Zero copula

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Zero copula is a linguistic phenomenon whereby the subject is joined to the predicate without overt marking of this relationship (like the copula 'to be' in English). One can distinguish languages that simply do not have a copula and languages that have a copula that is optional in some contexts.

Many languages exhibit this in some contexts, including Bengali, Kannada, Malay/Indonesian, Turkish, Japanese, Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian, Hebrew, Arabic, Berber,[1] Ganda, Hawaiian, Sinhala, and American Sign Language.

Dropping the copula is also found, to a lesser extent, in English and many other languages, used most frequently in rhetoric and casual speech.

In English

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Standard English exhibits a few limited forms of the zero copula. One is found in comparative correlatives like "the higher, the better" and "the more the merrier". However, no known language lacks this structure (aside from the invented language Toki Pona), and it is not clear how a comparative is joined with its correlate in this kind of copula.[2] Zero copula also appears in casual questions and statements like "you from out of town?" and "enough already!" where the verb (and more) may be omitted due to syncope. It can also be found, in a slightly different and more regular form, in the headlines of English newspapers, where short words and articles are generally omitted to conserve space. For example, a headline would more likely say "Parliament at a standstill" than "Parliament is at a standstill". Because headlines are generally simple "A is B" statements, an explicit copula is rarely necessary.

The zero copula is far more common in some varieties of Caribbean creoles and African American Vernacular English,[3] where phrases like "you crazy!", "where you at?", and "who she?" can occur.[4] As in Russian and Arabic, the copula can only be omitted in the present tense.

In other languages

Omission frequently depends on the tense and use of the copula.


In Russian the copula быть (byt) is normally omitted in the present tense, but not in the past tense:

Present (omitted):

  • Она дома (Ona domа) = She at home, literally "She is now at home, in the house"

Past (used):

  • Она была дома (Ona byla domа) = She was at home

The third person plural "суть" (sut’) (are) is still used in some standard phrases, but since it is a homonym of the noun "essence", most native speakers do not notice it to be a verb:

  • Они суть одно и то же (Oni sut’ odno i to zhe) — "they are one and the same".

The verb быть (byt’) is the infinitive of "to be". The third person singular, есть (yest’) means "is" (and, interestingly enough, it is a homophone of the infinitive "to eat"). As a copula, it can be inflected into the past (был, byl), future (будет, budet), and subjunctive (был бы, byl by) forms. A present tense (есть, yest’) exists; however, it is almost never used as a copula, but rather omitted altogether or replaced by the verb являться (yavlyat'sa) (to be in essence). Thus one can say:

  • Она была красавицей (Ona byla krasavitsej) — "she was a beautiful woman" (adjective in instrumental case).
  • Она красавица (Ona krasavitsa) — "she is a beautiful woman" (adjective in the nominative case).
  • Она является красавицей (Ona yavlyayetsya krasavitsej) — "she is a beautiful woman" (adjective also in instrumental).

But not usually:

  • Она есть красавица (Ona yest’ krasavitsa) — "she is a beautiful woman".

But in some cases the verb "быть" in the present tense (form "есть") is employed: i.e., "Будь тем, кто ты есть" (Be who you are).

The present tense of the copula in Russian was in common use well into the 19th Century (as attested in the works of Fyodor Dostoyevsky) but is now used only for archaic effect.

Turkic languages

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There is a contrast between regular verb "to be" (olmak) and copulative/auxiliary verb "to be" (imek) in Turkish.

Auxiliary verb imek shows its existence only through suffixes to predicates that can be nouns, adjectives or arguably conjugated verb stems, arguably being the only irregular verb in Turkish. In the third person, zero copula is the rule, as in Hungarian or Russian. For example:

Deniz mavi. "[The] sea [is] blue." (the auxiliary verb i-mek is implied only);
Ben maviyim. "I am blue." (the auxiliary verb i-mek appears in (y)im.)

The essential copula is possible in third person singular:[citation needed]

Deniz mavidir. "[The] sea is (always, characteristically) blue."

In Tatar, dir expresses doubt rather than a characteristic. The origin of dir is the verb durmak, with a similar meaning to the Latin stare.


In Japanese, the copula is not used with predicative adjectives, such as gohan wa atsui (ご飯は熱い?, [the] food [is] hot). It is sometimes omitted with predicative nouns and adjectival nouns in non-past tense, such as keitai wa benri (携帯は便利[だ]?, mobile phones [are] convenient), but is necessary for marking past tense or negation, as in ii keiken datta (いい経験だった?, [it] was [a] good experience). It is also sometimes omitted in wh-questions, such as nani kore? (何これ??, what [is] this?).


