Copula (linguistics)

In linguistics, a copula (plural: copulas or copulae; abbreviated cop) is a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (a subject complement), such as the word is in the sentence "The sky is blue." The word copula derives from the Latin noun for a "link" or "tie" that connects two different things.[1]

A copula is often a verb or a verb-like word, though this is not universally the case.[2] A verb that is a copula is sometimes called a copulative or copular verb. In English primary education grammar courses, a copula is often called a linking verb. In other languages, copulas show more resemblances to pronouns, as in Classical Chinese and Guarani, or may take the form of suffixes attached to a noun, as in Beja and Inuit languages.

Most languages have one main copula, although some (such as Spanish, Portuguese and Thai) have more than one, and some have none. In the case of English, this is the verb to be. While the term copula is generally used to refer to such principal forms, it may also be used to refer to some other verbs with similar functions, like become, get, feel and seem in English (these may also be called "semi-copulas" or "pseudo-copulas").

Grammatical function

The principal use of a copula is to link the subject of a clause to the predicate. A copular verb is often considered to be part of the predicate, the remainder being called a predicative expression. A simple clause containing a copula is illustrated below:

The book is on the table.

In that sentence, the noun phrase the book is the subject, the verb is serves as the copula, and the prepositional phrase on the table is the predicative expression. The whole expression is on the table may (in some theories of grammar) be called a predicate or a verb phrase.

The predicative expression accompanying the copula, also known as the complement of the copula, may take any of several possible forms: it may be a noun or noun phrase, an adjective or adjective phrase, a prepositional phrase (as above) or another adverb or adverbial phrase expressing time or location. Examples are given below (with the copula in bold and the predicative expression in italics):

Mary and John are my friends.
The sky was blue.
I am taller than most people.
The birds and the beasts were there.

The three components (subject, copula and predicative expression) do not necessarily appear in that order: their positioning depends on the rules for word order applicable to the language in question. In English (an SVO language) the ordering given is the normal one, but here too, certain variation is possible:

It is also possible, in certain circumstances, for one (or even two) of the three components to be absent:

  • In null-subject (pro-drop) languages, the subject may be omitted, as it may from other types of sentence. In Italian, sono stanco means "I am tired", literally "am tired".
  • In non-finite clauses in languages such as English, the subject is often absent, as in the participial phrase being tired or the infinitive phrase to be tired. The same applies to most imperative sentences such as Be good!
  • For cases in which no copula appears, see § Zero copula below.
  • Any of the three components may be omitted as a result of various general types of ellipsis. In particular, in English, the predicative expression may be elided in a construction similar to verb phrase ellipsis, as in short sentences like I am; Are they? (where the predicative expression is understood from the previous context).

Inverse copular constructions, in which the positions of the predicative expression and the subject are reversed, are found in various languages.[3] They have been the subject of much theoretical analysis, particularly in regard to the difficulty of maintaining, in the case of such sentences, the usual division into a subject noun phrase and a predicate verb phrase.

Another issue is verb agreement when both subject and predicative expression are noun phrases (and differ in number or person): in English, the copula normally agrees with the preceding phrase even if it is not logically the subject, as in the cause of the riot is (not are) these pictures of the wall. Compare Italian la causa della rivolta sono ("are", not è "is") queste foto del muro.

The precise definition and scope of the concept of a copula is not necessarily precise in any language. For example, in English though the concept of the copula is most strongly associated with the verb be, there are many other verbs that can be used in a copular sense as well. For example,[4][5]

  • The boy became a man.
  • The girl got excited by her new toy.
  • The dog grew tired from the activity.

And even more tenuously[4][5]

  • The milk turned sour.
  • The food smells good.
  • You seem upset.
Other Languages
العربية: عماد (لغة)
Bahasa Banjar: Kopula
čeština: Spona (sloveso)
Deutsch: Kopula
eesti: Koopula
Esperanto: Kopulo
فارسی: فعل ربطی
Gaeilge: Copail
Ido: Kopulo
Bahasa Indonesia: Kopula
íslenska: Tengisögn
עברית: אוגד
magyar: Kopula
日本語: コピュラ
norsk: Kopula
norsk nynorsk: Kopula
slovenščina: Vez (jezikoslovje)
suomi: Kopula
svenska: Kopula
татарча/tatarça: Бәйлекләр
Türkçe: Koşaç
Tiếng Việt: Từ liên hệ
中文: 系詞
Lingua Franca Nova: Copula (gramatica)