Light verbs

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Light verbs are very commonly used verbs, which are very versatile due to the fact that their meanings are not as specific as other verbs. For example, a verb like give is rather general in meaning compared to its its synonyms like donate, contribute, transfer.

A light verb often forms a light verb construction (LVC), consisting of a light verb, a noun, and sometimes a modifier or modifier phrase; the noun is often a more general, common, or abstract noun.

Some typical light verbs in different languages include the following.

Language Light verbs
English be, come, do, get, give, go, have, make, put, run, set, take
German sein, kommen, tun, machen, gehen
French prendre, faire
Spanish dar, estar, ser, hacer
Latin agere, haber, esse, facere, ponere
Chinese 作, 是, 給, 有
Korean 하다, 있다, 나다, 가다, 오다

1 Characteristics

Light verbs can be identified by these common characteristics.

1. General meaning.
A light verb is semantically general, light, or in semantics terminology, semantically weak or underspecified, that is, its meaning is not very specific or specified. The verb give for example has a general, basic meaning that includes presenting something or transferring possession to someone; its meaning is not specific about the type, manner, or context of the giving, while its synonyms are more specific in those respects.

2. Argument structure meaning.
More so than other verbs, the meaning of a light verb comes from its argument structure, or the configuration of semantic roles of the nouns in the sentence. A semantic role refers to the semantic function that a noun plays in the sentence. These roles correspond somewhat to grammatical functions like subject, direct object, and indirect object. Some typical semantic roles in LVCs include:
  • Agent: The one doing the action. It is often the subject, as in Mustafa threw the ball.
  • Patient: The person or thing that is directly affected by the action. It is often the direct object of a transitive verb, as in Mustafa threw the ball.
  • Theme: This is the subject of some intransitive verbs, where the subject is not actually doing anything, but the subject is what the sentence is about; e.g., Mustafa is tired.
  • Dative (Recipient): The one to whom something is given; this generally corresponds to an indirect object, as in Mustafa gave Luna a new basketball.

3. High frequency.
These are generally the most commonly used verbs, especially in daily use, in the language. For example, the most common verbs in English include the light verbs give, take, be, have, set. They form the core vocabulary of the language, along with other high frequency words.

4. Early age of acquisition.
These are among the first verbs that children learn in the language, and these are learned before other verbs of similar meanings. Children learn be before other verbs of existence, and give before learning other verbs of giving.

5. Phrasal verbs.
These are particularly common as components of phrasal verbs (though not all phrasal verbs are derived from light verbs, many of them are), e.g., give up, give out, take up, take on, set something up.

6. Idioms.
These are common elements in idiomatic expressions, such as give him an inch and he'll take a mile, get lost, take a hike! or run someone down.

7. Collocations.
A collocation is a regular occurrence of two or more words, often expressions with set meanings, or commonly occurring and meaningful word combinations (expressions) in a language. Light verbs are common in common collocations, e.g., take a chance, take a bath, don't give a damn, get married, set her straight.

8. Grammatically unrestricted.
While we can say Mary gave Tom a cake or Mary gave a cake to Tom, synonyms of the light verb to give are more restricted in meaning, and in the types of arguments they can take. Thus, they may less flexible. The verb give can alternate as in the preceding examples to express different nuances, but most of its synonyms cannot, and the synonyms are more restricted in their use according to context or formality, as their meaning is more specific. Thus, some alternations are possible, but some are not (the starred examples are ungrammatical).
  • Mary gave Tom a cake = Mary gave a cake to Tom
  • Mary donated a million pounds to the children's home.*Mary donated the children's home a million pounds.
  • Luna contributed ten euros to the charity. ≠ *Luna contributed the charity ten euros.

