’, both of which have a different meaning.

      The verb which you mentioned, ‘keep’, can be a linking verb in one sense (‘he kept cool’), or catenative when meaning ‘continue’ (‘he keeps playing’).

  2. Hugo Voskamp - November 15, 2012, 1:24 am Reply

    Dear Stuar Cook,

    I apologize for responding late; I highly appreciate your reply, very helpful indeed. I have been trying to find the answer on this for, when translating certain phrases into Dutch, this issue may arise. Just out of curiosity I was wondering how this should be defined in terms of grammar. Thank you again, very helpful!

    Kind regards,
    Hugo

    • Stuart Cook - November 15, 2012, 11:32 am Reply

      Hi, Hugo. Such verbs are simply called linking verbs, also known as copula or copular verbs. What follows the verb is called a complement.

  3. Hugo Voskamp - November 17, 2012, 2:16 pm Reply

    Hello Stuart,

    Thank you very much for your reply, very kind of you.
    If you would allow me to ask you a further question please 🙂

    I do understand the concept of linking verbs and the complement that follows. Where-as in Dutch we only have 9 linking verbs, in English, there seem to be much more. In case two verbs are used one after another, in Dutch the first one is often called modal (or helping) verb where-as in English, there is a limited amount of modal verbs. It is actually just a matter of definition I think.

    However, for me, the (theoretical) problem lies in this:
    First, a verb in Dutch can be translated by either a to-infinitive or and ing-infinitive (present participles are hardly ever used as verb/verbals with real verbal meaning).
    Second, a dynamic verb / action verb in English can be made progressive by using the present continuous (not linking verbs) when the translation remains the same in Dutch (we use the adverb ‘busy’ or ‘now’ to make known something is presently going on.

    Based on the abovementioned, it is thus important to decide whether a verb in English as an active (main) verb and can therefore be put in the present continuous, or is a linking verb with a complement that follows.

    You explained clearly how this is with the verb stay/remain.

    Now I would kindly ask your opinion on the so-called posture verbs sit/stand/lie.
    Very often you see sentences like:
    We sat watching TV all day
    I sat looking at her
    He stood staring through he window all day
    I stand waiting at the bin untill someone opens it for me
    As i lay thinking about….
    Etc.

    My question is:
    Are the posture verbs here a copula was well, and the present participles verbal adjectives (complements) and as a result can therefor not be made progressive, OR are these catenatives (and cán be put into the present continuous!) and the following (ing-)verbs main verbs?Are the posture verbs to be dealt with the same way as ‘stay/remain’ or is this a different topic?

    I appreciate your comment! Thank you very much on forehand.
    Hugo

    • Stuart Cook - November 18, 2012, 8:18 pm Reply

      The ‘posture’ verbs (sit, stand, lie, etc) are all non-stative (action) verbs, so can be used in a continuous form: ‘I was sitting’, ‘I am standing’, etc. However, these verb are not catenative.

      If a posture verb appears in the continuous form, we often change the construction a little to avoid having two ‘ings’ next to each other: ‘I sat watching TV’ might become ‘I was sitting and watching TV’; ‘I lay thinking about …’ might become ‘I was lying on the bed thinking … ‘.

  4. Hugo Voskamp - November 19, 2012, 8:21 pm Reply

    Hello Stuart,

    Thank you for your comment, very clear indeed!

    Kind regards,
    Hugo

  5. Hugo Voskamp - November 20, 2012, 1:11 pm Reply

    Final question pls:

    When a posture verb is used in a simple tense (not in the continuous form), followed by an ing-form (I sat reading; he stood gazing, etc), what then is the grammatical qualification (name) of this present participle: still verbal adjective, or object complement, or even the main verb then?

    Thank you again, kind regards,
    Hugo

    • Stuart Cook - December 1, 2012, 7:41 pm Reply

      Hugo,
      In the examples you gave, the ‘ing’ forms are present participles.

  6. Hugo Voskamp - December 2, 2012, 10:23 pm Reply

    Hello Stuart,

    Thank you! This information serves me very well when translating. These topics are poorly dealt with at schools, so your site and this information is very helpfull.

    Kind regards,
    Hugo

  7. Margaret - September 9, 2013, 12:59 pm Reply

    hi, i would like to ask if the following is linking or sensing verb:
    1.This made the donkey so frustrated. [made=action]
    2.He found that… [found=linking]
    3. it kept a respectful distance [kept=linking]
    4. he set it loose [which is the action verb ?]
    5.but finding no use of it [which is the action verb? finding? ]
    6.it gave a loud bray [gave=action]
    7.what you can do is so little ? [which is the verb ? do? is?]

