A basic understanding of English grammar and structure is an invaluable skill, both academically and professionally. A lot of students struggle with the numerous grammatical rules of the English language, as do many adults, long after they’ve left an educational environment. Grammar itself is the entire system of a language and how that language is organized. To teach the English language, every word is defined as a particular part of speech, depending on how that kind of word functions. A verb, as we all learn at a young age, is an action word. It is used to describe a particular action or occurrence. Falling under the category of verbs are linking verbs.
Defining a Linking Verb
An ordinary verb describes an action. There are countless verbs in the English language. Jump is a verb. Run is a verb. Think, play, eat, and orchestrate are all verbs as well. They denote an action. Within a sentence or phrase, a verb usually describes the action of the subject of that sentence or phrase. In the sentence, “John drinks the water,” for example, the subject of the sentence is John, and the verb is “drinks,” or in its infinitive form, “to drink.” Simple enough.
Sometimes, however, you come across a verb that doesn’t necessarily describe an action. The most common example of a verb like this in English is “is,” or in its infinitive form, the verb “to be.’” Though to be is technically an action, the way this verb is used in sentences is a little different than most. A regular action verb connects the subject of the sentence to, most often, another noun, to which the action is happening. This is true in our example, “John drinks the water.” The subject is still John, the verb is still drinks, and the water is the object of the sentence, or the thing to which the action (drink) is happening.
A linking verb is different, in the sense that it usually connects a sentence’s subject with something other than the sentence’s object, most often equating the subject to something. An example of the linking verb “is’ used in a sentence would be, “John is smart.” Smart here is definitely not the object of the sentence. Nothing is happening to smart, no action is being performed upon it. It is an adjective that describes John, the subject. “Is” works as a linking verb here because it links the subject of the sentence with its subject complement. John is smart. The linking verb is links John to the adjective describing him.
This works with parts of speech besides adjectives, as well. A linking verb can link a subject to another noun, or to a pronoun. If you wrote, “John is a student,” the linking verb ‘is’ would be connecting John, the subject, with the subject complement, ‘a student,’ which in this case is a noun. If you wrote, “He is John,” the linking verb ‘is’ would be connecting John, the subject, with the subject complement, ‘he,’ which is a pronoun.
Types of Linking Verbs
You may be thinking to yourself, “It seems like the verb ‘is’ or ‘to be’ is always acting as a linking verb.” And you are correct. The verb “to be” is always a linking verb, because it is always attaching the subject of a sentence to the adjective, noun, or pronoun acting as its complement. This is one of many rules of English grammar. There are other verbs that always act as linking verbs, and they include ‘to become’ and ‘to seem.’ These are sometimes referred to as true linking verbs.
Along with true linking verbs, there are some verbs that can sometimes behave as linking verbs, while other times they behave as regular action verbs. One of these verbs is the commonly used verb ‘to look.’ Look is a regular action verb if you write, “John looks at the ocean.” The subject, John, performs the action verb, “to look,” upon the object, ‘the ocean.’ On the other hand, in the sentence, “John looks tired,” look is a linking verb, because John is not performing an action, and the verb ‘look’ is linking John to his subject complement, the adjective ‘tired.’
More Linking Verbs
Along with look, other verbs that can act as both linking and action verbs include: grow, prove, smell, taste, and feel. The following sentences use these verbs as regular action verbs:
The tree grows quickly. The professor proved his point. She smells the flowers. They tasted their dinner. He feels the fabric of his jacket.
Each subject in these sentences is performing an action to the object of the subject, and the action verb describes the action and links the subject and the object. The following sentences use the same verbs as linking verbs:
He grew lonely. The professor proved too stubborn. The flowers smell wonderful. The dinner tasted very burnt. He feels betrayed.
The subjects in these sentences are not performing actions as they were before, and the verbs are linking the subjects with their subject complements. In this instance, the subject complements are all adjectives that describe the subjects.
An easy way to tell if a verb is behaving as a linking verb involves performing a mini-test on the sentence. If you can replace the verb in the sentence with an equal sign (=), and the sentence’s meaning is unchanged, then the verb is acting as a linking verb. For example, if you replaced ‘grew’ in the sentence ‘He grew lonely’ with an equal sign, you would have, ‘He = lonely.’ The meaning of the sentence remains the same, so ‘grew’ is a linking verb in that case. If you replaced ‘grows’ in the sentence ‘The tree grows quickly’ with an equal sign, you would have, ‘The tree = quickly.’ This does not make sense, and definitely changes the meaning of the sentence, so ‘grows’ is an action verb rather than a linking verb in this case.
Learning More About Grammar
Though the concept of linking verbs can seem tricky, once you have enough practice identifying them, it becomes easier to understand. This is true of all grammar and structure rules. Knowing how to express yourself, both verbally and in writing, will benefit you in so many ways and so many situations, so it never hurts to review the basics!