Can the verb 'to be' be used intransitively, as in "I am." OR "It was."?

I don't mean as an answer to a question, when there is all kinds of implied content. I mean as a complete sentence. And I also don't mean in a philosophical context, like "I think, therefore, I am."

We can't say something like "I am happily." We would say "I exist happily." So can we ever use 'to be' in an intransitive sense like 'to exist'?

Note that I mean 'without auxiliaries'. "It cannot be!" uses auxiliaries.

If we can't use 'to be' intransitively, then it shouldn't be able to take adverbs without an object. But oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/here considers 'here' to be only ever an adverb. So "I am here" would be subject/intransitive verb/adverb.

Can someone unwind this conundrum?

  • 1
    Are you attempting to deny the habitual be? – user662852 Jun 20 '16 at 12:37
  • @user662852 "I be doing that every day, mon." Not deny, no, but restrict the discussion to standard modern english. – Dunsanist Jun 20 '16 at 12:59
  • There are examples of this form. – Edwin Ashworth Jun 21 '16 at 23:36
  • @Edwin Ashworth, please give some. – Dunsanist Jun 23 '16 at 14:00
  • That was one of them. 'There are (rarely, exist) examples of this form.' – Edwin Ashworth Jun 23 '16 at 18:20

Not all adverbs in English behave the same.

The verb to be doesn't just take here; it can also take many other adverbs of place.

He's downstairs.
I am home.
It's far away.
He's abroad.
The store is nearby.
They're outside.
Are the missing documents anywhere?

And finally, I don't agree with your reasoning:

If we can't use 'to be' intransitively, then it shouldn't be able to take adverbs without an object.

You sound like you're reasoning about mathematical objects, not about languages. Languages aren't logical.

I just noticed that this doesn't answer the actual question: "Can the verb 'to be' be used purely intransitively, like 'to exist'?" I'm inclined to answer "no". Even with auxiliaries, as in "it cannot be", there is usually something implicit that is being referred to. We wouldn't say "unicorns cannot be"; we'd use "exist".

But this depends on exactly what you mean by "purely intransitively". When something is implicitly referred to, an intransitive it is is fine. For example,

Many people think computers are smart. They aren't.

  • if we say "I am home", and 'home' is an adverb and not a PA, then 'am' must be intransitive, surely, because it has no object (or PN or PA). – Dunsanist Jun 20 '16 at 12:57
  • We can say "I am home" and use "am" intransitively, but we can't say "I am independently". So an intransitive to be takes adverbs of place but not other adverbs. If that means it's intransitive by your definition, then it is. – Peter Shor Jun 20 '16 at 13:00
  • "intransitive: (of a verb) having or needing no object: (Cambridge Dictionary)". By this definition…but I agree, that there seems to be a significant difference between a purely intransitive use of to be ('I am') and one with an adverb like 'here' or 'home'. So is it simply that some intransitive verbs still demand a complement of some sort? Are there intransitive verbs that need no complements and intransitive verbs that do? – Dunsanist Jun 20 '16 at 13:11

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