In a casual search of the web, I found a few indications English does not allow zero copulas (https://linguistics.stackexchange.com/a/1468). However, I frequently see sentences with subordinate clauses that juxtapose a noun phrase with an adverb phrase, such as the following from a contemporary sci-fi author:

Kai stares up at me from the grave, his eyes hard as obsidian.

If this clause were made into a sentence, it would take an obligatory verb:

*His eyes hard as obsidian.
His eyes are hard as obsidian.

The original clause seems to contain an implicit "to be." Is it an example of a zero copula? If not, what is this construction called?

2 Answers 2


It depends on your definition of a clause. The traditional definition is "a finite verb and all its dependencies"; then your phrase is not a clause.

The construction is called an absolute construction: a noun and an attribute together forming an adverbial constituent.

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    in the ablative case. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 18:57
  • @JohnLawler: What? Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 21:21
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    @JohnLawler: Absolute constructions need not be in the ablative case. In Latin, they are, yes. In Greek, they're usually in the genitive, but sometimes in the accusative. In English, Dutch, and probably many other languages, they're normally in the nominative, as you can see. I have no idea why you mention the ablative. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 22:48
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    @AK4749: Set theory is all over the place in English syntax and semantics. For instance, the phonosemantics of kl-. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 23:08
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    mind = blown... this is the coolest thing ever - do you have any more references I can start my exploration with? Commented Jun 18, 2013 at 14:35

There are any number of situations in which be can be deleted (or, alternatively, prevented from appearing) in subordinate -- and even main -- clauses.

A very simple example is Whiz-Deletion, which applies to restrictive relative clauses, and deletes (as I will call it) the subject relative pronoun (the "Wh-" part) plus whatever inflected form of be it agrees with (the "-iz" part), relating, for instance,

  • The man who is standing on the corner is winking at me
  • The man standing on the corner is winking at me,
    thereby also relating most post-nominal phrasal modifiers to equivalent relative clauses.

Another is to be-Deletion, which applies to infinitive complement clauses, and is governed by the predicate, like the infinitive complementizer it modifies.

Verbs that allow to be-Deletion include declare, consider, and feel.

  • He declared/considered/felt Max (to be) responsible for the accident. [optional to be]

Verbs that don't allow it include state, know, hear, and intend.

  • He stated/knew/heard/intended Max to be responsible for the accident.
  • **He stated/knew/heard/intended Max responsible for the accident.* [obligatory to be]

A third rule, Conversational Deletion, applies only in main clauses, at the very beginning of a sentence. It deletes any predictable (i.e, meaningless, dummy, auxiliary, grammar particle, etc.) element, producing such normal utterances as

  • Too bad about old Charlie. [from It is too bad]
  • No need to get upset about it. [from There is no need]

Note that none of these delete copulas alone, but only as part of some complex, usually with a subject and/or other function word being deleted as well. There's no reason to delete a copula until it's not needed any more.

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    To be or not - that is the question. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 19:12
  • I didn't even begin to address the complications of to be-Deletion; Ann Borkin's classic 1973 paper ("To be and not to be", Papers from the Ninth Regional Meeting, Chicago Linguistic Society (CLS 9)) produces such examples as I found Sam appealing vs *I found Sam amusing to Charlie and develops some semantic generalizations. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 19:28
  • By "deletion", are you suggesting that in all these constructions, there was once a "be" that was at some point omitted by speakers/writers? If not, you might want to clarify that, because I don't believe that's what happened. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 21:22
  • I thought I had; derivations like this are just a way of linking related constructions, just like Whiz-Deletion acknowledges that the identical semantics and syntax of relative clauses and "absolute constructions" is not a coincidence. They are not intended to show what goes on in the mind of any speaker or writer, because frankly nobody knows that. "Deletion" is a metaphor; one could use "insertion", but then one would have to explain why that chunk got inserted instead of others, so "deletion" is preferable because it indicates that necessary information is not present. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 21:43
  • @JohnLawler: Okay, that's what I expected, but it may suggest an historical process to people, as with the relation between may and the present subjunctive. Commented Jun 17, 2013 at 22:49

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