Consider the following quote,

enter image description here

“Life is once. Forever.” —Henri Cartier-Bresson, AZ Quotes

I have checked that "once" is an adverb. How can it become a predicate?

  • 1
    To me, this is an unidiomatic use, probably used deliberately, to make a point.
    – Colin Fine
    Jan 27, 2016 at 12:47
  • It could be a translation from the French, I don't know enough French to guess what the original might be. However 'Forever' on its own isn't a sentence either. What Cartier-Bresson seems to have been saying (whether in French or English) is that anything which happens in any split second (and can be photographed using a 35mm Leica) is unique and will never be repeated in exactly the same way so each candid photograph is unique. He was using language for effect and is allowed poetic licence as far as I'm concerned.
    – BoldBen
    Jun 3, 2018 at 13:37

6 Answers 6


Adverbs could be part of a predicate, to be more exact, a subjective complement, but it doesn't happen very often and they are used either idiomatically or in a sentence where a participle or part of the sentence is elided.

In your quote, "Life is once" could be considered as short for

Life is given to people once. Life is lived once by people.

and it doesn't necessarily mean once is a subjective complement alone once elided words are placed. The past participle given or lived is elided in your example.

He will be (coming) back in 5 minutes: coming is elided.

He is out (of the house/building/restaurant...): a place is elided.

The secret is out: the secret has been discovered/revealed/known.

There are more examples where an adverb could be used as a subjective complement. They should be learned on a case-by-case basis.

  • Ah, apart from that the fact that back and out are considered prepositions in many modern grammars precisely because they can function as Predicative Complements, whereas adverbs can't (apart from when BE is used in its specifying sense: How I want you to dance is beautifully, for example). Jan 27, 2016 at 13:20
  • @Araucaria How I want you to dance is ((to) dance) beautifully. It is not an adverb acting as a predicative complement. To infinitive or bare-infinitive is elided.
    – user140086
    Jan 27, 2016 at 13:23
  • Well, that's how it's analysed by Aarts, H&P, Quirk et al and so on. But if you're correct, then that's even stronger evidence that adverbs don't occur as Complements of the verb BE! ;-) Jan 27, 2016 at 13:24
  • @Araucaria Yes, that's why I said it is an idiomatic expressions. The game is over. It could be an adverb, adjective or even preposition depending on your way of perceiving this sentence. I always agree with you, remember?
    – user140086
    Jan 27, 2016 at 13:26
  • You often make insightful and interesting points. I don't want you to always agree with me because I'll never learn anything! :-) Jan 27, 2016 at 13:29

Some adverbs definitely can be predicates: words of location - here, indoors, abroad - are usually seen as adverbs, and obviously commonly used as predicates.

One could make the case that the common construction {eventnoun}{be}{timeadverb} (e.g. "the concert was yesterday") also uses adverbs as predicates.
But another view would be that the {be} there is used not as a copula but in the meaning "to happen, take place", in which case it's not using the adverb as a predicate.
Both those views are reasonable, though I'd lean towards the latter.

"Life is once" seems to follow that pattern, so whether once is a predicate in that particular phrase depends on how you choose to analyse the is.

Either way, it's certainly not a common kind of usage of once. I'd go so far as to suggest it was intentionally chosen to grab attention with how unusual it is.

(Terminology note: For sentences like "Jill is tall", I've seen the word predicate sometimes referring just to the "tall" and other times to the whole "is tall". In this answer I'm using the word the same way the OP did.)


It is not grammatical but it is understandable metaphorical language. It is an advertising slogan where, as with poetry, certain liberties can be taken.

The problem is that Life and is and once do not go together except metaphorically.

Life is an abstraction. That is, not "a life" (a particular life) but the concept that refers to a state of animation, of being alive.

We can use the verb is with abstract concepts, for is means not only exists but can be said to be.

Life is short -> Life can be said to be short. "X is {predicate complement}" means that X has the qualities which {predicate complement} refers to.

once modifies things which occur. We normally say "That happened once".

When we complete the verb is with the adverbial complement once, we treat the verb is as if it were synonymous with the verb happens, which it is not.

By extension, when we treat the verb is as if it means "happens", we treat the subject of the predicate, Life, as if it were not an abstraction but an event: Life happens... but abstractions or concepts cannot "happen".

The predicate subject complement recasts the predicate and the subject into meanings they do not have except metaphorically, by recasting them from their actual grammatical categories into other grammatical categories. The statement violates the rules of grammar but in an intelligible manner.

Here's what happens if we include "Forever" :)

         for i = 1 to 1 {
           var result = (Event)Life
  • How about "The life is once."? Jan 27, 2016 at 11:00
  • 1
    "The life" refers to a particular life. But a life does not "occur" as once implies that it does. We are still in the realm of the metaphorical. The grammatical categories are still being disrupted. A grammatical version would be "We live only once." or "We are alive only once".
    – TimR
    Jan 27, 2016 at 11:03
  • Here is a famous poem where similar recasting of grammatical categories occurs; poets.org/poetsorg/poem/anyone-lived-pretty-how-town
    – TimR
    Jan 27, 2016 at 13:44

Confusion may arise from taking lexical categories too seriously. In the first place the verb to be has a long history of meaning to occur or to happen. The OED's earliest cite is from 950 CE, and continues to such modern usage as

The flower show was last week.

Once may be used as an adjective or as a noun (in the OED's parlance, as a quasi-adj[ective] and quasi-sb [substantive, i.e, noun], respectively). As a noun, meaning "doing a thing once, going once, etc." the OED cites a 1623 source

Once is no Custome

and notes the modern usage

Once a week is enough for me.

"Life is once" is an unusual phrasing -- "You have but one life" would be more common -- but its easily-recognized meaning flows from long-standing usage.


Any sentence consists of the two parts known as (1) the subject, and (2) the predicate.

The word predicate has several homonyms of itself. -Grammatically, the noun which is the word "predicate" means that very part of a sentence apart from the subject, which is usually - in fact - most of the sentence, or the rest of the sentence, really.

So, in this sentence, "X is once," then "is once" is the predicate, and the word "once" is part of the predicate. That is all, here.

As to the alleged quote in the picture which is shown as part of the original post here, it is NOT a quotation but is rather an unsubstantiated allegation! -One must ALWAYS cite the source properly & reliably. -Similarly, for photographs - especially in this day and age of Photoshop & the internet - ALWAYS cite a photograph's provenance; -Sticking a photograph next to an alleged quotation with a person's name there simply does not prove a thing! For example, are we to assume that the photograph is that person who has been named? -Or we're supposed to know already, somehow, that the photograph is that person? Even if the photograph were a true image of that person, it doesn't prove that the person in question even ever said such a thing as the alleged quotation!

ALWAYS cite the source properly and reliably. "Az Quotes" and its ilk are NOT reliable sources and do not constitute citation since they do not even practise proper citation themselves. Their only practice is click-baiting.


is once is the predicate.

It's a silly quote.

  • It is grammatically correct? Or just its meaning sounds silly? Jan 27, 2016 at 9:57
  • @YasashiiEirian: It is grammatically correct. "Silly" in this case is a euphemism for "a piece of shit." As in, "It's a piece of shit quote."
    – Ricky
    Jan 27, 2016 at 10:02
  • @YasashiiEirian: I take that back: It is not totally grammatically correct. It's soft of okay. Kind of. Correct with an asterisk. Colloquial-ish. And silly.
    – Ricky
    Jan 27, 2016 at 10:04

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