Verbs, Part 5: Copulas and Existentials

This post covers two essential constructs most commonly associated with the verb to be.

Objectives:

  1. Demonstrate understanding of copulas and existentials.
  2. Eliminate the existential construct in favor of a stronger subject and main verb.

Skill Level: Intermediate

Copulas, AKA Linking Verbs

In English, the term “copula” (or “linking verb”) refers to a verb that links a subject  and a subject predicate. (The subject predicate, as indicated by its name, takes a nominative case.) The copula serves as a sort of grammatical placeholder and holds little lexical meaning despite its grammatical and rhetorical purpose.

Our most common copula is “to be”; because the subject and subject predicate have the same case assignment, they are grammatically interchangeable (or, grammatically interchangeable are they):

  • Here am I. → I am here.
  • He is tall. → Tall is he.
  • We are happy. → Happy are we.

This is fantastic news for poets, who might want to swap word order to preserve a meter or create a rhyme. It is horrible news for pedantic 10-year-olds who answer the telephone. The following is a dramatization of a true story:

[phone rings]
Me (picking up receiver): Hello?
My friend (also 10 years old): Is Kate there?
Me: This is she.
My “friend”: This is SHE?! Bwahahahahaha! What the heck is that?

(And thus you see the reason that, to this day, when someone asks for me over the phone, I always reply, “Speaking.”)

/traumatic childhood flashback

When adhering to the grammar of copulas, you can get some pretty strange results because case and number should match on both subject and object. “Those are they,” rather than “That’s them,” for example. Most people don’t follow this case-matching rule in speaking (and those who do get made fun of for it), and it’s appearing less and less frequently in writing. My personal rule for when a narrative requires some weird-sounding construction to be grammatically correct: just rephrase the whole thing. It makes life easier.

“To be” is not our only linking verb. Seem, appear, and look, can also fill the role. Essentially, it’s a linking verb if you can place it in the verb slot of the following template:

[Subject] + [Verb] + [Adjective].

  • Tiff is happy.
  • Tiff seems happy.
  • Tiff appears happy.
  • Tiff looks happy.

Please note that some adverbs also perform duties as adjectives. Compare “fast” in these two sentences:

  1. Jose is fast.
  2. Jose runs fast.

In the first, “fast” is an adjective. In the second, it’s an adverb. Thus “is” is a linking verb, but “runs” is not.

Also of note, linking verbs are not universal to all languages. Many foreign tongues (Yucatec, for example) simply omit a verb and say, to our equivalent, something like, “Tiff happy,” or “Jose fast.” This is not a mark of inferior language structure, as no such thing exists. But if you’re writing a foreign-language character, check to see whether his or her native tongue has a copula; if not, that might be something to omit from that character’s broken-English dialogue.

Existentials

The root word for existential is “exist.” Grammatical existentials, then, are structures that say “this circumstance/situation/object/etc. exists.”

Existentials, like copulas, employ the all-purpose irregular verb, “to be,” but with a dummy subject, either it or there:

  • It is/was
  • There is/was
  • There are/were

Unlike copulas, the subject and predicate on either side of the verb are not interchangeable. Compare the following:

  1. There was a space alien.
  2. A space alien was there.

In the second sentence, “there” assumes a reference point (a party, or a crash site, for example); in the first, it only means that the space alien exists in the narrative’s premise.

In general, existentials reveal themselves via two simple methods:

  1. If the subject is “it,” ask “What?”; if the subject is “there,” ask “Where?” If your question has no concrete referent, you’ve found an existential.
  2. Alternatively, you can take the predicate and make it the subject of the verb “exist.” If the resulting sentence makes sense, the original is an existential.

Example: “It was a dark and stormy night.” (What was a dark and stormy night? It. It was. The night was. A dark and stormy night existed. Existential! Thanks, Edward Bulwer-Lytton!)

