AskDefine | Define copula

Dictionary Definition

copula n : an equating verb (such as `be' or `become') that links the subject with the complement of a sentence [syn: copulative, linking verb] [also: copulae (pl)]

User Contributed Dictionary



From copula ‘bond, tie’.


  1. A word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (usually a subject complement or an adverbial); it serves to equate (or associate) the subject with the predicate. (e.g. be).
  2. A measure of association between two or more variables, independent of the individual marginal distributions of the variables.


grammar: linking kind of word
  • Bosnian: kopula
  • Dutch: koppelwerkwoord
  • Finnish: kopula
  • French: copule
  • German: Kopula
  • Icelandic: tengisögn
  • Italian: copula
  • Japanese: 繋辞 (けいじ, keiji)
  • Serbian:
    Cyrillic: копула
    Latin: kopula
statistics: measure of association




For coapula, from co- + apere ‘to bond’. Possibly semitic כפל ‘doubled’.


cōpŭla, -ae
  1. A bond, tie, or other connecting item.

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

In linguistics, a copula is a word used to link the subject of a sentence with a predicate (a subject complement or an adverbial). Although it might not itself express an action or condition, it serves to equate (or associate) the subject with the predicate. The word 'copula' originates from the Latin noun for a "link or tie" that connects two different things (for a short history of the copula see the appendix to Moro 1997 and references cited there).
A copula is sometimes (though not always) a verb or a verb-like part of speech. In English primary education grammar courses, a copula is often called a linking verb.
The term is generally used to refer to the main copular verb in the language: in the case of English, this is "to be". It can also be used to refer to all such verbs in the language: in that case, English copulas include "to be", "to become", "to get", "to feel", and "to seem". Other verbs have secondary uses as copulative verbs, as fall in "The zebra fell victim to the lion."
For a complete list see: List of English copulae.



Several sub-uses of the copula can be identified:
  • Identity: "I only want to be myself." "When the area behind the dam fills, it will be a lake." "The Morning Star is the Evening Star." "Boys will be boys."
  • Class membership. To belong to a set or class: "She could be married." "Dogs are canines." "Moscow is a large city." Depending on one's point of view, all other uses can be considered derivatives of this use, including the following non-copular uses in English, as they all express a subset relationship.
  • Predication (property and relation attribution): "It hurts to be blue." "Will that house be big enough?" "The hen is next to the cockerel." "I am confused." Such attributes may also relate to temporary conditions as well as inherent qualities: "I will be tired after running." "Will you be going to the play tomorrow?" but please note that a linking verb has nothing to do with these so called "Be"- verbs.(see below)

Non-copular uses

  • As an auxiliary verb:
    • To form the passive voice: "I was told that you wanted to see me"
    • To add continuous aspect to tenses: "It is raining"
  • Meaning "to exist": "I want only to be, and that is enough." "There's no sense in making a scientific inquiry about what species the Loch Ness Monster is, without first establishing that the Loch Ness Monster indeed is." "To be or not to be, that is the question." "I think therefore I am."
Note that the auxiliary verb function derives from the copular function; and, depending on one's point of view, one can still interpret the verb as a copula and the following verbal form as being adjectival. Abelard in his Dialectica made an argument against the idea that the copula can express existence based on a reductio ad absurdum (Kneale - Kneale 1962 and Moro 1997).

