Why ‘is’ is not really a verb

In grammar, we call ‘to be’ a verb, or use the term ‘linking verb’. ‘To be’ is certainly something very similar to a verb: it forms the same sorts of constructions with the same moods, tenses (past, present, future) and aspects (perfect, continuous, habitual); it often acts as an auxiliary verb in constructions with other main verbs; it can be an intransitive verb in its own right (as a synonym for ‘exist’); but in its typical usage it is distinctly different from other verbs in certain ways and deserves to be thought of as something slightly different from a verb. In Linguistics, the label given to ‘to be’ in its classic usage (“dinner is ready”) is the Copula.

Arguments and Complements

True verbs may or may not have nouns or clauses they interact with, which in Linguistics are called arguments. The most well-known argument of a verb is the Object. Other arguments can include the Indirect Object, the Result State (an adjective), a location phrase, or a dependent prepositional phrase (a prepositional phrase required by a particular verb). However, ‘to be’, the Copula, doesn’t have arguments, it has complements, the technical term applied to them is Predicative Complement (I’ll just use the term Complement, with a capital letter, as a proper noun).

‘To be’ can take four types of Complement:

  • A noun phrase:*
           “An apple is a fruit.”
  • An adjective phrase:
           “That apple is totally rotten.
  • A location phrase:
           “Your guests are here.”
  • A prepositional phrase:
           “The children are at the beach.”

[* In Linguistics and grammar, a phrase can consist of a single word. For example, a single pronoun is still a noun phrase.]

Adverbs

I’ve described elsewhere the syntactic movement that occurs to cause adverbs to adopt the positions they do in English grammar, which is somewhat linguistic and technical, so I won’t discuss it here. The important thing to note, however, is that ‘to be’ behaves differently from a true verb, especially when it is in a single-word construction (i.e. one without modal or auxiliary verbs).

In a verbal construction, the natural position for most adverbs* is after the modal or first auxiliary (if there is one), but before the main verb; and an adverb can only appear between the verb and its main arguments (e.g. the Object) in very exceptional circumstances.

[* Adverb position is quite irregular and some adverbs strongly prefer some positions more than others.]

For example, with single-word verb constructions:
        “She always      ate        healthy food.
                         adverb     main verb          Object
is grammatical, but:
       She ate             always   healthy food.
                     main verb      adverb                 Object
is definitely not.

With single-word ‘to be’ verb:
       She was    always     healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb         Complement
and:
       She    always     was          healthy.
                         adverb       main verb      Complement
are both equally grammatical. However, with a single-word ‘to be’ construction, the most common natural adverb position is after ‘to be’:
       She was     always    healthy.
                    ‘to be’       adverb        Complement.

For a multi-word verbal construction, the natural position of the adverb is after the Modal or first Auxiliary:
       She     would     always     have       eaten          healthy food.
                          modal            adverb          auxiliary      main verb         Object
This is the same for ‘to be’ constructions with modals or auxiliaries:
       She has         always    been     healthy.
                      auxiliary    adverb         ‘to be’         Complement

Adverb placement with ‘to be’ is much more subtle than with verbs. ‘To be’ constructions with Modals or auxiliaries, as noted above, are essentially the same as those with verbs, but single-word to be constructions are quite different, with a different natural position for the adverb and more flexibility in where it can be placed. Some usages sound better than others (which suggests much more complex and varied syntactic movement).

One interesting thing to note (for very advanced speakers or readers interested in Linguistics) is that the natural position varies in single-word constructions depending on whether one is using the present tense or past tense:
       She always   was     healthy.
                    adverb        ‘to be’      Complement
sounds better than:
       She   always   is       healthy.
                       adverb       ‘to be’     Complement
In the present tense, it sounds much better to say:
       She   is        always    healthy.
                       ‘to be’    adverb         Complement

In this way, ‘to be’ in the simple present tense (am, are, is) acts like an auxiliary verb with no main verb, but ‘was’ can either adopt the auxiliary or main verb position.* In other words, in the past tense, the adverb can appear on either side of was, but in the present tense it sounds better if it follows was.

[* If you understood the article on the Verb Phrase, this is because the present tense of ‘to be’ is inflected for person and number (am, is, are), but ‘was’ is not, so there is a much stronger pull to the Head of Inflect Phrase for the present tense.]

Thus, in terms of sentence structure, ‘to be’ has Complements and not arguments, and adverb placement is more varied than with true verbs.

Conditionals

‘To be’ also acts differently to verbs in conditionals,* with respect to ‘unreality’.

[* if you are interested in the details of conditionals and unreality there is a long article here.]

In unreal conditionals, in standard less-formal English, unreality is expressed by a ‘step back in time’. For example:
       If I knew the answer, I would tell you,
uses the past tense to describe the unreal present; and:
       If I had known the answer, I would have told you,
uses the past perfect to express the past.

However,
       If I was rich I would be happy,
is not grammatical in standard English (although it is widely used in casual English); the formal (or subjunctive) form should always be used with ‘to be’:
       If I were rich, I would be happy.

