What is the most common way to refer to the group of words like "is", "be", "am", "are", "were", and "was" in English?

When I learned English as my second language, every teacher in my country called them "be-verbs", which is a subclass of verbs in general ("verb" is in my own language, of course). But after that, I noticed that almost no native English speakers call them "be-verbs". Instead, I sometimes see the word copula to refer to these words. Some people seem to use linking verbs, with which I'm not familiar at all.

I know that these words are called copula at least by professional linguists, but currently I'm under the impression that copula may not be widely recognized by the general public. So I'm interested to see the layperson's term which I can use safely.

So here are my questions:

  • What is the easiest term to refer to these words?
  • Do ordinary native English speakers have a chance to learn what a copula is, along with other grammar terms such as noun, verb, adjective? If yes, when and how?
  • Do ordinary native English speakers consider English copulas as a subtype of verbs, or as something independent?
  • Re #2 This all depends on what type of school a native speaker attended, where, and in which decade! It also depends on the syllabus that was taught, I am a child of the 70s and in my school we barely studied grammar and its terminology, but I don't think I ever heard Miss Collins tell someone they had committed a grammatical error. As kids we just "knew" how to say and write something.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 7:56
  • Note that linking verbs include other words than those derived from 'to be', like 'to feel' and 'to seem' (and derived forms).
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 8:42
  • Those are all just forms of "to be", so it sounds weird to call them "be-verbs", as if there was more than one verb. "to be" is the copula, of course, but I don't think most English speakers know what a copula is. (Anyone seriously interested in grammar would know, of course.) Mostly I don't think ordinary English speakers think of the copula as anything different from any other verb.
    – stangdon
    Commented Oct 3, 2016 at 17:41
  • @standon Thank you, then "the verb be used as a linking verb" is the best way to refer to it? Do you think almost anyone can understand this?
    – naruto
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 16:24

1 Answer 1


These words are the inflections of the verb "to be" in the possible person (first, second, third), number (singular, plural) and tense (present, past) variants.

The verb "to be" is often used as a copula, but it is not the only copula, so it would be misleading to describe these words as copulae. Linking verb is another term for copula, so the same argument holds.

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