What does it take to be a copula?

Main Article Content

Gréte Dalmi


This paper argues that copular sentences without an overt copular predicate do project a VP with a phonologically null head, hence so-called “verbless” copular sentences are illusory. Data from Standard Arabic, Spanish, Maltese, Russian, Jamaican Creole, Finnish and Hungarian copular sentences are used to support this claim. It is also claimed here that variation between the habitual property vs. ad hoc property interpretations (traditionally called the individual level vs. stage level distinction) of non-verbal predicates found in copular sentences is closely related to the choice of the copula in multiple BE-system languages. Whilst the current accounts explain this variation by introducing an abstract aspectual operator or an incorporated abstract preposition in the functional layer of the copular predicate, the present proposal derives these interpretive differences from the presence or absence of an OPalt alternative state operator, which can bind the temporal variable of non-verbal predicates in two ways.

Negation and temporal adverbials show scope ambiguity in copular sentences. They either take scope over the whole proposition or only over the non-verbal predicate. Such interpretive differences are demonstrated in Russian and Hungarian in Section 4 of this paper, however, they are taken to be valid cross-linguistically. These amibiguities cannot be explained under the “verbless copular sentence” account but fall out naturally from the “zero copula” analysis.

The “alternative state” approach can be extended to dream narratives and other non-veridical contexts, which serve as alternative triggers. The existing analyses have nothing to say about such contexts.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Dalmi, G. (2016). What does it take to be a copula?. Yearbook of the Poznań Linguistic Meeting, 2(1), 1-28. https://doi.org/10.1515/yplm-2016-0001


