In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Copula

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Taxonomy of Copular Clauses
  • Reducing the Taxonomy: Inversion around the Copula
  • Structure of Copular Clauses
  • Case and Copular Clauses
  • Copula Origins and Grammaticalization Patterns
  • Connectivity Effects

Linguistics Copula
Barbara Citko
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0196


Copulas and copular clauses are interesting for a variety of reasons: morphological, syntactic, semantic, historical, pragmatic, and sociolinguistic ones. It is thus not surprising that they have inspired (and continue to inspire) a lot of research and have been at the core of quite a few debates in linguistic literature. This introduction outlines the core questions surrounding copulas and copula constructions. Perhaps the most fundamental one concerns the taxonomy of copula elements: how many copula elements do we need to posit? The question arises both for languages with one copula and multiple copulas. In the former case, it simply becomes a question about the ambiguity of this single copula. Related to this question is the question concerning types of copular clauses and the relationship between them. For example, is the copula used in predicational copular clauses (e.g., Mary is smart/a student/at home) the same as the copula used in specificational (e.g., The best student is Mary), identity (e.g., Dr. Jekyll is Mr. Hyde), or existential clauses (e.g., There is a book on the table). We might also wonder about other types of copular clauses, such as identificational copular clauses (e.g., That man is John) or various types of clefts constructions. Another important question concerns the structure of copular constructions. If there are different types of copulas or different types copular constructions, the question is whether these different types involve distinct structures, are related via movement, or involve different copulas. This relates to the semantic contribution of the copula itself; some sources treat it as a grammatical formative or linker, while others endow it with more semantic prowess and derive the differences between different copular sentences from the ambiguity of the copula itself. The existence of languages and dialects with multiple copulas (verbal copulas, so-called pronominal copulas or zero copulas) adds plausibility to the latter view. For these types, the factors that determine the choice between the various forms of the copula are also a fruitful venue for research.

General Overviews

The citations in this section consist mostly of books and volumes of collected papers on copulas and copular clauses and, in some cases, small clauses (a somewhat wider empirical domain). While they differ in focus, they provide a good starting point for the investigation of the issues discussed in the Introduction. Comorovski and Von Heusinger 2007 and Mikkelsen 2011 focus on the semantic interpretation of copulas and copular constructions. Den Dikken 2005 provides a wide coverage of the issues involving both the syntax and semantics of copular clauses, including a thorough discussion of clefts. Mikkelsen 2005 and Moro 2007 focus on types of copular clauses, and ways of reducing the taxonomy. They also add a crosslinguistic perspective, by discussing data from Danish and Italian, respectively. Pereltsvaig 2007 and Bondaruk 2013 focus on Slavic languages (Russian and Polish, respectively), whereas Pustet 2003 and Stassen 2004 add a wider typological perspective.

  • Bondaruk, Anna. 2013. Copular clauses in English and Polish: Structure, derivation and interpretation. Lublin, Poland: Wydawnictwo KUL.

    A constrastive study of different types of copular sentences in English and Polish.

  • Comorovski, Ileana, and Klaus Von Heusinger, eds. 2007. Existence: Semantics and syntax. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    A collection of papers on copular clauses, the interpretation of be, existential sentences and the interpretation of noun phrases. The papers in Part I (The Interpretation of the Copula) and Part II (Existential Sentences across Languages) are particularly relevant to the issues surrounding copular clauses.

  • Den Dikken, Marcel. 2005. Specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts. In The Blackwell companion to syntax. Edited by Martin Everaert and Henk van Riemsdijk, 292–409. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A very thorough overview of the properties of and the existing research on specificational copular sentences and pseudoclefts. Even though the main focus is on specificational sentences, this chapter also offers a very informative overview of different types of copular sentences.

  • Mikkelsen, Line. 2005. Copular clauses: Specification, predication and equation. Philadelphia: Benjamins.

    DOI: 10.1075/la.85

    This book argues for an inversion approach to specificational copular clauses, focusing on Danish and English but, in doing so, also provides a very lucid overview of the types or copular clauses, the relationship between them, and the factors responsible for inversion around the copula.

  • Mikkelsen, Line. 2011. Copular clauses. In Semantics: An international handbook of natural language meaning. Edited by Klaus von Heusinger, Claudia Maienborn and Paul Portner. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    An overview article, valuable especially for its treatment of the semantic issues surrounding copulas and copula constructions. It focuses on types of copular clauses, different views on the interpretation of the English copula be, and the major approaches to the so-called connectivity effects.

  • Moro, Andrea. 2007. Copular Sentences. In The Blackwell companion to syntax. Vol. 2. Edited by Martin Everaert and Henk van Riemsdijk, 1–23. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A handbook-style article, providing an overview of copular sentences and focusing both on the properties that distinguish them from noncopular sentences and those that distinguish different types of copular sentences from each other.

  • Pereltsvaig, Asya. 2007. Copular sentences in Russian: A theory of intra-clausal relations. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer.

    An in-depth study of copular clauses in Russian, focusing on case distinctions, null copula use, and the differences between nominative and instrumental predicates.

  • Pustet, Regina. 2003. Copulas: Universals in the categorization of the lexicon. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199258505.001.0001

    A very informative typological study, focusing on types of copulas and grammaticalization (copularization) patterns. It offers a wealth of crosslinguistic data on copulas in general.

  • Stassen, Leon. 2004. The nominal strategy. By Leon Stassen, 62–120. Intransitive predication. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Even though the primary focus more generally on intransitive predication, chapter 3 offers crosslinguistic insights on the types of copulas and the factors that might determine the choice of a particular copula in languages that allow more than one.

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