She was smiling when she saw you.

Is this the past continuous tense or is was acting as a linking verb between subject and predicate adjective?

How can one distinguish easily between the two?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – MetaEd
    Jul 17, 2018 at 20:56

3 Answers 3


In your sentence:

She was smiling when she saw you.

Smiling is a verb here and not a predicate adjective. You can tell because insertion of the intensifier very is not grammatical:

  1. She was ✳very smiling when she saw you.
    [Ungrammatical because smiling is a verb here, not an adjective.]

It’s not merely difficult but indeed nearly impossible to construe a context in which such a thing could be said and still be perceived as meaningful and grammatical. It’s not grammatical because very in one of those words that can only be used on modifiers, not on actual verbs. You can never say “She ✳very smiled” even though you could say “She truly smiled” with no problem.

Contrast that with these two easy examples of predicate adjectives:

  1. She was very loving whenever she saw you.
    [Grammatical because loving is an adjective here, not a verb.]
  2. She was very happy whenever she saw you.
    [Grammatical because happy an adjective here.]
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jul 16, 2018 at 0:15

This is a simple structure:

  • She was smiling yesterday. She was not smiling yesterday.
  • She is smiling today.

To smile is a verb. Not a noun. The contrast shows it is a verb.

was smiling is clearly past continuous.

Are those a complete sentences (subjects plus predicate)? Yes.

If you add: when she saw you or after she saw you or before she saw you, for example, you get a sentence with two distinct clauses.

How can the structure here not be very clear? How can anything here be a linking verb? There are two distinct clauses. The only link between the clauses is the conjunction introducing the dependent clause.

The main clause has a verb in the past continuous and the dependent clause has a verb in the simple past.

And yes, if she was smiling when she saw you, her smiling began prior to seeing you. So what?? Is that not allowed?

"Martha danced all night at the ball with many different partners. She was smiling when she saw John. But that was not surprising, she had been smiling the entire evening and was exhilarated."

The foregoing is not:

She was happy when she saw you. She was tired when she saw you. Happy and tired are predicate adjectives.

Written extemporaneously by me now. QED


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I'm going to take a different approach and say that it is a predicative adjective. It can be modified by either: absolutely, completely, really and totally.

She was absolutely smiling when she saw you
She was totally smiling when she saw you

? She was really smiling when she saw you
? She was completely smiling when she saw you

We can you use very before adverbs and adjectives to add emphasis which means ‘to a great degree’. Take, for example, the word fast:

He drives very fast

However, there are certain rules for when we can use very before adjectives. It is not used before ungradable or absolute adjectives. Smiling is an example of an absolute or ungradable adjective.

  1. The king was dead.

The king was very dead

  1. He is married.

He is very married.

The Cambridge dictionary website says:

Some adjectives are absolute, such as dead, unique. We do not usually use very before these ungradable adjectives.

Adjectives which describe an extreme quality can be modified by absolutely, completely, really and totally but not normally with very. Some common examples are:

enter image description here

  1. Her dress was absolutely stunning.

Her dress was very stunning.

  1. That singer is really awful.

That singer is very awful.

  1. It is a really fantastic film.

It is a very fantastic film.

There is no rule that says that only adjectives which are gradable and can be modified by very are predicative.

Take for example, these predicative adjectives which can be modified by very:

The journey seemed slow.
(cf.) The journey seemed very slow

They were growing tired.
(cf.) They were growing very tired.

and these predicative adjectives which cannot be modified by very:

Children grow older every day.
Children grow very older every day

Andy’s sports car is Italian.
Andy’s sports car is very Italian.

All the kittens are asleep.
All the kittens are very asleep.

My neighbors are Japanese.
My neighbors are very Japanese.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Jul 16, 2018 at 0:15
  • REMINDER: Once a conversation’s comments have been moved to chat, further comments are subject to deletion. We cannot move them a second time.
    – tchrist
    Jul 17, 2018 at 14:36
  • @tchrist Hi, thanks for replying. Under English L&U's guidelines, some of the comments where for "Add relevant but minor or transient information to a post" under "When should I comment?". Under when I shouldn't comment, it says "Secondary discussion or debating a controversial point; please use chat instead". Most of the comments were not a secondary discussion like those in the current chat, but served to provide constructive criticism and relevant information {could you perhaps retain these?}
    – aesking
    Jul 17, 2018 at 14:50
  • 1
    The deleted comments look like debate of a controversial point. The intended use of comments is to let your readers ask you for more information or suggest improvements. If on the other hand it's you, the author, who has more information to provide, a better way is to edit the answer.
    – MetaEd
    Jul 18, 2018 at 22:52
  • @MetaEd Hi but comments from other users (Kris) were also deleted in tchrist's post--they were hardly controversial. And so were mine. In fact, I think they were deleted in favour of tchrist's answer and I effectively have lost the useful information and insight Jason has given to my answer and how I could improve and how tchrist's answer could also be improved with criticism, though this criticism doesn't seem to be welcomed.
    – aesking
    Jul 19, 2018 at 6:56

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