9. Light verb constructions.
Many collocations and idioms with light verbs qualify as LVCs. These constructions tend to have some of the following characteristics.
  • LVCs can have noun objects that are common nouns, e.g., take a bath.
  • LVCs can have verbs with noun compliments or objects that are deverbal nouns, i.e., nouns derived from or related to similar verbs; e.g., take a bath cf. to bathe or she made a comment cf. she commented (on it).
  • LVCs can sometimes contain more abstract nouns as objects, like get married, make a claim, have hope
  • The word order of LVCs is collocational and cannot be easily changed. For example, we can say that Mary gave Tom a headache but not Mary gave a headache to Tom. The latter version might be possible, but it is rare, and the altered word order changes the meaning or nuance of the sentence.

10. Informal.
Due to their characteristics, these verbs are more informal and colloquial. They are not only very common in conversational discourse, but they are also useful in semi-formal settings such as giving a presentation in a college course or a business meeting. In formal academic writing, more specific synonyms are generally preferred when possible.

2 English light verbs

The following light verbs form idioms and collocations, and some more specific alternatives for more formal style.

Light verb Alternatives
be exist, be present, be alive, subsist, survive, endure, remain, stay, stay put, occupy, seem, tend to
come arrive, reach, show up, appear, turn up, materialize, transpire, happen, occur, befall
do conduct, perform, carry out, act, accomplish, engage in, effect, undertake, suffice, succeed, complete, create, determine, serve, behave, portray, appear, manage, render, enact
get acquire, attain, obtain, procure, secure, gain, collect, receive, earn, come by, fetch, pick up, take, find, come into possession of, be given, be handed
give yield, donate, contribute, supply, transfer, accord, administer, allow, bequeath, cede, commit, confer, deliver, dispense, entrust, furnish, gift, grant, abdicate, present, permit, provide, relinquish, remit, subsidize, transmit, communicate, supply, proffer, demonstrate, extend, evidence, display
go proceed, move, travel, journey, head, set off, depart, leave, withdraw, retreat, vacate, exit, depart from, withdraw from, retire from, pass away, pass on, move on, be gone, be lost, be away
have possess, own, hold, retain, keep, control, command, occupy
make create, build, form, accomplish, assemble, constitute, effect, fabricate, generate, produce, prepare, induce, compel, constrain, drive, designate, appoint, enact, execute
put place, locate, position, concentrate, deposit, embed, establish, install, plant, repose, propose, advance, express, formulate, posit, propose, present, render, propound, transpose, suggest, commit, assign, constrain, impose, employ, require, subject, exhibit, arrange
run operate, function, work, go, move, flow, race, sprint, hasten, hurry, scurry, scuttle, scamper, bound, leap, jump, dart, dash, speed, rush, race, jog, flow, stream, move fast
set place, position, put, lay, arrange, adjust, fix, establish, install, mount, embed, embed in, root, plant, stick, fasten, secure, affix, position, locate, situate, station, establish, fix, determine, regulate
take grab, seize, grasp, capture, snatch, hold, pick up, lift, bear, carry, fetch, collect, assume, adopt, acquire, secure, bring, get, accept, inherit

2.1 Common expressions

The following are some common idoms and expressions build from the light verbs above.

  1. To be all ears: To be ready and willing to listen
  2. To be on the same page: To be in agreement or understanding
  3. To be in a pickle: To be in a difficult situation
  4. To be in the doghouse: To be in trouble with someone
  5. To be in the driver's seat: To be in control
  6. To be in the pink: To be in good health
  7. To be in the black: To be financially successful
  8. To be in the red: To be in financial trouble
  9. To be in two minds: To be uncertain or indecisive
  10. To be out of the loop: To be uninformed or not included in something
  11. To be over the moon: To be extremely happy
  12. To be the bee's knees: To be the best of the best
  13. To be the cat's meow: To be the best of the best
  14. To be the icing on the cake: To be an added bonus
  15. To be the apple of one's eye: To be someone's favorite or most treasured person.

