Here is an example:

Police say there appear to be signs of a break-in.

I wonder why appears was not used instead of appear in the preceding sentence. Can linking verbs function as modal verbs?

  • 4
    This is not a case of linking or modal verbs. This is a case of There-Insertion. The subject is signs of a break-in, which is plural. That's where the appear comes from. Nov 25, 2015 at 0:36
  • @JohnLawler: What's the there-insertion got to do with it? "Signs" is clearly the subject any way you scramble it. "Signs of a break-in appear to be there." "Signs of a break-in appear to be in evidence." Sheesh. All these rules.
    – Ricky
    Nov 25, 2015 at 1:14
  • sorry, I just noticed that my example hasn't got anything with my question, but can't a linking verb function as a modal one?
    – Afsane
    Nov 25, 2015 at 1:38
  • You should edit your question so it has an example...even if the example is incorrect...that way we can discuss it. Nov 25, 2015 at 1:46
  • @Ricky so what happens if you remove "there" from the sentence? Nov 25, 2015 at 1:51

1 Answer 1


No, linking verbs are different from modals in English grammar, though there may very well be an historical connection. The modals in current English have very special grammatical properties, one of which is inversion in questions: "May/Should/Will/.. I show you my portrait?" But you can't invert linking verbs.

Your example has been a puzzle for grammarians,

Police say there appear to be signs of a break-in.

because "appear" seems to agree in number with "signs", even though "signs" can't possibly count as subject of "appear". An artificial solution to this is to suppose that "there" can have plural number, even though it has no plural ending, and in

There are signs of a break-in.

the "there" is the subject and is plural, with "are" agreeing with plural "there". "Appear" takes a sentence complement as subject, and it undergoes a transformation Subject-Raising-to-Subject so that the plural "there" becomes the subject of "appear" which then agrees in number with this plural subject. That's why "appear" shows plural agreement. (I don't think anyone really likes this analysis.)

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