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I, being a native English speaker, and having snoozed through some of my grammar lessons in elementary school, sometimes cannot express differences that I feel exist in certain grammatical constructs. Here is such a case:

The car is.

and

The car is blue.

What is the name for the word "is" when used in the first sentence, and in the second? I feel that these two sentences have different semantic meanings for it, the former being "exists" and the latter not being "exists".

While the second sentence could be rephrased as "The property of blueness exists in the car" I think that that is a completely different way of stating the thought, not an equivalent.

I think the latter is called a "copula" perhaps? No idea for the former.

  • You wouldn't be likely to encounter the first example. Better would be to compare the well-known "I think, therefore I am" with the relatively unexceptional "I think, therefore I am a sentient being". (Or my own favourite, but potentially contentious "I think, therefore I am an atheist" :) – FumbleFingers Feb 19 '14 at 14:16
  • There is also the usual case of verb phrase reduction. E.g., person A asks: "What is blue?", person B answers: "The car is ____." – F.E. Feb 19 '14 at 19:34
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The first is the existential form of the verb be and the second is, as you rightly mentioned, be as copular.

  • Say what? . . . Could you provide a grammar source for that ("existential form" of the verb BE)? – F.E. Feb 19 '14 at 11:28
  • @F.E. Simply looking up the meaning of 'be' gives the three usages of the word (or should that be homonyms?) that I can think of – eg here. AHD has a better layout, but I believe Collins classes usages correctly: 'copula ... [be] is also used with an adverbial complement to indicate a relationship of location in space or time (Bill is at the office; the dance is on Saturday) [so AHD's 'The food is on the table' is a copular rather than intransitive usage]. – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '14 at 5:54
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I think that "is" in "The car is" could also be considered a linking (copular) verb.

Question: What is the best mode of transportation in a large city? Answer: The car is [the best mode ....].

If you said to the ordinary person "The car is," he would ask, "The car is WHAT?"

  • Yes. 'The car is the best mode of transport in the country' would be shortened to 'The car is' or, more usually, 'The car' in answer to the question 'What is the best mode of transport in the country?' – Edwin Ashworth Mar 10 '14 at 5:59
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The first can also be termed an intransitive verb, where 'being', as an action that extends through time, starts and ends in the subject.

The second, as has already been pointed out, is the verb 'to be' used as a pure copula, which simply joins 2 ideas, but has no other function.

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