In Arabic, the use of the zero copula again depends on the context. In the present tense affirmative, when the subject is definite and the predicate is indefinite[disambiguation needed], the subject is simply juxtaposed with its predicate. When both the subject and the predicate are definite, a pronoun (agreeing with the subject) must be inserted between the two. For example:

  • محمد مهندس (Muḥammad muhandis) = 'Muhammad is an engineer' (lit. 'Muhammad an-engineer')
  • محمد هو المهندس (Muḥammad huwa'l-muhandis) = 'Muhammad is the engineer' (lit. 'Muhammad he the-engineer')

The extra pronoun is needed to prevent the adjective qualifying the noun attributively:

  • محمد المهندس (Muḥammad al-muhandis) = 'Muhammad the engineer'

(This is just a noun phrase with no copula. See al- for more on the use of definite and indefinite nouns in Arabic and how it affects the copula.)

In the past tense, however, or in the present tense negative, the verbs kāna and laysa are used, which take the accusative case:

  • كان محمد مهندسًا (Kāna Muḥammad muhandisan) = 'Muhammad was an engineer' (kāna = '(he) was') (literally 'he-was Muhammad an-engineer')
  • ليس محمد مهندسًا (Laysa Muḥammad muhandisan) = 'Muhammad is not an engineer' (lit. 'he-isn't Muhammad an-engineer'; the -an suffix marks the indefinite accusative)

When the copula is expressed with a verb, no pronoun need be inserted, regardless of the definiteness of the predicate:

  • ليس محمد المهندس (Laysa Muḥammad al-muhandis) = 'Muhammad is not the engineer' (lit. 'he-isn't Muhammad the-engineer')

Hebrew, another Semitic language, uses zero copula in a very similar way.


The Ganda verb 'to be', -li, is used in only two cases: when the predicate is a prepositional phrase and when the subject is a pronoun and the predicate is an adjective:

  • Ali mulungi 'She is beautiful' (ali = '(he/she) is')
  • Kintu ali mu mmotoka 'Kintu is in the car' (literally 'Kintu he-is in-car')

Otherwise, the zero copula is used:

  • Omuwala mulungi 'The girl is beautiful' (literally 'the-girl beautiful')

Here the word mulungi 'beautiful' is missing its initial vowel pre-prefix o-. If included, it would make the adjective qualify the noun omuwala attributively:

  • Omuwala omulungi 'The beautiful girl' or 'a beautiful girl'

American Sign Language

American Sign Language does not have a copula. For example, my hair is wet is signed 'my hair wet', and my name is Pete may be signed '[I NAME]TOPIC P-E-T-E'.


The copula is is used in Irish but may be omitted in the present tense. For example, Is fear mór é ("He is a big man") can be expressed as simply Fear mór é. The common phrase Pé scéal é (meaning "anyhow", lit. "Whatever story it [is]") also omits the copula.


The fact that Welsh often requires the use of a predicative particle to denote non-definite predicates means that the copula can be omitted in certain phrases. For example, the phrase Ac yntau'n ddyn byr... ("Since he is/was/etc. a short man...") literally translates as "And he [particle] a short man...". The zero copula is especially common in Welsh poetry of the gogynfardd style.

Amerindian languages

Nahuatl, as well as some other Amerindian languages, has no copula. Instead of using a copula, it is possible to conjugate nouns or adjectives like verbs.

Grammarians and other comparative linguists, however, do not consider this to constitute a zero copula but rather an affixal copula. Affixal copulae are not unique to Amerindian languages but can be found, for instance, in Korean and in the Eskimo languages.

Many indigenous languages of South America do, however, have true zero copulae in which no overt free or bound morpheme is present when one noun is equated with another.

Empirical problems

Some languages can be said to have a zero copula, used in some contexts, which alternates with an overt copula, which is used in other contexts. Other languages lack an overt copula altogether, and no clause could possibly have a copula. In the latter languages, the postulation of a zero copula is empirically problematic, because there is no language-internal evidence for the category copula. According to Occam's razor, the category "copula" must not be postulated then.

Application of the term zero copula to languages entirely lacking the copula is normally done because the translational equivalent would have a copula in English. There is theoretical disagreement on whether this can be considered good practice.

See also


  1. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  2. "Grammar Deconstructed: Constructions and the Curious Case of the Comparative Correlative"
  3. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  4. "be." The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. (see's definition under the "Our Living Language" note.)


  • Wolfram, Walter (1969) A Sociolinguistic Description of Detroit Negro Speech. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics p. 165-179br:Verb-stagañ mann

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