  1. Adger, D. and G. Ramchand. 2003. “Predication and equation”. Linguistic Inquiry 34. 325–360.
  2. Akmajian, A. 1977. “The complement structure of perception verbs in an Autonomous Syntax Framework”. In: Culicover, P., T. Wasow and A. Akmajian (eds.), Formal syntax. New York: Academic Press. 427–460.
  3. Al-Balushi, R. 2012. “Why verbless sentences in Standard Arabic are verbless?” Canadian Journal of Linguistics 57(1). 1–30.
  4. Al-Horais, N. 2006. “Arabic verbless sentences: Is there a null VP?” Pragmalinguistica 14. 101– 116.
  5. Asher, N. 1993. Reference to abstract objects in discourse. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  6. Bailey, B. 1965. “Toward a new typology of American Negro dialectology”. American Speech 40(3). 171–177.
  7. Bailyn, J. 2012. The syntax of Russian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Beck, S. 2007. “The grammar of focus interpretation”. In: Gärtner, H-M. and U. Sauerland (eds.), Interfaces + recursion = language? Chomsky’s minimalism and the view from syntax/semantics. Berlin: Mouton. 255–280.
  9. Bennamoun, E. 2000. The featural structure of functional categories: A comparative study of Arabic dialects. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  10. Błaszczak, J., and L. Geist. 2001. “Zur Rolle des Pronomens to/eto in specificierenden Kopulakonstruktionen im Polnishen und Russischen [To the role of to/eto in specificational copular constructions in Polish and Russian]. In: Zybatow, G., U. Jung­hanns, G. Mehlhorn and Szucsich (eds.), Current issues in formal Slavic linguistics (Linguistik International 5). Frankfurt: Peter Lang. 247–257.
  11. Błaszczak, J. 2007. Phase syntax. The Polish Genitive of Negation. (Habilitation treatise, University of Potsdam.)
  12. Błaszczak, J. 2010. “A spurious genitive puzzle in Polish”. In: Hanneforth, T and G. Fanselow (eds), Language and logos. (Studia Grammatica 72.) 17–47.
  13. Borg, A. J. 1987. “To be or not to be a Copula in Maltese?” Journal of Maltese Linguistics 17/18. 54–71.
  14. Bowers, J. 1993. “The syntax of predication”. Linguistic Inquiry 24. 591–656.
  15. Bowers, J. 2001. “Predication”. In: Baltin, M. and C. Collins (eds.), The handbook of contemporary syntactic theory. Oxford: Blackwell. 299–333.
  16. Carlson, G. 1973. Reference to kinds in English. New York: Garland.
  17. Camacho, J. 2012. “Ser and Estar: The individual/stage level distinction and aspectual predication”. In: Hualde, J.I., A. Olarrea and E. O’Rourke (eds.), The handbook of Hispanic linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. 453–475.
  18. Citko, B. 2008. “Small clauses: Not so small and not all alike”. Lingua 118. 261–295.
  19. Comrie, B. 1976. Aspect. An introduction to the study of verbal aspect and related problems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  20. Dahl, Ö. 1995. “The marking of the episodic/generic distinction in tense-aspect systems”. In: Carlson, G. and F. Pelletier (eds), The generic book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 412–425.
  21. Dalmi, G. 1994. Hungarian infinitival constructions. (M.Phil. dissertation, The University of Sydney.)
  22. Dalmi, G. 2002. The role of AgrP in non-finite predication. (Ph.D. dissertation, ELTE, Loránd Eötvös University, Budapest.)
  23. Dalmi, G. 2005. The role of agreement in non-finite predication. (Linguistik Aktuell 90.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  24. Dalmi, G. 2010. Copular sentences, predication and cyclic Agree. A comparative approach. Saarbrücken: Lambert Academic Publishing (VDM).
  25. Dalmi, G. 2012. “Copular sentences expressing Kimian states in Irish and Russian”. The Journal of Canadian Linguistics 57(3). 341–358.
  26. Dalmi, G. 2013. “The meaning of the zero copula in multiple BE-system languages”. In: Bondaruk, A. and M. Malicka-Kleparska (eds.), SLAM 5: Ambiguities. Lublin: John Paul II Catholic University Press. 169–200.
  27. Den Dikken, M. 1997. “The syntax of possession and the verb have”. Lingua 101. 129–150.
  28. Doherty, C. 1996. “Clausal structure and the Modern Irish copula”. Natural Language and Linguistic Theory 14. 1–46.
  29. Doron, E. 1983. Verbless predicates in Hebrew. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, Austin.)
  30. Doron, E. 1986. “The pronominal copula as agreement clitic”. In: Borer, H. (ed.), The syntax of pronominal clitics. New York: Academic Press. 313–332.
  31. Dürrleman-Tame, S. 2008. The syntax of Jamaican Creole. A cartographic perspective. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  32. Eid, M.1991. “Verbless sentences in Arabic and Hebrew”. In: Comrie, B. and M. Eid (eds.), Perspectives on Arabic linguistics. (Current Issues in Linguistic Theory 80.) Amsterdam: Benjamins. 31–61.
  33. É. Kiss. K. 2002. Hungarian syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  34. Fassi-Fehri, A. 1993. Issues in the structure of Arabic clauses and words. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  35. Fong, V. 2003. “Resultatives and depictives in Finnish”. In: Manninen, S. and D. Nelson (eds.), Generative approaches to Finnic and Saami linguistics. Stanford: CSLI Series. 201–235.
  36. Freeze, J. 1992. “Existentials and other locatives”. Language 68(3). 553–595.
  37. Gallego, A. and J. Uriagereka. 2009. “Estar = Ser + P”. Paper presented at the XIXth Colloquium on Generative Grammar, Vitoria-Gasteiz.
  38. Gallego, A. and J. Uriagereka. 2011. The lexical syntax of ser and estar. (Ms., Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and University of Maryland.)
  39. Geist, L. 2008. “Predication and equation in copular sentences: Russian vs. English”. In: Comorowski, I. and K. Heusinger (eds.), Existence: Semantics and syntax. New York: Springer. 79–105.
  40. Heycock, C. 1994. “The internal structure of small clauses: New evidence from inversion”. Proceedings of NELS 25. 222–238.
  41. Heycock C. 2012. “Specification, equation and agreement in copular sentences”. Canadian Journal of Linguistics 57(2). 209–240.
  42. Heycock, C. and A. Kroch. 1998. “Inversion and equation in copular sentences”. ZAS Papers In Linguistics 10. 71–87.
  43. Higginbotham, J. and G. Ramchand. 1997. “The stage-level/individual level disntiction and the Mapping Hypothesis”. Oxford University Working Papers, Philology and Phonetics 2. 53–83.
