When an existential is used existentially verb as the predicate to a subject, is it true in all languages that it cannot take another predicate?

In other words, when the existential to-be verb means 'exist' can it also be a copula at the same time by adding a complement?

The wiki article below represents a verbal predicate (I exist) and a predicate expression when used as a copula (I am a man) as mutually exclusive. Is this correct?

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copula_(linguistics) EXISTENTIAL USAGE The English to be, and its equivalents in certain other languages, also have a non-copular use as an existential verb, meaning "to exist." This use is illustrated in the following sentences: I want only to be, and that is enough; I think therefore I am; To be or not to be, that is the question. In these cases, the verb itself expresses a predicate (that of existence), rather than linking to a predicative expression as it does when used as a copula

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – prash
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 20:22

2 Answers 2


exist is simply not transitive, yes. Talking about is as if it were in any sense equivalent is not helpful, because the profered examples, where it is assumed to be, are deranged.

  1. "only" carries the existential quality to a large extend, cp Ger nur "only" in the same phrase "Ich will nur sein", in which the seeming adverb can be substituted, or supplanted, with a noun or adjective, "Ich will Feuerwehrmann sein" (=firefighter), "ich möchte nur Feuerwehrmann sein". From this perspective, assuming the common underlying syntax was similar, the example should be equivalent to either

    • I want to be only, which is arguably incorrect--should better say to be one
    • I want to only be, in which case the verb clearly qualifies to be, but tnis must be deemed non-sense as much as the first option
    • I only want to be, which I would always prefer if the ahxilary is specifically the target of the adverb

    but the example strives from ambiguity. The adverb modifies the positions on both sides, like an infix, insofar I want only one saussage rather restricts the object, although only is very clearly adverbial and as such prone to modify the verb, e.g. I want only saussage; whereas I only want saussage might mean nobody else wants. Sadly I'm not a professional grammarian, so I can't do the mental gymnastics to avoid the ambiguity. That's also not my point, I'm not trying to teach English, or German.

    My point is, only as much as Ger nur carry the main burden of expressing existentiality. Simply speaking, there is a reason the example is not simply I want to be.

    As for the etymology, I want to suggested to a) compare only to the e- in ever, Ger jeh, perhaps a-live, indeed any and probably more. b) compare Ger nur to now, but also near, Ger noch "yet", often in combination nur noch (ich habe nur noch drei -- I have yet only three), so that nur rather looks like it expressed a sense of "now" when standing alone, Ich habe nur drei "I have yet three", especially considering that yet is akin to Ger jetzt "now". If now isn't existential, I don't know what is.

    In that sense, the option "I want to be only" does not even seem wrong, let me be now, leave me alone. To be honest I see no other way to read the example, except that the subtone is different.

  2. To be or not to be is similarly, what's the word, in need of qualifiers. The specific example is poetic, not quite natural, and thus subject to interpretation. It can be read as to be [questioning [oneself [about questioning [oneself [about …

  3. I think therefore I am plays on the same scheme, I think therefore I am [thinking, therefore I am … none the wiser].

    • I'd add that I am [alive] is in principle equivalent to I am not dead [yet]. Ha! I am undecided whether this thought begets the one in the previous example, or vice versa, I am not dead yet, therefore I think, therefore ... I only think I am not dead yet? Let's ask SE! (viz Psychology e.g. The Trauma of Birth). Indeed, a philiological survey of similar expressions and how they can combine should be worthwhile.

In sum, is behaves in any number of ways, but it is has no existential meaning on its own; rather, the existentiality is always derived from context. I'm far from certain about the etymology. be is quite different, because with a main sense "become" used to express the optative, e.g. be-come, which adds a level of expression implying continuity, and development. Whereas is as a stative can be better compared to the demonstrative pronoun *so, or mere inflectional morphemes -s, e.g. to explain there'sa man, this' wrong.

For exists on the othere hand, I want only to say that it appears like a relatively ordinary word. Although, it should be interesting for it's etymology. The ex- could be explained perhaps better from "is"; compare Ger besitzen "to have, possess", besessen "posesded". Perhaps also cp Ger bestehen "exist, consist", in case we can separate [ex]-i-st-ant; at any rate, as it stands, to stand can be used as auxilary as in dialect as well.

Nevertheless--to answer your question--if we accept the profered examples, the I have shown that they do in fact need to take very specific kinds of arguments to become existentials in the first place. Admittedly, there is room for improvement and I only wanted to riff on the etymology. I had to insist.

Conclusion: The nature of these arguments pretty much excludes other arguments to the existential verb, because they would contradict oneness. This is not very useful, so people don't often say it.

1: Although, speaking of ambiguity: In German, the verb and nominalized infinitive forms are often audibly indistinct, like leben "to exist, live" Leben "life", as in ich möchte nur leben.