    • Margaret - September 9, 2013, 1:01 pm Reply

      to add on,
      am i right to say that
      seeing this, ….
      seeing is not a verb , it is a conjunction ?

      • Stuart Cook - September 9, 2013, 8:41 pm Reply

        Hi, Margaret
        Make, find, keep, set and gave are all action verbs, not linking.
        5. We say ‘finding no use for it ‘. It’s an action verb.
        7. The verb here is ‘is’. ‘What you can do’ is the subject of the verb.

        “Seeing this, . . . .” This is a participial clause. ‘Seeing’ is the present participle of the verb ‘see’. Its past participle is ‘seen’.

        Hope that helps.

        • Margaret - September 10, 2013, 10:54 pm Reply

          Thanks for your reply. It helps.
          I was wondering, if it is possible to have action verb and linking verb side by side?

          what you can do is so little ?
          as identified, “is” is the verb. (linking verb right?)
          i also identified do as action verb.
          so, is it possible to have two verbs sided by side?
          thanks.

          • Stuart Cook - September 11, 2013, 5:41 am Reply

            Here’s an example of an action verb (try) followed by a linking verb (sound):
            He tried to sound happy.
            And here’s an example of a modal verb (can) followed by a linking verb (be):
            People can be generous, but they can also be selfish.

            • Margaret - September 11, 2013, 5:49 am Reply

              Okay. Thanks for the explanation.

  8. Jim - November 13, 2015, 7:36 pm Reply

    Stuart, loving the thread. Very interesting.

    How about this one:

    She is here.

    I thought “here” was an adverb. I thought “is” was a linking verb. Where are my thoughts wrong? Can an adjective be used with a linking verb?

    • Stuart Cook - November 14, 2015, 11:53 pm Reply

      Hi,
      Yes, we use adjectives after linking verbs:
      tastes good, sounds good, smells nice, etc.

      As for your example, there’s no adjective equivalent of adverbs like ‘here’ and ‘there’ so we have no choice.

  9. ruth - February 3, 2016, 1:19 am Reply

    Hi Mr. Cook
    How can a differentiate the verb to be as linking from to be helping .
    In the sentence
    You are talking to much in class….. are is linking or helping ?
    I am running in the woods….. am is linking or helping ?
    I am very confuse because of the “ing”

    thanks, my regards
    Ruth

    • Stuart Cook - February 3, 2016, 10:56 am Reply

      Hello, Ruth
      The easiest way is probably to familiarise yourself with the construction of continuous tenses, i.e. present continuous and past continuous. Both these tenses use be as an auxiliary (helping) verb: I am working, he was waiting, they were speaking, etc.
      Once you know this, the trick is to be able to identify a continuous tense in a sentence. You then know that be is a helping verb in the sentence you’re seeing.

      Try it with these two examples:
      He was annoying.
      He was annoying me
      .

      Ask yourself which of the above is past continuous (and therefore be as a helping verb), and which is be followed by an adjective.

  10. yuwan - March 21, 2016, 11:43 am Reply

    Hii..mr.cook
    this thread is also very important to me and confusing me.
    My queastion is this sentence – “keep calm”
    As i know “calm” is an adjective. “keep” is action verb not a linking verb.then how is “calm” used with “keep”? if i am wrong please tell me the real rule of this grammar point

    • Stuart Cook - March 22, 2016, 9:33 pm Reply

      Depends on the meaning. In the sentence “He secretly keeps his money under the bed” keep is used with an adverb. But when we say “keep calm” it’s a synonym for stay and is a linking verb (followed by an adjective).
      Yes, it’s confusing.

  11. yuwan - March 24, 2016, 12:58 pm Reply

    Thanks for the reply mr.cook..!

    Now i know all linking verbs are used with both adjectives And adverbs Thanks to you..! but i can’t really understand the progression that the linking verbs are used with adverbs.

    I’m confused about when to use adverb with linking verbs and how to identify whether the linking verb is needed to be modified with adjective or adverb? i really appriciate your help

  12. Gulmira Yakhiyayeva - June 7, 2017, 5:19 pm Reply

    Hello, Mr.Cook.
    Can we use adjectives with the verb behave?
    I’ a bit confused. I thought it is possible to say: he behaved selfish.
    Could you make a favour for me .please?

    • Stuart Cook - June 8, 2017, 8:02 am Reply

      Hello, Gulmira

      Good question. We follow the verb behave with an adverb, so we say ‘behave well’ and ‘behave selfishly’.

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