The mysterious linking verb revealed


What are linking verbs and why do they matter? Most of us remember the term vaguely from school but can’t say much more about this part of speech. No need for embarrassment though, because you almost certainly use linking verbs correctly without even thinking about it.

There are a few commonly used phrases that sound like a failure to follow the rules of linking verbs. If you’re a sensitive-eared listener, you probably know why it bothers you to hear someone say, “I’m doing good, how about you?” Because it’s wrong, that’s why! Unless you’re actively engaged in acts of philanthropy you’re not “doing good,” you’re doing well. Just like you’re not singing good, you’re not driving good, and you’re not mowing the grass good; you’re doing these things well.

But here’s where it gets interesting: the shorter version of the same statement, “I’m good,” is actually correct. While in general it’s true that adverbs must modify verbs, the rules are different for linking verbs.

This special class of verbs connects the subject of the sentence to a subjective complement, either a predicate adjective, predicate noun, or predicate prepositional phrase. In other words, after a linking verb comes some word or phrase that describes the subject (e.g. that tiger looks huge, it’s awfully close, and its teeth seem extremely pointy).

Every form of “to be” as well as a number of other verbs can be used as linking verbs. But just because they can be doesn’t mean they must be. The same word can be used different ways in different sentences. For example:

The moon appears larger than I’ve ever seen it before.

You look unusual right now.

Do you feel okay?

Are you becoming a werewolf again?

Appears, look, unusual, and becoming are all being used as linking verbs in the sentences above. But they can also be action verbs in a different sentence:

The moon is appearing over the horizon just now.

Look how enormous it is tonight!

I feel fur sprouting on your hand.

Werewolf is not a becoming look for you.

If, for some odd reason, you need to decide whether a verb is a linking verb or an action verb in a particular sentence, there’s an easy method. Replace the verb in question with the most appropriate form of the verb to be. If the sentence still makes sense, it’s a linking verb. If it doesn’t, then you’re looking at an action verb in the context of the sentence.

Your boss seems cranky today.

Your boss is cranky today.

Those two sentences are pretty much the same, so seems is quite likely to be a linking verb in this case.

I smell your socks from here.

I am your socks from here.

Nope. Definitely not a linking verb.

You can’t always rely on the test, however. Sometimes a sentence won’t make sense even though the verb you’re testing is, in fact, being used as a linking verb. That’s always the case for appear, which doesn’t follow the rule.

My cat appeared in the kitchen because she heard the can opener.

My cat was in the kitchen because she heard the can opener.

In this case, the sentence still makes perfect sense but appeared is being used as an action verb.

Going back to the original example of “I’m good,” we can now see that it qualifies as a linking verb and is therefore correct. But why does it still sound so wrong? That’s probably a legacy of the way we were raised. My parents, and probably yours too, taught their children to say, “I’m fine, thank you.”

That’s perfectly polite as well as being grammatically correct. “I’m good” most likely sounds wrong to our ears because it was considered too casual, and thus frowned upon. Over the years, we’ve kind of forgotten the details but we know it’s wrong, and since we can easily recall the rule about verbs requiring an adverb we assume that it’s a problem of grammar rather than etiquette.

The next time your kids say “I’m good” when you ask them how they’re doing, you can smile and not even feel guilty about letting it pass. They’re fine, and so is their language! And when you observe a grammar Nazi berating some poor innocent for gross violations of grammar rules? If it’s this one, you’ll be well equipped to point out that the ‘offender’ is perfectly in order, whereas the would-be corrector is wrong, wrong, wrong. What a glorious moment!


























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Sarah Warlick

Sarah Warlick founded Proof Positive Content to provide professional service firms with high-quality content that resonates with their target audiences. Sarah's writing appears in books, on the websites of over a dozen Top 100 Accounting Firms and in Accounting Today, Forbes and other leading publications, but usually under another name. Ghostwriters rarely get the glory - their clients do!