Unified theory of copular sentences

Along with copular sentences where the canonical order of predication is displayed - that is, the subject precedes the predicate - as in "a picture of the wall is the cause of the riot" there can also be "inverse copular sentences" where this order is mirrored as in "the cause of the riot is a picture of the wall" (cf. Everaert et al 2006). Although these two sentences are superficially very similar it can be shown that they embody very different properties. So, for example it is possible to form a sentence like "which riot do you think that a picture of the wall is the cause of" but not "which wall do you think that the cause of the riot was a picture of". The distinction between these two types of sentences, technically referred to as "canonical" vs. inverse copular sentences, respectively - and the unified theory of copular sentences associated to it - has been proved to be valid across-languages and has led to some refinement of the theory of clause structure. In particular it challenges one of the major dogmas of the theory of clause structure, i.e. that the two basic constituents of a sentence Noun Phrase and Verb Phrase are associated to the logical/grammatical functions of subject and predicate (cf. phrase structure rules and sentence (linguistics)).
In fact, copular sentences show that this axiom is not adequate on empirical grounds since the Noun Phrase that cooccurs with the Verb Phrase in a copular sentence can be the predicate and the subject be contained in the Verb Phrase. Interestingly, it has been suggested that inverse copular sentences appear to play a sharp role in setting the pro-drop parameter. In Italian, for example in sentences of the type Noun Phrase verb Noun Phrase, the verb generally agrees with the Noun Phrase on the left with one exception: inverse copular sentences. One can construe minimal pairs like the cause of the riot is/*are these pictures of the wall vs. la causa della rivolta sono/*è queste foto del muro: the two sentences are one the gloss of the other with only one difference: the copula is singular in Italian and plural in English. If one does not want to give up the idea that agreement is on the left, then the only option is to assume that pro occurs between the copula and the Noun Phrase on the left. That pro can occur as a predicate must be in fact independently assumed to assign a proper structure to sentences like sono io (is me: "it's me") which can by no means be considered a transformation of *io sono, which has no meaning.

Copula deletion

In informal speech, the copula may be dropped. This is a feature of African American Vernacular English but is also used by a variety of English speakers in informal contexts. Ex. "Where you at?" "We at the store." E-Prime is a variant of the English language that prohibits the use of the copula in all its forms.


As in most Indo-European languages, the English copula is the most irregular verb, due to constant use. Most English verbs (traditionally known as "weak verbs") have just four separate forms, e.g. "start", "starts", "starting", "started". A large minority (traditionally known as "strong verbs") have five separate forms, e.g. "begin", "begins", "beginning", "began", "begun". "To be" is a very special case in having eight forms: "be", "am", "is", "are", "being", "was", "were", "been". Historically it had even more, including "art", "wast", "wert", and, occasionally, "best" as a subjunctive.

Subset relator

From one perspective, the copula always relates two things as subsets. Take the following examples:
  1. John is a doctor.
  2. John and Mary are doctors.
  3. Doctors are educated.
  4. Mary is running.
  5. Running is fun.
Example 1 includes John in the set of all doctors. Example 2 includes John and Mary both in the set of all doctors. Example 3 includes the set of doctors in the set of those who are educated.
Example 4 is different. Example 4 includes Mary's state at the time of utterance in the set of states consistent with running. Example 5 then includes the set of states consistent with running in the set of states consistent with fun.

Distinguishing between a copula and an action verb

You can generally tell between a copula and an action verb by adding the verb "to seem" or "to be" in its place.
Example of an Action Verb: Sam looks at lettuce. Sam seems at lettuce? Sam is at lettuce? The latter two don't make sense, so "looks" in this case is being used as an action verb.
Example of a Copula: Sam looks happy. Sam seems happy? Sam is happy? The latter two make sense; "looks" is used as a copula in this case.

Copulae in other languages

In Indo-European languages, the words meaning "to be" often sound similar to each other. Due to the high frequency of their use, their inflection retains a considerable degree of similarity in some cases. Thus, for example, the English form is is an apparent cognate of German ist, Latin est and Russian jest, even though the Germanic, Italic, and Slavic language groups split at least three thousand years ago. The origins of the Indo-European copulae can be traced back to four different stems *es- (*h1es-), *sta- (*steh2-), *wes- and *bhu- (*bhuH-) in most Indo-European languages.