As well as this, it is typically enough in standard English just to use the ‘were’ form. We are far less concerned about ‘stepping back’ instances of ‘to be’ into the past-perfect. For example, with a verb in the unreal past in standard English, we should say:
       If I had seen it, I would have told you,
but, when talking about the unreal past:
       If I saw it, I would have told you,
sounds very casual.
However, with ‘to be’:
       If I had been there, I would have seen it,
and:
       If I were there, I would have seen it,
are both equally acceptable. We only feel the need to use the past perfect if there might be confusion as to whether the ‘to be’ state still exists. In other words, if there were some confusion about whether I were still there in the above example, I might use “if I had been there,” but otherwise, “if I were there” is fine.

To summarise, in conditionals, unlike with true verbs, we see that ‘to be’ is expressed in the subjunctive mood and never in the simple past, at least in standard English, and the ‘step back in time’ is often not applied.

Inversions

Full Subject-Object inversions with verbs are very rare in English. They sound extremely stylistic and very old fashioned. For example:
       The dragon      slew      he,
           Object                       verb          Subject
where ‘he’ (obviously) is the Subject, sounds so old-fashioned it is positively Mediaeval. However, when ‘to be’ is used, inversions are a lot more common. For example:
       Happy            is         the man who loves his work,
          Complement        ‘to be’       Subject
sounds a little old-fashioned and stylistic, but is still quite acceptable in modern English.

When ‘to be’ has a prepositional phrase or a location as a Complement, such Subject-Complement inversions are actually very common, as in:
       On the bench          are       some apples.
          prepositional phrase      ‘to be’       Subject
       Here                     are         your notes.
          location phrase           ‘to be’         Subject
In fact, these types of Subject-Complement inversions, with location phrases or prepositional phrases, are probably as common as the non-inverted forms.

Conclusion

So we all call ‘to be’ a verb because it is very similar to a verb, but it is useful to be aware that, when you are learning English, ‘to be’ – in its role linking nouns and their Predicative Complements – has many rules all of its own. Sentences with a single-word form of ‘to be’ have different sentence ordering, with adverbs preferring different positions; unreal conditionals with ‘to be’ are different to those with true verbs – with were always replacing was in standard English, and with less need to apply a ‘step back in time; and Subject-Complement inversions, especially those involving prepositional phrases or location phrases, are very common, while Subject-Object inversions are extremely rare with true verbs.

You can think of it as the Copula, a verb, a linking verb, or just ‘to be’, but just be aware that it is not like any other verb.

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

We listened to this wonderful song in class. The version we listened was the Van Morrison cover version:
It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue (performed by Them, Van Morrison’s first band)

However, Bob Dylan’s own version is wonderful too, of course:
Bob Dylan’s Original (an early live version)

And here are the lyrics to this wonderful song:

It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last;
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.
Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.
Look out the saints are comin’ through;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense;
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.
This sky, too, is folding under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home;
All your reindeer armies, are all going home.
The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor.
The carpet, too, is moving under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;
Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.
The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.
Strike another match, go start anew;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

From an English language perspective, the first thing to notice is the very precise – and very artistic – grammatical structure of the song. I have added punctuation to Dylan’s lyrics. You can see that each verse contains two lines of one sentence, which I have separated with a semi-colon (you can do this with closely related sentences), followed by a sentence of two lines, then another sentence of two lines – with the refrain (a very short chorus, or repeating line, is termed a refrain) as the second line.

Let’s look at the text in more detail. The next thing to notice about Dylan is the way his lyrics are profoundly poetic (in my opinion), but use natural, modern language. Dylan is an educated man; and was influenced by 20th Century poets like T.S. Elliot and W.H. Auden, who also write highly structured poetry in natural, modern language. Dylan is every bit the equal of these great poets, in my opinion.

You must leave now, take what you need, you think will last;
But whatever you wish to keep, you better grab it fast.

These lines are almost like dialogue from a movie – starting with the abstract simplicity of “you must leave now,” and ending with the urgent and colloquial – and quite dramatic – expression, “you better grab it fast.” He then follows with a classic Dylan image:

Yonder stands your orphan with his gun,
Crying like a fire in the sun.

(orphan: a child whose parents have died)
(yonder: archaic: over there)

“Yonder” is an archaic expression, but still very common in songs, which means, ‘there’ or ‘over there’. The image itself is wonderful: simple and evocative, but with unanswered questions (who is the orphan ? And why an orphan? Is he a real orphan, or just someone without other emotional attachments? He is ‘your orphan’; were they lovers? If so, why is he crying?) and that image! A fire in the sun. It’s not a clear metaphor; it invites questions but doesn’t answer them. It’s mysterious – it evokes – it’s an unnatural, disturbing image. It’s not a comforting night-time fire, but a fire where there shouldn’t be fire – a dangerous fire.

