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What Is a Light Verb?

By A. Leverkuhn
Updated May 17, 2024
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A light verb is a verb that does not have a lot of significant meaning in a sentence. Most commonly, the light verb complements other words that have more meaning. The light verb is often called by other names, such as a vector verb, a thin verb, or an auxiliary verb.

Constructions with light verbs can occur in many different ways within a given language. In English, the auxiliary verb is a specific form of a light verb that is often called a helper verb. These verbs complement other primary verbs that carry the most meaning within the sentence. For example, if someone says that someone “is doing something” the word “is”, a form of the verb “be”, is the auxiliary verb.

In addition to auxiliary verbs, phrasal verbs also show a light verb construction. The phrasal verb is most commonly the combination of a verb and a preposition. Together, the verb and the preposition form a kind of two-word verb describing an action. For example, an English speaker might talk about whether or not to “take up” an issue, where the phrasal verb “take up” replaces a verb like “approach.”

Another case of using light verbs in sentence construction is a “noun plus verb” form. In many of these forms, the verb acts as a relatively insignificant modifier for a noun. For instance, in the phrase “take a nap” the entire phrase signifies the act of going to sleep for a short time. The alternate verb “to nap” has the same meaning. In contrasting these two phrases, it’s clear that the use of the verb “take” has little relevant meaning on its own.

One more common type of light verb involves the use of the word “have.” An English speaker might say that someone “has hopes” of doing something. Alternately, someone might talk about someone else “having an opinion.” In these sorts of cases, the word “have” plays a secondary, and relatively insignificant, role.

Those who are just beginning to learn English or another language can learn quite a lot by analyzing the many ways that a light verb is used. It’s common in some societies to replace technical verbs with a light verb construction, which can cause slight changes in meaning that define “common usage” and local dialect. With intimate knowledge of these details, a language learner can more effectively communicate with native speakers of that language.

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Discussion Comments
By MissDaphne — On Aug 03, 2011

I've never hard of this concept of a light verb, but as an English teacher, it's really interesting. I know that languages all have these workhouse verbs, as I call them, that do a lot of work, like "set" and "do." In English, we "set the table," but in French, they use the verb that means "put"--they "put the table." I guess these would be light verbs, as they don't really carry much independent meaning.

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