Georgian and German

Just like in English, the verb "to be" (qopna) is irregular in Georgian (a Kartvelian language); different verb roots are employed in different tenses. The roots -ar-, -kn-, -qav-, and -qop- (past participle) are used in the present tense, future tense, past tense and the perfective tenses respectively. Examples:
Note that in the last two examples (perfect and pluperfect) two roots are used in one verb compound. In the perfective tense, the root qop (which is the expected root for the perfective tense) is followed by the root ar, which is the root for the present tense. In the pluperfective tense, again, the root qop is followed by the past tense root qav. This formation is very similar to German (an Indo-European language), where the perfective and the pluperfective are expressed in the following way:
Here, gewesen is the past participle of sein ("to be") in German. In both examples, just like in Georgian, this participle is used together with the present and the past forms of the verb in order to conjugate for the perfect and the pluperfect aspects.

Zero copula

While copula deletion commonly occurs in various languages within a particular grammatical context, there are some languages where such usage is formalized. In Russian, Hungarian, and Hebrew, the copula in present tense is implied rather than spoken: Russian: я — человек, ya — chelovek "I (am) a human"; Hungarian: ő ember, "he (is) a human"; Hebrew: אני בן-אדם "I (am a) human". This usage is known generically as the zero copula. Note that in other tenses (sometimes in other persons besides third singular) the copula usually reappears.
In Hungarian, zero copula is restricted to present tense in 3rd person singular and plural: Ő ember/Ők emberek — "s/he is a human"/"they are humans"; but: (én) ember vagyok "I am a human", (te) ember vagy "you are a human", mi emberek vagyunk "we are humans", (ti) emberek vagytok "you (all) are humans". The copula also reappears for stating locations: az emberek a házban vannak, "the people are in the house".
Hungarian uses a copula to say Itt van Róbert "Bob is here" (and this not only with regard to third person singular/plural), but not to say Róbert öreg "Bob is old". This is to relate a subject to a more temporary condition/state taking place in space (very often in the sense of Lojban zvati: la rabyrt. zvati ne'i le zdani "Robert is in the house").
Further restrictions may apply before omission is permitted. For example in the Irish language, is, the present tense of the copula, may be omitted when the predicate is a noun. Ba the past/conditional cannot be deleted. If the present copula is omitted, the following pronoun é, í, iad preceding the noun is omitted as well.

Essence versus state

Romance copulae usually consist of two different verbs meaning "to be", the main one from the Latin esse (derived from *es-), and a secondary one from stare (derived from *sta-) . The difference is that the former usually refers to essential characteristics, whilst the latter refers to states and situations, e.g. "Bob is old" versus "Bob is well". (Note that the English words just used, "essential" and "state", are also cognate with the Latin infinitives esse and stare.) In Spanish, the quite high degree of verbal inflection, plus the existence of two copulae (ser and estar), means that there are 105 separate forms to express the eight in English, and the one in Chinese.
In some cases, the verb itself changes the meaning of the adjective/sentence. The following examples are from Portuguese:
In certain languages there are not only two copulae but the syntax is also changed when one is distinguishing between states or situation and essential characteristics. For example, in Irish, describing the subject's state or situation typically uses the normal VSO ordering with the verb bí. The copula is, which is used to state essential characteristics or equivalences, requires a change in word order so that the subject does not immediately follow the copula (see Irish syntax).
In Slavic languages, a similar distinction is made by putting a state in the instrumental case, while characteristics are in the nominative. This is used with all the copulas (e.g. "become" is normally used with the instrumental). It also allows the distinction to be made when the copula is omitted (zero copula) in East Slavic languages (in other Slavic languages the copula is not omitted).

