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Grammar term limits

Q: What part of speech is “here” in the sentence “It is here”? In your post about “Here it is,” you say “here” is an adverb. But my understanding is that “to be” is a linking verb that takes an adjective or a noun as a complement, not an adverb. Yours confusedly.

A: You’ve put your finger on an important problem, one that has prompted linguists and grammarians to rethink the way words have traditionally been categorized.

Your question refers to a 2011 blog post in which we wrote that “here” is an adverb when it means “in this place.” So in the sentences “Here is the key” and “Here it is,” we said, the verb “be” is complemented by the adverb “here.”

It’s not true that “be” must always be complemented by either a noun (as in “He is a man”) or an adjective (“He is tall”).

The complement can also be a “locative” adverb (an adverb of location), like “here,” “there,” “everywhere,” “outside,” “inside,” “in,” “out,” “away,” and so on.

All standard dictionaries, as well as the Oxford English Dictionary, classify this use of  “here” as adverbial.

Oxford’s earliest written examples of “here” used with “be” are “Nys he her” (Old English for “He isn’t here,” circa 1000), and “Here he is and honen he nys” (Middle English for “Here he is and hence he isn’t,” 1175).

In his paper “Retrospective on the Verb ‘To Be’ and the Concept of Being,” published in the book The Logic of Being (1986), Charles H. Kahn discusses “copula” (that is, linking) uses of the verb “be.”

“Among the copula uses of be in a broad sense,” Kahn explains, “are what we may call locative uses, where the complement or predicate expression is not a noun or adjective but a local adverb (here, there) or a prepositional phrase of place (at home, in the marketplace).”

The Collins English Dictionary has a similar explanation. The copula “be,” the editors write, can be “used with an adverbial complement to indicate a relationship of location in space or time (Bill is at the office; the dance is on Saturday).”

You’ll notice that the adverbial complements in those Collins examples are prepositional phrases. This is significant, because “here” and other locative adverbs can be replaced by prepositional phrases.

In fact, some linguists believe that “here” and other locative adverbs used with “be” should be reclassified as prepositions. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language is a good example.

The authors of the Cambridge Grammar, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, depart from what they call “the practice of traditional grammar (as reflected, for example, in the classification of words in dictionaries),” and categorize “here,” “there,” “outside,” “indoors,” “away,” “downstairs,” “ashore,” “overseas,” and many more as prepositions.

On the other hand, some language authorities have suggested that the difficulty doesn’t lie in calling “here” an adverb. Instead, it lies in our thinking that “be” is always a mere linking verb that can’t have attributes.

In his book Understanding Grammar (1954), Paul Roberts writes that sometimes “be” is more like the verb “exist”:

“A difficulty in analysis is illustrated by the sentence ‘He is here.’ Linking verbs are usually followed by subjective complements (nouns and adjectives) rather than by adverbs. But is in ‘He is here’ is best considered not a linking verb but a predicating verb, like exists in ‘He exists.’ It is true that is needs a following word to complete its meaning; ‘he is’ is not a finished statement. … If then we consider the is in ‘He is here’ as not a linking verb but a predicating verb with existential meaning, here may be construed conventionally as an adverb modifying a verb.”

That’s the story—so far. The way linguists and lexicographers look at language is always evolving.

So if you’re puzzled about how to pigeonhole the words in “It is here,” you can either change your view of adverbs like “here” and think of them as prepositions, or you can change your thinking about the verb “be,” and think of it as a predicating verb, rather than a linking verb.

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