A Legacy of Narrative Weakness

Copulas and Existentials are great cues for ferreting out narrative weakness. They act as exposition verbs, scene-setting verbs, fact-declaring verbs. Thus, you only want them to come out to play on such occasions. If you find them elsewhere in your writing, consider revision. (Really, if you find them anywhere, consider revision. Exposition doesn’t have to be dry.)

For example, if your character is a crabby old man, you might tell the reader, “Mr. X was a crabby old man.” Or, you could describe him at his crabby best: “Mr. X enjoyed sitting on his front porch swing, not to bask in the afternoon sunshine, but because it provided him with frequent opportunities to yell at the neighborhood kids.” The first sentence, with its copula, is appropriate for a pre-writing character profile, while the second has more narrative value.

Copulas and existentials are hallmarks of children’s books and fairy tales. While they sustain these genres, their narrative drive lacks the power needed in a long-haul story. Too many can make a narrative feel childish or even condescending, as though the author thinks he must spoon-feed information to the reader.

Existentials deserve particular scrutiny.  Often, a dynamic verb lurks in a participle or other modifier later in the sentence. By locating this element and converting it to a finite verb, we can easily improve the sentence as a whole and eliminate the bland dummy subject.

Example:

  • “There was a man standing at the end of the street.” → “A man stood at the end of the street.”

Stood (which is fairly bland itself) in turn points to other, more flavorful options: lingered, loitered, paced, waited. Depending on context, the man at the end of the street could be doing almost anything. There’s no reason to bludgeon the reader over the head by saying, essentially, “Hey! This guys exists, and he’s standing/loitering/pacing at the end of the street!”

(Hahaha, “There’s no reason.” No reason exists. Existential! But that’s kind of the point of the sentence, so I’m leaving it in.)

Conclusion:

Few things can kill a narrative faster than bald facts. The inquisitive reader wants to meander down the Garden Path, to muddle over a story’s subtleties, to admire the linguistic foliage without over-exposure to the seedy, wormy, loamy foundation that gives it such richness. Just as no one pays a leisure-visit to a plot of uncultivated dirt, readers don’t want to read a book of “This is, that is, she was, there were.” Garden plots show some dirt, but the best gardeners use such dirt aesthetically. Similarly, a writer should review the use of linking verbs and existentials to ensure that they only occur where they support or enhance the story.

I don’t advocate pulling all copulas and existentials from one’s writing. If you’re worried that your prose lacks some pizzazz, though, this is a good place to start. Evaluate your use of copulas and existentials and revise as necessary. Or don’t. I’m not the boss of you.

Exercises:

All examples in both Exercise A and Exercise B come from Project Gutenberg’s copy of Fairy Tales, by The Brothers Grimm, found here.

A. Label the bolded words in the following paragraph, as A) copula, B) existential, or C) neither.

“There was once a poor widow who lived in a lonely cottage. In front of the cottage was a garden wherein stood two rose-trees, one of which bore white and the other red roses. She had two children who were like the two rose-trees, and one was called Snow-white, and the other Rose-red. They were as good and happy, as busy and cheerful as ever two children in the world were, only Snow-white was more quiet and gentle than Rose-red. Rose-red liked better to run about in the meadows and fields seeking flowers and catching butterflies; but Snow-white sat at home with her mother, and helped her with her housework, or read to her when there was nothing to do.” (from “Snow-White and Rose-Red” by The Brothers Grim)

B. Eliminate the existential structure in the following sentences in favor of a stronger main verb.

  1. There was once an old castle, that stood in the middle of a deep gloomy wood, and in the castle lived an old fairy.
  2. Now there was once a maiden whose name was Jorinda.
  3. As soon as it was light he jumped up, hopped downstairs, and went out of the house.
  4. Now, whether it was that they had eaten so many nuts that they could not walk, or whether they were lazy and would not, I do not know.
  5. There were once a man and a woman who had long in vain wished for a child.
  6. There were two brothers who were both soldiers; the one was rich and the other poor.
  7. At the top of this tree there is a chaffinch’s nest; tell me how many eggs there are in it.
  8. In the first place, he says that there is some wine hidden under the pillow.

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