Friday, September 18, 2009

The state of linking verbs

I've recently realized that there is some confusion surrounding two classifications of English verbs: linking verbs vs. non-linking and stative verbs vs. dynamic verbs [see update here]. Last year, I observed a practicing teacher who didn't understand the difference. She had confounded linking verbs and stative verbs leading her to explain to the student that active verbs are modified by adverbs while linking verbs are modified by adjectives. As they went through the exercises, the students were quick to notice where the facts didn't fit her "rule" and it went downhill from there. She tried to dig herself out by appealing to what sounds right and "exceptions". I was just there as a guest, so I smiled and bit my tongue.

Ann Hogue's First Steps in Academic Writing contrasts linking verbs with action verbs, and the same terms are used in a number of other books, including McGraw-Hill's essential ESL grammar by Mark Lester. This use of the word action could easily lead to a confused contrast with stative. On the other hand, maybe another terminology is partially at fault. ESL Beginner by Johanna Pugni, Linda Robbian, Sherry Boguchwal, Dianne Ramdeholl says linking verbs are sometimes called state-of-being verbs. Or perhaps the confusion is preexisting and the terminology is the result. Whatever the source may be, there's a problem.

Linking verbs are those verbs that allow adjective phrases as one of their complements. These include words like be, look, seem, feel, sound, get, become, stay, etc. Even where these verbs take noun or preposition phrase complements, they are generally still linking verbs.
  • He seems nice/a good fellow/up to it.
  • It was good/a pen/under the bed.
  • She became healthy/president.
That's it. Linking verbs are defined entirely by the complements they allow. Period. They contrast with verbs taking object complements (e.g., ate the sandwich), present participles (e.g., keep going), infinitives (e.g., want to go), clausal complements (e.g., wonder whether it's right), or no complement at all (e.g., slept). This pattern of allowable complementation is sometimes called the verb's valency.

In contrast, stative verbs have nothing at all to do with complementation. A simple rule of thumb is: if you can't put it in the progressive, it's stative:
  1. it seems nice -> *it's seeming nice stative
  2. I have a car -> *I'm having a car stative
  3. It gets hot -> It's getting hot dynamic
  4. It works -> It's working dynamic
Notice that 1 and 3 are linking verbs (they allow AdjP complements), but 1 is stative while 3 is dynamic. Similarly 2 and 4 are not linking verbs (they allow objects), but 2 is stative and 4 dynamic.

It may be coincidentally true that many linking verbs are stative, but the two sets of properties are orthogonal.

When it comes to teaching, the stative/dynamic dichotomy is most relevant when teaching progressive aspect. In contrast, verb complementation is typically best dealt with at the pattern level as a verb is learned. It may be useful to bring it up, however, when addressing passive voice because students could mistake an NP complement for an object and try to front it with ungrammatical results.
  • she became president -> *(the) president was become by her


Jen G said...

What about sentences like: "She ate healthy" and "She's having a baby"? I know the first is a non-standard usage, but the second is not.

Brett said...

The verb ate is simply intransitive here. It's neither stative nor linking. The verb phrases with have in the sense of possession are usually stative, but other meanings of have are usually dynamic.

Sherry said...

don't linking verbs also allow noun phrases (predicate noun) in addition to adjective phrases?

In "Bob was a coach," coach is a noun, not an adjective.

Brett said...

Yes, Sherry, that's right. "Linking verbs are those verbs that allow adjective phrases as one of their complements...Even where these verbs take noun or preposition phrase complements, they are generally still linking verbs."

Anonymous said...

This is useful to help teachers sort out the confusion for themselves but can it be used to explain the difference to non-native speakers who do not have a sense of what word can or should go after a particular verb?

Brett said...

"Can it be used to explain the difference to non-native speakers?" It can if you point them to examples or give them access to corpora rather than have them rely on their own intuition. But the intended audience was teachers. Not confusing students is really important.

Jackie said...

When you explain this to students sometimes you need to overstate the case to avoid confusing them. In West Africa one often hears, "I am having a car," or "I was loving a man." It's so fossilized that I just ban the progressive use of certain verbs in my class. Of course, on the online poetry forum I use, a common respnse to someone's poem is now, "I am loving this!" What can you say?

Warsaw Will said...

A little late, but I've just seen this grammar page ( where the writer says - There are three major categories of verbs: action verbs, linking verbs, and helping verbs

This categorisation seems a bit strange to me. I would have thought that action verbs would normally be contrasted with state verbs, linking verbs with transitive and intransitive verbs (as in learners' dictionaries), and auxiliary or helping verbs with main or lexical verbs. And she really does seem to mean action verbs - she gives 24 examples, all of which can be used in continuous (progressive) tenses.

Brett said...

Yes, Will. I've seen similarly inexplicable groupings.

Unknown said...

Thank you. That was exactly what I wanted to know, and your explanation was clear, precise and complete.

Serpil demirel said...

she is being silly.In this sentence, being is a main verb.But is it still a linking verb. I wonder this.