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Taking a walk - What is a light verb?

What are light verbs?

English verbs show tremendous variety. Some have a lot of semantic content and serve as the main predicate of a sentence—as transitive or intransitive or linking verbs. Others are auxiliary (a.k.a. “helping”) verbs, which indicate the tense, aspect, modality, or voice of the predicate.

Then there are light verbs.

That term was coined by the famous Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in his Modern English Grammar on Historical Principles. It refers to verbs which get their main semantic content from the noun that follows rather than the verb itself. Hence, the verb is “light.” The noun that follows typically describes an action, and light verbs include take (take a walk, take a nap), give (give a talk, give a call, give a demonstration), have (have a cry, have a look, have a drink), make (make a claim, make a fuss) and do (do battle, do business, do the wash).

Many light verb phrases have a corresponding expression with a verb that actually expresses the action: walk, nap, talk, demonstrate, look, drink, claim, wash. There can be small differences too: to give a talk is not the same thing as to talk and to do the wash is not the same thing as to wash.

The set of verbs that can be lightened is broader than you might think. You can create a ruckus, hold an opinion, harbor a resentment, effect a change, and more. And the set of nouns that can contribute their semantic heft is wide as well. You can have a drink, but also have a beer, have coffee, have breakfast, a snack, a bite to eat, and so on. Often, such light verb constructions with have lack full verb expressions (when was the last time you used breakfast as a verb?).

Some light verbs, especially those with give, employ a second noun to create an interrupted compound verb like give the sheets an airing, give the counter a wipe. In the first, give ____ an airing is the light verb, and the sheets can be replaced by sundry things than might need an airing (a blanket, a room, a car). In the second, the light verb is give ____ a wipe, andthe noun counter can be replacedby things to be wiped (the floor, a tabletop, the baby).  

And some light verbs seem lighter than others in that they resist the passive voice. It seems odd to say a nap was taken or a walk was taken, but it is less odd to say a resentment was harbored or an opinion was held.

Why does English have light verbs? Part of the answer is the inevitable bleaching of meaning of words—the same process by which awesome and terrific come to simply mean good. The likely evolution is that verbs like take, have, give, and make lost some of their meaning and acquired new meaning as the complex predicates take a nap, take a walk, and so on.

The light verb construction adds flexibility to English: it allows us to have and take all manner of things without requiring specific verbs for them. We do not need a dedicated word for creating a ruckus or doing homework. And we can distinguish ineffable matters of nuance: the difference between having coffee and drinking coffee, for example, or between napping and taking a nap.

With that, we’ll take a break.

Feature image by Johannes Andersson on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Sophia Bogle

    While I was hoping for a discussion on Terry Pratchett’s words about light that sound like things that don’t make sounds (like glinted), I was interested to read about these light additions. They made me wonder about another grammatical change that some of my family make. “The house needs painted,” for example. In both cases it seems that the object is given more agency in the sentence.

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