Haitian Creole

Haitian Creole, a French-based creole language, has a reputation as being rather exotic linguistically when compared to French and the other Romance languages; and it lives up to this reputation with its copula system. It has three forms of the copula: se, ye, and the zero copula, no word at all (whose position we will indicate with "Ø", just for purposes of illustration).
Although no textual record exists of Haitian at its earliest stages of development from French, se is obviously derived from French c'est (), which is the normal French contraction of ce (that) and the copula est (third-person singular of the present indicative of the verb être, ultimately from Latin sum). There appears to be no trace of Latin sto.
The derivation of ye is less obvious; but we can assume that the French source was il est ("he/it is"), which, in rapidly spoken French, is very commonly pronounced as y est (IPA [jɛ]).
The use of a zero copula is unknown in French, and it is thought to be an innovation from the early days when Haitian was first developing as a Romance-based pidgin. Coincidentally, Latin also sometimes used a zero copula.
Which of se/ye/Ø is used in any given copula clause depends on complex syntactic factors that we can superficially summarize in the following four rules:
1. Use Ø (i.e., no word at all) in declarative sentences where the complement is an adjective phrase, prepositional phrase, or adverb phrase:
2. Use se when the complement is a noun phrase. But note that whereas other verbs come after any tense/mood/aspect particles (like pa to mark negation, or te to explicitly mark past tense, or ap to mark progressive aspect), se comes before any such particles:
3. Use se where French and English have a dummy "it" subject:
4. Finally, use the other copula form, ye, in situations where the sentence's syntax leaves the copula at the end of a phrase:
The above is, however, only a simplified analysis.


Japanese has copulas which would most often be translated as one of the so-called be-verbs of English. The Japanese copula has many forms. The words da and desu are used to predicate sentences, while na and de are particles used within sentences to modify or connect.
Japanese sentences with copulas most often equate one thing with another, that is, they are of the form "A is B." Examples:
The difference between da and desu appears simple. For instance desu is more formal and polite than da. Thus, many sentences such as the ones below are almost identical in meaning and differ in the speaker's politeness to the addressee and in nuance of how assured the person is of their statement. However, desu may never come before the end of a sentence, and da is used exclusively to delineate subordinate clauses. Additionally, da is always declarative, never interrogative.
Japanese sentences may be predicated with copulas or with verbs. However, desu may not always be a predicate. In some cases, its only function is to make a sentence predicated with a stative verb more polite. However, da always functions as a predicate, so it cannot be combined with a stative verb, because sentences need only one predicate. See the examples below.
There are several theories as to the origin of desu; one is that it is a shortened form of であります de arimasu, which is a polite form of である de aru. Both forms are generally used only in writing and more formal situations. Another form, でございます de gozaimasu, which is the more formal version of de arimasu, etimologically a conjugation of でござる de gozaru and a honorific suffix -ます -masu, is also used in some situations and is very polite. Note that de aru and de gozaru are considered to be compounds of a particle で de, and existential verbs aru and gozaru. です desu may be pronounced っす ssu in colloquial speech. The copula is subject to dialectal variation throughout Japan, resulting in forms such as や ya (in Kansai) and じゃ ja (in Hiroshima).
Japanese also has two verbs corresponding to English "to be": aru and iru. They are not copulae but existential verbs. Aru is used for inanimate objects, including plants, while iru is used for people and animals, though there are exceptions to this generalization.


N.B. The characters used are simplified ones, and the transcriptions given in italics reflect standard Mandarin pronunciation, using the Pinyin system.
In Chinese languages, both states and qualities are generally expressed with stative verbs with no need for a copula, e.g. in Mandarin, "to be tired" (累 lèi), "to be hungry" (饿 è), "to be located at" (在 zài), "to be stupid" (笨 bèn) and so forth. These verbs are usually preceded by an adverb such as 很 hěn ("very") or 不 bù ("not").
Only sentences with a noun as the complement (e.g. "this is my sister") use the verb "to be": 是 shì. This is used frequently: for example, instead of having a verb meaning "to be Chinese", the usual expression is "to be a Chinese person", using 是 shì. Other sentences use adjectives plus the nominaliser 的 de, e.g. 这是红的 zhè shì hóng de "this is [a] red [one]".
The history of the Chinese copula 是 is a controversial subject. Before the Han Dynasty, the character served as a demonstrative pronoun meaning "this" (this usage survives in some idioms and proverbs, as well as in Japanese). Some linguists argue that 是 developed into a copula because it often appeared, as a repetitive subject, after the subject of a sentence (in classical Chinese we can say, for example: "George W. Bush, this president of the United States" meaning "George W. Bush is the president of the United States). Other scholars cannot completely accept the explanation, proposing that 是 served as a demonstrative pronoun and a copula at the same time in ancient Chinese. Etymologically, 是 developed from the meaning of "straight"; in modern Chinese, 是 means "yes" as an interjection, and "correct", "right" as an adjective, implying a sense of judgement.