  1. To come clean: to confess or admit to something
  2. To come to an agreement: to reach a mutual decision or understanding
  3. To come to a head: to reach a critical or decisive point
  4. To come to a standstill: to stop or pause progress
  5. To come to terms: to reach an understanding or agreement
  6. To come to grips with: to understand and accept something
  7. To come to nothing: to have no result or outcome
  8. To come out on top: To be victorious or successful
  9. To come in handy: To be useful or helpful
  10. To come in like a lion, go out like a lamb: to start with a strong impact but end weakly
  11. To come full circle: to return to the starting point
  12. To come into one's own: to reach one's full potential
  13. To come to fruition: To be realized or completed successfully.

  1. To get the ball rolling: to start something happening
  2. To get on the right track: to start making progress or making positive changes
  3. To get in over one's head: to take on more than one can handle
  4. To get cold feet: to become too nervous to do something
  5. To get the cold shoulder: to be ignored or rejected
  6. To get the hang of it: to learn how to do something
  7. To get the boot: to be fired or dismissed
  8. To get the goods on someone: to find evidence or proof of something
  9. To get a handle on: to gain control or understanding
  10. To get a taste of one's own medicine: to experience something one has inflicted on others
  11. To get down to business: to start working or doing something serious
  12. To get the green light: to be given approval or permission
  13. To get the show on the road: to begin a project or event.

  1. To give up the ghost: to die
  2. To give someone the run around: to avoid giving a straight answer or making a decision
  3. To give someone a hard time: to trouble or harass someone
  4. To give someone a piece of one's mind: to speak one's thoughts or feelings directly to someone
  5. To give someone a hand: to help someone
  6. To give someone the benefit of the doubt: to trust or believe someone despite some uncertainty
  7. To give the game away: to reveal something unexpectedly
  8. To give someone a cold shoulder: to ignore or reject someone
  9. To give it one's all: to try one's best
  10. To give someone a break: # To give someone a chance or an opportunity
  11. To give in: to surrender or yield
  12. To give it a shot: to try something
  13. To give and take: to compromise or negotiate
  14. To give back: to return something or repay a debt
  15. To give way: to yield or give in.


To go the extra mile: to do more than what is required

  1. To go with the flow: to conform or adapt to the current situation
  2. To go against the grain: to act contrary to one's nature or usual behavior
  3. To go off the deep end: to become extremely emotional or irrational
  4. To go through the motions: to do something without enthusiasm or interest
  5. To go cold turkey: to stop something abruptly or suddenly
  6. To go to the dogs: to decline or deteriorate
  7. To go belly up: to fail or go bankrupt
  8. To go to pot: to decline or deteriorate
  9. To go south: to decline or deteriorate
  10. To go round in circles: to repeat the same thing without making progress
  11. To go the distance: to persist or last until the end
  12. To go off the rails: to deviate from a plan or course of action
  13. To go off half-cocked: to act impulsively or recklessly
  14. To go to the mattresses: to prepare for a fight or battle.

  1. To have a chip on one's shoulder: to be easily offended or hold a grudge
  2. To have a lot on one's plate: to be busy or have a lot to do
  3. To have a change of heart: to change one's mind or opinion
  4. To have a close call: to almost experience a negative outcome
  5. To have a bone to pick with someone: To have an issue or problem with someone
  6. To have a heart of gold: to be kind and generous
  7. To have a knack for: to be naturally good at something
  8. To have a wild hair: To have a sudden idea or impulse
  9. To have a ball: To have a good time
  10. To have a blast: To have a great time
  11. To have a good head on one's shoulders: to be sensible and practical
  12. To have a good run: to be successful for a period of time
  13. To have a one-track mind: to be obsessed or only think about one thing
  14. To have a taste for: To have a liking or preference for something.

