Linking Verbs

Linking Verbs

A linking verb is used to re-identify or to describe its subject.

Easy Examples of Linking Verbs

In each example, the linking verb is highlighted and the subject is bolded.
  • Alan is a vampire.
  • (Here, the subject is re-identified as a vampire.)
  • Alan is thirsty.
  • (Here, the subject is described as thirsty.)
The word, phrase or clause that follows a linking verb to re-identify or describe the subject is called the subject complement. (In these next four examples, everything after the linking verb is the subject complement.)
  • He seems drunk.
  • He seems too drunk to deliver his speech.
  • The soup tastes very garlicky.
  • His voice sounds as flat a pancake.

Real-Life Examples of Linking Verbs

The most common linking verb is the verb to be (in all of its forms, e.g., am, is, are, was, were, will be, was being, has been).
  • She got her looks from her father. He is a plastic surgeon. (Comedian Groucho Marx)
  • Lawyers were children once. (Poet Charles Lamb)
Other common linking verbs relate to the five senses (to look, to feel, to smell, to sound and to taste).
  • A new book smells great. An old book smells even better. An old book smells like ancient Egypt. (American author Ray Bradbury)
  • It sounds really corny but inner beautiful shows on the outside, for sure. (Model Kate Moss)
To appear, to become and to seem are common linking verbs too.
  • Once made equal to man, woman becomes his superior. (Greek philosopher Socrates)
  • It always seems impossible until it's done. (President of South Africa Nelson Mandela)
Linking verbs do not express actions. The verbs to be, to become, and to seem are always linking verbs. However, some verbs can be linking verbs or non-linking verbs depending on the context.
  • Tony always smells like the soup.
  • (Here, smells is a linking verb. It describes Tony, the subject.)
  • Tony always smells the soup.
  • (Here, smells is not a linking verb. Remember, a linking verb does not express an action.)
  • He felt sick when he felt the heat.
  • (Here, the first felt is a linking verb but the second felt isn't.)

Why Should I Care about Linking Verbs?

Linking verbs do not cause serious problems for native English speakers. Occasionally when speaking, you will hear someone (usually someone who is quite grammar savvy) use an adverb instead of an adjective after linking verb.
  • Your hair smells amazingly. [wrong]
  • (This error occurs because speakers know that adverbs (here, amazingly) modify verbs, and having had that thought they can't correct themselves before they've blurted the adverb. The subject complement (the thing that follows a linking verb to re-identify or describe the subject) will always be a noun or an adjective. In this example, the speaker should have used the adjective amazing.)
  • Your dog smells badly. My dog smells bad.
  • (Here, the first smells is not a linking verb, and it is correctly modified by the adverb badly. It means the dog has a poor sense of smell. The second smells is a linking verb, and it is correctly followed by the adjective bad. It means the dog stinks. This difference is used in the old joke "My dog has no nose." "How does he smell?" "Terrible." When speakers mistakenly use an adverb after a linking verb, they are confusing the first structure with the second.)
Mistakenly using an adverb instead of adjective is quite rare. It is far more common the other way around.
  • The process is working fantastic. [wrong]
  • (It should be fantastically. This is covered more in the entry on adverbs.)
A common question related to linking verbs is whether to say "It was me" or "It was I". Here's the quick answer. You can say either because the it was me version is what everyone says (and so acceptable) and the it was I version fits the ruling that subject complements are in the subjective case.

However, to most, the "correct" it was I version sound pretentious or wrong. Here's the final advice: If you're speaking, do whatever comes naturally to you. If you're writing, restructure your sentence to avoid both versions.
  • "It was her/she" could become "She was the one".
This is also covered in the entry on subject complements.
Key Points
  • Use an adjective (definitely not an adverb) after a linking verb to describe your subject.
  • This chilli tastes wonderfully. [wrong]
  • (Should be wonderful)
  • "It was me" is acceptable, but some grammar-savvy types won't like it. "It was I" is grammatically pure, but some will think it sounds pretentious. Either reword your sentence to avoid this issue or pick the version that suits you and then defend it like a dog if questioned.
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