Siouan languages

In Siouan languages like Lakota, in principle almost all words—according to their structure—are verbs. So, not very unlike in Lojban (see below), not only (transitive, intransitive and so-called 'stative') verbs but even nouns often behave like verbs and do not need to have copulas.
For example, the word wicasa [wicha's^a] refers to a man, and the verb "to-be-a-man" is expressed as wimacasa/winicasa/he wicasa (I am/you are/he is a man). Yet there also is a copula heca [he'cha] (to be a ...) that in most cases is used: wicasa hemaca/henica/heca (I am/you are/he is a man).
In order to express the statement "I am a doctor of profession," one has to say pezuta wicasa hemaca [phez^u'ta wicha's^a hema'cha]. But in order to express that that person is THE doctor (say, that had been phoned to help), one would have to use another copula (i)ye (to be the one): pezuta wicasa (kin) miye lo (medicine-man DEF ART I-am-the-one MALE ASSERT).
In order to refer to space (e.g. Robert is in the house), various verbs are used as copula, e.g. yankA [yaNka'] (lit.: to sit) for humans, or han/he [haN'/he'] (to stand upright) for inanimate objects of a certain shape. "Robert is in the house" could be translated as Robert timahel yanke (yelo), whereas "there's one restaurant next to the gas station" translates as "owotetipi wigli-oinazin kin hel isakib wanzi he".

Constructed languages

The constructed language Lojban has copulae, but they are rarely used, and are sometimes viewed with distaste in the Lojban community, because all words that express a predicate can be used as verbs. The three sentences "Bob runs", "Bob is old", and "Bob is a fireman", for instance, would all have the same form in Lojban: la bob. bajra, la bob. tolcitno, and la bob. fagdirpre. There are several different copulae: me turns whatever follows the word me into a verb that means to be what it follows. For example, me la bob. means to be Bob. Another copula is du, which is a verb that means all its arguments are the same thing (equal).
The E-Prime language, based on English, simply avoids the issue by not having a generic copula. It requires instead a specific form such as "remains", "becomes", "lies", or "equals".
Esperanto uses the copula much as English. The infinitive is esti, and the whole conjugation is regular (as with all Esperanto verbs). Additionally, adjectival roots can be turned into stative verbs: La ĉielo bluas. "The sky is blue."
Similarly, Ido has a copula that works as English "to be". Its infinitive is esar, and, as is the case in Esperanto, all of its forms are regular: the simple present is esas for all persons; the simple past is esis, the simple future is esos, and the imperative is esez, among a few more forms. However, Ido also has an alternative irregular form for the simple present ("es"), which some Idists frown upon. The possibility to turn adjectives and even nouns into verbs also exist, although this is mostly done by means of an affix, on top of the verbal endings. The affix is "-es-". So, "The sky is blue." can be said as "La cielo bluesas". As can be seen, the suffix "-es-" plus the verbal desinence "-as" are simply the verb "to be" annexed to the adjectival or nominal root.
Interlingua speakers use copulae with the same freedom as speakers of Slavic, Germanic, and Romance languages. In addition to combinations with esser ('to be'), expressions such as cader prede ('to fall prey') are common. Esser is stated, rather than omitted as in Russian.

