Normally, copulas hold a subject complement (or a predicate in any case). Example.

The sky became clear.
I am ill.

But what is in the definition of a lexical verb that makes copulas lexical verbs?

As the comments point out, I ought to be more specific.

I have recently read an article of French linguist Pollock.

Pollock, Jean-Yves. 1989. Verb movement, UG, and the structure of IP. Linguistic Inquiry 20, 365-424.

He claims that the differences between English and French with respect to syntax of sentence negation, questions, adverbs, floating quantifiers and “quantification at a distance” are correlated. He proves this in various ways. One thing that bothers me, though, is that he seems to contrast copulae and auxiliaries, but in such a strange way I have never heard of before.

Consider the following examples (from Pollock, aforementioned).

French infinitives:

1. être (to be) and avoir (to have)

  • Ne pas être heureux est une condition pour écrire des romans.
  • Ne to not be happy is a prerequisite for writing novels.
  • N'être pas heureux est une condition pour écrire des romans.
  • 'Ne to be not happy ...'

As you can see, the negation in French can be in front or after the verb (a copula). More correctly, it is the verb that moves to Infl - in front of the negation - or not. Verb Movement is possible, but not obligatory in this case.

Then Pollock continues by saying "Let us now consider lexical verbs. The situation here contrasts sharply with the paradigm [in the previous examples]."

2. Lexical verbs

  • Ne pas sembler heureux est une condition pour écrire des romans.
  • 'Ne not seem happy is a prerequisite for writing novels.'
  • *Ne sembler pas heureux est une condition pour écrire des romans.
  • 'Ne to seem not happy ...'

(* meaning "not considered standard language" or simply not possible)

This tendency in infinitives "sort-of" aligns with English tensed clauses.

  • He is not happy.
  • *He seems not happy.
  • He was not arredsted.
  • *He got not arrested.

"It appears that although Verb Movement can apply to auxiliaries and lexical avoir, it cannot apply to lexical verbs in infinitives in French."

Without going further into detail, it struck me that Pollock seems to make a distinction between to be (and French être) - which seems to be an auxiliary, according to his theory - and to seem (and French sembler) as a lexical verb. Even though, my gut tells me that être in 1. and in He is not happy is as good a copula as sembler or *He seems not happy..

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    Are you only asking about English? The current sole answer seems to deal with the various functions of the English copula, but there could be even greater variety in other languages. I would suggest fleshing out your question a bit. Generally there should be an equivalent amount of effort put into question and answer and so far the answer show more effort and the question shows less focus. I'm very interested in this topic you've brought up by the way, so I'm not just nitpicking. (-: Oct 20, 2013 at 16:11
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    @hippietrail You are right. I added more information. Please see my edit. Oct 21, 2013 at 8:54
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    I've edited my answer to reply to your edit: some people only consider be to be a true copula.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 21, 2013 at 10:30

1 Answer 1


[Edit: Some people consider only be/être a copula; verbs like seem/sembler, become/devenir, etc. they consider lexical verbs. I believe their reason is that they consider only be devoid of any non-grammatical function, whereas seem also means "affect the perception of others", and become "change".

I have only ever encountered this narrow sense in certain branches formal linguistics of the Anglo-Saxon school, not in other disciplines or places, but it has some merit, and perhaps it is more widespread than I know. It is something to take into account when you see someone talking about "copulae"; if only writers always had the time to define their terms... ]

The idea is that lexical verbs express more than a mere grammatical function, while auxiliary verbs express only grammatical function, such as tense, number, or modality. Some consider copulae lexical verbs, others do not.

I can't see you.

The auxiliary modal verb can merely adds a notion of modality and presentness to the action or state of seeing.

However, the distinction is one of convenience, not a rigid or even consistent one. What comprises a grammatical function and what lexical content is a semantic criterion, and not one that can be easily defined or tested.

The suicide note rules out murder.

What meaning does rules out add? You could say it merely adds a notion of impossibility and nothing else, just like can't. But we normally call rule (out) a lexical verb.

Brahma is swimming.

In the present continuous, be is commonly considered an auxiliary verb.

Brahma was a man.

This man is Brahma .

As a copula, it is sometimes considered lexical, sometimes non-lexical. What meaning does it add? It mainly establishes identity between Brahma and a/this man. It also expresses (or implies?) that Brahma existed.

Brahma existed as a man.

Existed as mainly expresses existence, but also identity. Exist is commonly treated as a lexical verb. But is it all that different from be? Should exist as be considered a copula? No, because copulae must take a subject complement (among other requirements), which cannot be introduced by as in this way.

Brahma was in love with Sita.

Brahma felt love for Sita.

Here be assigns an attribute/property to the subject in the form of a prepositional phrase, the state of being in love. But feel can do the same thing by means of a noun, although it is limited to feelings, unlike be.

So whether or not you find existence and identity (copula + noun) or existence and attribute/property (copula + adjectival phrase) a mere grammatical function should determine whether or not you call copulae lexical verbs. It is a choice.

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    @Bram: Three uses of be are often distinguished: existential (there is a man), copula (he was a man), and non-copular auxiliary (he was dancing). Existential be is usually considered lexical by everyone; only copular be is dubious. A random example of an author who considers the copula be to be a function word, not a content word: books.google.nl/…
    – Cerberus
    Oct 20, 2013 at 12:58
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    @Cerberus: I wouldn't say they were considered lexical by everyone; the be of There-Insertion is clearly an auxiliary verb that's part of the construction. Indeed, There's is becoming frozen with plural subjects: There's a lotta people out there. The progressive be, the passive be, and the predicate noun/adjective be are all clearly auxiliaries. What meaning is contributed by the progressive, for instance, is not contributed by be, but by the construction of which be is part {form of be + -ing form of next verb}.
    – jlawler
    Oct 20, 2013 at 15:24
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    @PElliott: Why do you think the implication of existence in in Brahma and not in the whole sentence? How can you then explain why there is no implication of his existence in does Brahma exist?, or Brahma does not exist...? I rather think his existence has to do with pragmatics at the sentence level.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 20, 2013 at 15:58
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    @PElliott: Ah, well, that principle is exactly the basket I wouldn't put all my eggs in in language; that is, it applies to certain phenomena, but not to others, and rarely or never to the final human interpretation of language. Context is almost always important, for example. Trying to analyse an utterance according to the metaphor of building blocks is useful, but not complete; a metaphor like currents in a river, or, e.g., a landscape the result of overlapping impact craters, can lead to other pieces of the puzzle in many cases.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 20, 2013 at 16:14
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    @jlawler: Okay, noted. I personally consider the whole distinction between meaning and function useful, but less practical or sustainable in more involved contexts. It's more like a handy rule of thumb, not something fundamental. E.g., I'm not sure tense or number or modality expresses less "meaning" as opposed to "function" to me than the word relation or different or include. I see levels but not black and white.
    – Cerberus
    Oct 20, 2013 at 16:29

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