Look out the saints are comin’ through;

This line references a popular old song, ‘When the Saints Come Marchin’ In,’ a cheerful song which became a jazz standard, but which describes the ‘Second Coming,’ at the end of time – when, according to the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, the world as we know it will come to an end and Christ will return. Bob Dylan loves apocalyptic images, using them many times in his songs. This is the first such image in this song; and the song itself describes what one might think of as a ‘personal apocalypse’ – a point where one’s life as one has known it comes to an end, a point where you could die, or you could live and begin a new life.

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

The refrain from this song is so beloved in English that it has become idiomatic. Like many lines from Shakespeare, many people may know and quote this line without even the song it comes from.

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense;
Take what you have gathered from coincidence.
The empty-handed painter from your streets
Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

Again the grammatical structure builds up to a bizarre and disturbing image, of an “empty-handed” painter (empty-handed: having no money), “drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.” And then follows another, mysterious, even more apocalyptic image:

This sky, too, is folding under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

This is an even clearer apocalyptic vision, which for me references this passage from the Book of Revelation:
“And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away” (Revelation 21:1)
However, it also suggests the hallucinations of drug use; and severe panic – the sense that the firm foundations of the earth beneath your feet have gone- sky, earth, up, down, all mixed up – and you are falling. If you have never experienced panic of this sort, I hope you never do.

All your seasick sailors, they are rowing home;
All your reindeer armies, are all going home.

These lines to me are mysterious, conveying childish, storybook images, but sad and final – the story is over; the characters are leaving. ‘Baby Blue’ is an old ‘pet name’, like sweetheart or darling, and these fairytale images suggest a young woman, scarcely out of childhood, whose fairytale, fantasy world is ending.

Then another very sad couplet (couplet: two linked lines in a poem or song):

The lover who just walked out your door
Has taken all his blankets from the floor.

This is an image of squalor. She is a woman; she has had at least one lover; but he is too poor to have a bed – his blankets are his possessions. It reminds me of stories that have been told of the lives of the hippies of the 60s, in places like Haight Ashbury, believing themselves to be living in a romantic utopia, but actually living in a squalid poverty of sad, unattached sex in the haze of heavy drug use.

The carpet, too, is moving under you;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

This is an idiomatic image in English. When we say ‘the carpet was moving,’ we generally mean it was infested with insect vermin, like fleas – although it could be read as a hallucinogenic or apocalyptic (‘earth-shaking’) image as well.

Leave your stepping stones behind, something calls for you;

A ‘stepping stone’ in English is an idiom for a person whom one uses to advance one’s career. It’s a negative, cynical image – that we should ‘step on’ other people to get ahead. For me, there is also a sexual suggestion in this line. Sadly, in certain industries and high social circles, young women have sometimes been known to move ‘up the ladder’ by using sex, by sleeping with people for advancement. However, poor Baby Blue’s ladder has apparently proven to be nothing but a fantasy.

Forget the dead you’ve left, they will not follow you.

Years after this song was written, Bob Dylan became a Christian, but even before this he incorporated a lot of Christian imagery, references and messages in his songs. This is not at all unusual in Western culture – even in modern times, when few people are practising Christians, our culture is deeply influenced by Christian literature and imagery (very deep and beautiful literature and imagery, in my opinion). I consider this line to be a subtle reference to a saying of Jesus: “Jesus said unto him, Follow me; and let the dead bury their dead.” (Matthew 8:22).

The vagabond who’s rapping at your door
Is standing in the clothes that you once wore.

(vagabond: an archaic word: a person with no home and few possessions who wanders the world)

Here we have another image of hippy squalor; and another mysterious image that asks questions without answering them: who is this vagabond? How did he get the clothes? Did he steal them? And to ‘wear someones clothes’ can be an image of taking over someones role or position. ‘Rapping’ (before it was a form of music) meant to knock urgently and loudly – this is another dramatic image: the orphan, the vagabond, these are subtly frightening images – we need to get out of here; let’s go!

Strike another match, go start anew;
And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

(anew: poetic: the adverb form of ‘new’)

The final lines for me are the most beautiful and hopeful of the song.

Grammatically, note the adverb ‘anew’, one of a class of special adjectives and adverbs, of the type that add a- to an existing adjective or noun. They are archaic, often poetic; as adjectives they cannot precede  their noun; they must follow it (in the French style), or be linked to it by a ‘to be’ verb. They are part of the ancient ‘heart language’ of English; and to ‘start anew’ or ‘start afresh’ is a beautiful, emotional and hopeful phrase in English.

A candle, or to light a candle, is also an image of hope in English (another Christian reference). But in this case, it’s sad and small hope: Baby Blue doesn’t have a candle, just a match. Nevertheless – it is hope.

This song paints a sad and disturbing picture of a naive young woman, who has become trapped in a fantasy world of squalor – including unhappy or unhealthy sex perhaps – and has had a serious crisis, a personal apocalypse, that has brought an end to the world she knows. For anyone who has suffered a life-changing or life-destroying crisis, this song has deep and moving resonance. However, she has rescuer, and she has hope. I hope you never have a personal apocalypse, but if you do, I hope you have rescuer (even if it is just yourself), strike a match and start anew.

It’s a beautiful song, one that I love; and the class loved it too.