Existential usage

The existential usage of "to be" is distinct from and yet, in some languages, intimately related to its copulative usage. In language as opposed to formal logic, existence is a predicate rather than a quantifier, and the passage from copulative to existential usage can be subtle. In modern linguistics one commonly speaks of existential constructions - prototypically involving an expletive like there - rather than existential use of the verb itself. So for example in English a sentence like "there is a problem" would be considered an instance of existential construction. Relying on unified theory of copular sentences, it has been proposed that there-sentences are subtypes of inverse copular sentences (see Moro 1997 and "existential sentences and expletive there" in Everaert et al. 2006 for a detailed discussion of this issue and a historical survery of the major proposals).
For example:
  • Japanese: 吾輩は猫である。名前はまだない。 Wagahai wa neko de aru. Namae wa mada nai – I am a cat. As yet, I have no name. — Natsume Sōseki
  • English: To be or not to be, that is the question. — William Shakespeare
  • English: [Why climb Mount Everest?] Because it is there. — George Mallory
  • Hebrew: אהיה אשר אהיה Ehyeh asher ehyeh — I am that I am. — Exodus 3:14.
  • Russian: Страна, которую ищут дети, есть — Strana, kotoruju ishchut djeti, jest – The land children yearn for exists. — Prishvin
  • French: Je pense, donc je suis. – I think; therefore, I am. — Descartes
  • Latin: Cogito ergo sum. — I think; therefore, I am. — Descartes
  • Hungarian: Gondolkodom, tehát vagyok. – I think; therefore, I am. — Descartes
  • Turkish: Düşünüyorum, öyleyse varım. – I think; therefore, I am. — Descartes
  • Filipino/Tagalog: Ang kahalagahan ng pagiging seryo A translation-transplantation of The importance of being Earnest of Oscar Wilde in Filipino.
Other languages prefer to keep the existential usage entirely separate from the copula. Swedish, for example, reserves vara (to be) for the copula, keeping bli (to become) and finnas (to exist, lit. to be found) for becoming and existing, respectively.
  • Swedish: Vem vill bli miljonär? — Who wants to be a millionaire?. (Literally "Who wants become millionaire?") — Bengt Magnusson
  • Swedish: Varför bestiga Mt. Everest? Därför att det finns där. — Why climb Mt. Everest? Because it is there. (Literally " Why climb Mt. Everest? Because it exists there") — George Mallory
In ontology, philosophical discussions of the word "be" and its conjugations takes place over the meaning of the word is, the third person singular form of 'be', and whether the other senses can be reduced to one sense. For example, it is sometimes suggested that the "is" of existence is reducible to the "is" of property attribution or class membership; to be, Aristotle held, is to be something. Of course, the gerund form of "be", being, is its own (vexed) topic: see being and existence.



  • Everaert, M. - van Riemsdijk, H - Goedemans, R. (eds) 2006 The Blackwell Companion to Syntax, Volumes I-V, Blackwell, London: see "copular sentences" and "existential sentences and expletive there" in Volume II.
  • Kneale, W. - Kneale, M. 1962 The Development of Logic, Clarendon Press, Oxford.
  • Valdman & Philippe Ann Pale Kreyol: An Introductory Course in Haitian Creole.
  • Essay on Lakota syntax
  • Moro, A. 1997 The raising of predicates. Predicative noun phrases and the theory of clause structure, Cambridge Studies in Linguistics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England.
copula in Bosnian: Pomoćni glagoli
copula in Breton: Verb-stagañ
copula in German: Kopula
copula in Estonian: Koopula
copula in Persian: نسبت حکمیه
copula in Irish: Copail
copula in Croatian: Pomoćni glagoli
copula in Indonesian: Kopula
copula in Icelandic: Tengisögn
copula in Hungarian: Kopula
copula in Dutch: Koppelwerkwoord
copula in Japanese: コピュラ
copula in Polish: Copula (łącznik)
copula in Finnish: Kopula
copula in Swedish: Kopula
copula in Vietnamese: Từ liên hệ
copula in Turkish: Koşaç
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