  • 2
    I think you just helped me. You said exist is not transitive. That seems like a succinct way to answer what I was asking. So the syntax of a verb of existence is different than copulative which is transitive. They are mutually exclusive. Is that your point?
    – user27672
    Commented Jan 11, 2020 at 23:31

First of all, I would say to answer your question the same thing as succintly formulated in a comment here by you:

[...] exist is not transitive. That seems like a succinct way to answer what I was asking. So the syntax of a verb of existence is different than copulative which is transitive. They are mutually exclusive.

That's my understanding, too.

However, if we allow us to go away from the argument-taking syntax of the verb (where the argument is the direct/accusative object), i.e., look for answers that convey the same meaning as you are asking for and use the verb "exist", but with a different syntax, we might find some constructions which are not-so-bad grammatically in some languages:


? I exist here as an assistant.

or Russian equivalent:

? Я существую     здесь как помощник.
  I exist.Prs.1Sg here  as  assistant.Sg.Nom
? Я существую     здесь в  качестве помощника.
  I exist.Prs.1Sg here  in quality  assistant.Sg.Gen

Here the additional phrase plays a role close to an argument to "exist": it's a "tight" member of the verb phrase, but syntactically expressed differently from a direct/accusative object -- as opposed to, say, a more "loosely" apposited comparison phrase (I fly like a bird or I fly like a bird flies in English; in Russian punctuation, there is a rule about the conjunction как "as" which says that if the phrase introduced by как is argument-like, one does not use a comma, as in my examples above, but one should use a comma in the second class of examples: Я летаю, как птица "I fly as a bird).

So the feeling is that such sentences are close to what you are asking.

Or the second predicate can be expressed as an adveb or an adverbial phrase or a small clause (my examples below are best described as having a small clause inside; I think you can try to invent something similar with the usage of adverbs yourself):

?? Я существовал усталым.
   I existed     tired.Sg.Instr
"I existed being tired"
?? Я существовал усталый.
   I existed     tired.Sg.Nom
"I existed being tired"

Although this sounds not nice in Russian, but the syntax is more-or-less OK--compare with such sentences with a verb other than "exist":

OK Я пришёл    домой   усталым.
   I came.Pftv to_home tired.Sg.Instr
"I came home and was tired"
OK Я ходил           усталый.
   I wandered.Impftv tired.Sg.Nom
"I wandered while being tired"

and as you see in the English translation, this syntax explicitly introduces a second predicate in semantics (with the COPULA-ing in the English syntax); the semantics is the logical conjunction of "exist" and "be tired".

  • Thanks. I would go so far to say that an adverbial dependent clause would modify the existential intransitive verb in the main clause but not the copulative transitive verb which means equals (=). In your example with "ing" I see the verb as a helping verb (e.g. I have been singing)
    – user27672
    Commented Jan 12, 2020 at 20:55
  • @ThomasPearne Basically, I agree with your conclusion: "an adverbial dependent clause would modify the existential intransitive verb in the main" (or even--semantically--just the event expressed by the main clause). There is one minor thing, which I disagree with in your comment: I think this usage of "being" in English is really very close to a copula (semantically that's almost obvious), rather then an auxiliary. (It is used to intoroduce a secondary predicate, which is true of the main subject in the main event.) Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 5:03
  • Thanks. I am not a linguist so I am still refining my understanding and terminology. I read that when a verb is used as a copula it has a subject, copula and complement. A predicate nominative is one example of this. Does this mean predicate and complement are the same thing? Another point of confusion for me is the difference between the object of a verb and a predicate in a copular expression.
    – user27672
    Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 16:41
  • @ThomasPearne No, predicate and complement generally are different things. Only in your very special examples (or the examples you search for) they can coincide in a single word. Predicate is initially a semantic/logical notion: a function whose result is of boolean type (either true or false). The prototypical representation of predicates in a language are verbs and adjectives. (Reading: some intro/course into formal semantics by Partee.) Sometimes predicate is used as a syntactic term (for verb phrases, roughly). Complement is a syntactic notion. (Reading: an intro in syntax.) Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 18:26
  • @Thomas "subject, copula, complement" are the syntactic parts of such a sentence, correct. In general, sentences syntactically have 2 parts: subject, predicate (syntactic "predicate", or a verb phrase, VP). In your special sentences with copula then the "predicate" part (=VP) is contructed from 2 parts: copula, complement. The syntactic complement to a copula is semantically a predicate (by coincidence),i.e., its meaning is a function from entities to truth values; put differently, a predicate decides which objects belong to the denoted class,or simply: a predicate defines a class of objects. Commented Jan 13, 2020 at 18:39

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.