  1. To make a long story short: to summarize
  2. To make a mountain out of a molehill: to exaggerate the importance of something
  3. To make amends: to apologize or correct a wrong
  4. To make a clean break: to end something completely and move on
  5. To make a beeline: to move straight towards a goal
  6. To make a killing: # To make a large profit
  7. To make a name for oneself: to become famous or successful
  8. To make a scene: to create a disturbance or commotion
  9. To make a point: to emphasize something
  10. To make a fuss: to complain or create a disturbance
  11. To make a living: to earn enough money to support oneself
  12. To make a comeback: to recover or regain success
  13. To make a mess: to create disorder or disarray
  14. To make a hash of: to mess up or do something poorly
  15. To make a play for: to try to win someone's affections or interest
  16. To make a dent: to achieve a small success or gain some progress.

  1. To put one's foot in one's mouth: to say something that is offensive or embarrassing
  2. To put two and two together: to make a logical connection or deduction
  3. To put the cart before the horse: to do things in the wrong order
  4. To put on a brave face: to pretend to be strong or confident
  5. To put on the back burner: to postpone or delay something
  6. To put on the spot: to place someone in an uncomfortable or difficult situation
  7. To put in an appearance: to make a brief visit or show up
  8. To put all one's eggs in one basket: to take a big risk on a single opportunity
  9. To put up or shut up: to either do something or stop talking about it
  10. To put on the dog: to dress up or put on airs
  11. To put on a show: to make a performance or display
  12. To put one's best foot forward: to make a good impression
  13. To put to bed: to settle or resolve a problem or issue
  14. To put through the wringer: to subject someone or something to intense stress or pressure
  15. To put in one's time: to serve a period of time or fulfill an obligation.

  1. To run on empty: to have no energy or resources left
  2. To run circles around someone: to be much more capable or efficient than someone
  3. To run the show: to be in charge or in control
  4. To run the gamut: to cover a wide range of things
  5. To run out of steam: to lose energy or momentum
  6. To run for the hills: to flee or escape quickly
  7. To run a tight ship: to be an efficient and well-organized leader
  8. To run in the family: to be a trait or characteristic that is passed down through one's family
  9. To run afoul of: to violate or break a rule or law
  10. To run hot and cold: to be inconsistent or changeable
  11. To run the gauntlet: to face a difficult or challenging test
  12. To run a risk: to take a chance or gamble
  13. To run the numbers: to perform calculations or analysis
  14. To run wild: to act in an unrestrained or uncontrolled way
  15. To run with the pack: to conform or follow the crowd.

  1. To set the stage: to prepare or make ready for something
  2. To set the record straight: to correct misinformation or clarify the truth
  3. To set in stone: to make something fixed or permanent
  4. To set one's sights on: to aim or strive for something
  5. To set the bar high: # To set a high standard or expectation
  6. To set the tone: to establish the mood or atmosphere
  7. To set the wheels in motion: to start something happening
  8. To set foot: to step or enter a place
  9. To set the table: to prepare for a meal
  10. To set the world on fire: to achieve great success or make a great impact
  11. To set the cat among the pigeons: to create a disturbance or commotion
  12. To set the tone: to establish the mood or atmosphere
  13. To set the standard: to establish a norm or model
  14. To set one's heart on: to be determined or resolved to do something
  15. To set the pace: to establish the tempo or rate of progress.

  1. Take it easy: Relax, calm down
  2. Take it or leave it: This is my final offer, you can accept it or reject it
  3. Take the bull by the horns: To tackle a problem head-on
  4. Take advantage of: To use an opportunity to gain some benefit
  5. Take a back seat: To let someone else # Take control or be more prominent
  6. Take a crack at: Try to do something
  7. Take a stand: To express a clear opinion or position on an issue
  8. Take a shot at: Attempt to do something
  9. Take a turn for the worse: To become worse
  10. Take a load off: Relax, sit down, # Take a break
  11. Take a liking to: Begin to like someone or something
  12. Take heart: Be encouraged, gain courage
  13. Take the cake: To be the best or most extreme example of something
  14. Take the fall: accept blame or punishment for something
  15. Take the wind out of someone's sails: To deflate someone's confidence or enthusiasm