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Most resources I have read state that verbs are content words (excluding helping verbs).

I was just wondering whether copulas are considered content or function words. To me, a copula seems more like a function word.

Also, would the same thing be true of linking verbs in general?

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    In John is tall / my brother, 'be' has little semantic content. Young children often omit 'be' and are still readily understood. But omitting 'become' from The situation became untenable etc causes real problems. As well as the linking function, many verbs carry a semantic weight. The joke fell flat. / Anne grew tired. / Ali appeared excited. / The decision proved unwise. It is improper to lump these as purely function words. Oct 21, 2019 at 15:07
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    Despite what you may read, strictly speaking "be" is the only copula, the idea being that it is a syntactic link relating PC to S. It's true that in some cases (though not all) "be" has little semantic content, but primarily serves the syntactic function of filling the predicator position, and thus carrying the tense inflection.
    – BillJ
    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:38
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    Incidentally, there are two lexical uses of "be", i.e. with why + do, as in "Why don't you be more tolerant?", and with if, as in "If you don't be quick you'll lose", again with auxiliary "do". In both cases the presence of auxiliary "do" shows that "be" must be lexical.
    – BillJ
    Oct 22, 2019 at 7:50

2 Answers 2

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When you read what somebody has written about grammar on the Web, remember:

  • They always mean "most" or "usually" or "generally".
    They never mean "all" or "always" or "in every case".

That is, there are always exceptions. Most verbs are content words. But auxiliary verbs aren't.
Be, the most-cited "copula" in English, has no meaning content, and is always an auxiliary verb.
I.e, it's a function word. So are articles, conjunctions, complementizers, and most quantifiers.

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  • I'd say that this is debatable... Whether the existential form of "to be" is an auxiliary verb is NOT clear and I don't believe there's common consensus on this. Or to put it another way, the verb "to be" is NOT always a copula and therefore not always a function word. Oct 21, 2019 at 21:10
  • It always behaves like an auxiliary, whatever function is has; it contracts, it inverts, it deletes in conversation. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, why call it something else? Oct 22, 2019 at 1:42
  • I'm saying that it quite clearly does NOT always behave like an auxiliary... It sometimes means "to exist". For example, "I think therefore I am" in Spanish is "Pienso, luego existo" not "Pienso, luego ser". In Spanish the verb "to be" can't be used since it does not denote existence as the verb for "to be" does in English, French, or Latin. That is a non-copular form of the verb and therefore not an auxiliary verb. Oct 22, 2019 at 18:10
  • Meaning is not syntax. Nor is English Spanish. The verb be, whatever its meaning (or function), behaves syntactically as an auxiliary verb. Syntactically, that is. Syntax doesn't depend on meaning (except generally, like all language does). That means that an auxiliary verb like be can still have a meaning, even though it's an auxiliary verb. All the modal auxiliaries have meanings, so does be. In the rare cases when a form of be is the only verb in the sentence, it is both an auxiliary and a main verb. Those don't conflict; they just don't overlap normally. But be is special. Oct 22, 2019 at 18:24
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    That's an interesting take... I think you and I disagree on the definition of what an auxiliary verb is (and doing some hunting around it looks like it's not exactly a settled definition in favor of either of us). Thanks, Oct 24, 2019 at 2:35
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A copula, by any definition of "function word" vs. "content words" that I've seen, would be considered a function word.

But the verb "to be" may not always be a function word. Consider the famous phrase, "I think, therefore I am". It contains two function words, "think" and "am". The verb "to be" is considered an auxiliary verb in most cases, but in this case it's a non-copular, existential form of the verb. So "am" is a content word as it is not linking or connecting anything but is here used as a synonym for "exist".

In a less famous example, the sentence, "I think, therefore I am thoughtful", it becomes merely a function word for the word "thoughtful".

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