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Active vs Linking Verbs

Active Verbs

Every English sentence contains a subject and verb. In many cases, the verb is an active verb. That is, the verb tells what action is being performed:

Shema hit the ball.
The class read three books.
Chinh bought a new car.

These simple sentences contain an active verb. In each instance, the active verb tells what action the subject does: Shema hits something. The class reads something. Chinh buys something. Remember that usually, an action verb is one that can be demonstrated (run, walk, sing, talk, cry, laugh).

Linking Verbs

Linking verbs link a subject with a predicate. These are sometimes harder to recognize than active verbs because they simply show that the subject exists. These verbs usually can’t be demonstrated. Linking verbs include the following:

  • forms of the verb “to be”: am, is, was, were, will be, had been, etc.
  • verbs of “sense”: seem, appear, look, smell, taste, sound, etc.

Read the following sentences with linking verbs:

Anastasia is the head cheerleader.
Seahorses are good fathers.
Hongzia was the captain of the team.
Jonas seemed very excited.
This fish smells rancid.
Overcooked coffee tastes awful.
Manny appeared sulky and unhappy.
I felt very foolish.
My new stereo sounds wonderful.

HINT: If you can’t decide whether a verb is active or linking, try to substitute one of these words—am, is, was, were—in the sentence.

Chelsey appears snobbish.
Chelsey is snobbish.

Omar looked unhappy yesterday.
Omar was unhappy yesterday.

The speaker seemed nervous before the crowd.
The speaker was nervous before the crowd.

In the sentences above, appears, looked, and seemed are linking verbs, based on this substitution.
You’ll notice that in each sentence, the subject complement (the word that completes the meaning of the sentence) is either a noun or an adjective. For example, cheerleader is a noun renaming who Anastasia is. Snobbish is an adjective describing Chelsey.

Two important points to remember:

  • When a sentence contains a linking verb, the complement may be either a noun or an adjective.
  • When the main verb in a sentence is a linking verb and the complement is a noun, the subject and the complement are equal.

We can change the position of the subject and the complement in a sentence with a linking verb, making the complement the subject and the subject the complement:

Anastasia is the head cheerleader.
The head cheerleader is Anastasia.
In other words, Anastasia = cheerleader.

You can see that both terms are interchangeable, so that subject = complement. Notice that sentences with active verbs will not allow any changing of positions, without ruining or changing the meaning of the sentence:

Felicite hit the ball.
The ball hit Felicite.

The class read three books.
Three books read the class.

In many cases, the linking verb works like an equal sign to show that the subject and the subject complement are equal.

What Difference Does This All Make?

Writers who aren’t aware of the difference between active and linking verbs have difficulty using adverbs or adjectives correctly.

I felt bad about hurting his feelings.
I felt badly about hurting his feelings.

Which of these sentences is correct? If you’ve studied this worksheet carefully, you know that the first sentence is correct because

  • feel is a linking verb.
  • The complement of the verb has to be an adjective, so bad is the correct choice.

If you guessed that the correct sentence was the second one (I felt badly), notice that the adverb (badly) indicates something is wrong with the person’s sense of touch.

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