  44. Kádár, E. 2007. A kopula és a nominális mondatok a magyarban” [The copula and nominal sentences in Hungarian]. (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Cluj.)
  45. Kádár, E. 2011. “A kopula és a nominális mondatok a magyarban” [The copula and nominal sentences in Hungarian]. Nyelvtudományi Értekezések 161.
  46. Kim, J. 1976. “Events as property exemplifications”. In: Brandt, M. and D. Walton (eds), Action theory. Proceedings of the Winnipeg Conference on Human Action. Dordrecht: Reidel. 159–177.
  47. Kratzer, A. 1991. “Modality”. In: von Stechow, A. and D. Wunderlich (eds.), Semantics. An international handbook of contemporary research. New York: Mouton de Gruyter. 639–650.
  48. Kratzer, A. 1995. “Stage-level and individual level predicates”. In: Carlson, G. and F. Pelletier (eds.), The generic book. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press. 125–176.
  49. Kratzer, A. 2012. “What must and can must and can mean”. In: Kratzer, A. (ed.), Modals and conditionals. New and revised perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1–21.
  50. Magri, G. 2009. “A theory of individual level predicates based on blind mandatory scalar implicatures”. Natural Language Semantics 17. 245–297.
  51. Maienborn, C. 2001. “On the position and interpretation of locative modifiers”. Natural Language Semantics 9. 191–240.
  52. Maienborn, C. 2003. “Against a Davidsonian analysis of copular sentences”. In: Kadowaki, M. and S. Kadahara (eds.), Proceedings of NELS 33. 167–186.
  53. Maienborn, C. 2005a. “On the limits of the Davidsonian approach: The case of copular sentences”. Theoretical Linguistics 31(3). 275–316.
  54. Maienborn, C. 2005b. “A discourse-based account of Spanish ser/estar”. Linguistics 43(1). 155–180.
  55. Maienborn, C. 2011. “Event semantics”. In: Maienborn, C., K.von Heusinger and P. Portner (eds.), An international handbook of natural language meaning (vol. 1). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. 803–829.
  56. Marín, R. 2010. „Spanish adjectives within bounds”. In: Cabredo-Hoffher, P. and O. Matushansky (eds.), Adjectives: Formal analyses in syntax and semantics. (Linguistik Aktuell 153.) Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 307–332.
  57. Ouhalla, J. 1993. “Negation, focus and tense. The Arabic maa and laa”. Rivista di Linguistica 5. 275–300.
  58. Paducheva, E. 2000. “Defniteness Effect: The case of Russian”. In: von Heusinger, K. (ed.), Reference and anaphoric relations. Dordrecht: Kluwer. 133–146.
  59. Paducheva, E. 2008. “Locative and existential meanings of Russian byt’”. Russian Linguistics 32. 147–158.
  60. Partee, B. 1998. “Copular inversion puzzles in English and Russian”. In: Dziwirek, K., H. Coats and C. Vakareliyska (eds.), Formal approaches to Slavic linguistics. Ann Arbor: Michigan Slavic Publications. 361–395.
  61. Partee, B. and V. Borschev. 2008. “Existential sentences, BE and GEN NEG in Russian”. In: Comorowski, I. and K. von Heusinger (eds.), Existence: Semantics and syntax. New York: Springer. 147–191.
  62. Patrick, P. 2004. “Jamaican Creole morphology and syntax”. In: Kortmann, B., E. Schneider, C. Upton, R. Meshtri and K. Burridge (eds.), A handbook of varieties of English. Morphology and Syntax. Berlin: Mouton. 407–439.
  63. Pereltsvaig, A. 2007. Copular sentences in Russian. A theory of intra-clausal relations. New York: Springer.
  64. Querido, A. 1976. “The semantics of copular constructions in Portuguese”. In: Lujan, M. and F. Hensey (eds.), Current studies in Romance linguistics. Washington: Georgetown University Press. 343–366.
  65. Richardson, K. 2001. “What secondary predicates in Russian tell us about the link between Tense, Aspect and Case”. ZAS Papers in Linguistics 26. 1–25.
  66. Richardson, K. 2007. Case and Aspect in Slavic. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  67. Rizzi, L. 1997. “The fine structure of the Left Periphery”. In: Haegeman, L. (ed.), Elements of grammar. Dordrecht: Kluwer. 281–337.
  68. Rizzi, L. 2004. “On the cartography of syntactic structures”. In: Rizzi, L. (ed.), The structure of CP and IP. The cartography of syntactic structures (vol. 2). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 3–17.
  69. Rizzi, L. 2013. “Topic, focus and the cartography of the Left Periphery”. In: Luragi, S. and C. Parodi (eds.), The Bloomsbury companion to syntax. London: Bloomsbury. 436–451.
  70. Rooth, M. 1992. “A theory of focus interpretation”. Natural Language Semantics 1. 75–116.
  71. Rothstein, S. 2000. “Fine-grained structure in the eventuality domain: The semantics of predicative adjectival phrases and BE”. Natural Language Semantics 7. 347–420.
  72. Rothstein, S. 2001. Predicates and their Subjects. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
  73. Schmitt, C. and K. Miller. 2007. “Making discourse-dependent decisions: The case of the copulas ser and estar in Spanish”. Lingua 117. 1907–1929.
  74. Shlonsky, U. 2000. “Subject positions and copular constructions”. In: Bennis, H., M. Everaert, and E. Reuland (eds.), Interface strategies. Amsterdam: Royal Nether­lands Academy of Arts and Sciences. 325–347.
  75. Shlonsky, U. 2011. “Hebrew as a partial null subject language”. Studia Linguistica 63(1). 133–157.
  76. Starke, M. 1995. “On the format for small clauses”. In: Cardinaletti, A. and M-T. Guasti (eds.), Small clauses. (Syntax and semantics 28.) San Diego: Academic Press. 237–269.
  77. Stassen, L. 1996. “The switcher’s paradise: Nonverbal predication in Maltese”. Rivista di Linguistica 8(1). 275–300.
  78. Stassen, L. 2001. “Nonverbal predication in the Circum-Baltic languages”. In: Dahl, Ö. and M. Koptjevskaja (eds.), The Circum-Baltic languages. Typology and contact (vol. 2). Amsterdam: Benjamins. 569 –590.
  79. Stassen, L. 2008. “Zero copula for predicate nominals”. In: Haspelmath, M., M. Dryer, D. Gil and B. Comrie (eds.), World atlas of language structures online. (Chapter 120.) Munich: Max Plank Digital Library. Available at <http://www.wals.info>.
  80. Stowell, T. 1981. The origin of phrase structure. (Ph.D. dissertation, MIT.)
  81. Stowell, T. 1983. “Subjects across categories”. The Linguistic Review 2. 285–312.
  82. Stowell, T. 1991. “Small clause restructuring”. In: Freidin, R. (ed.), Principles and parameters in comparative grammar. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 183–218.