1.The stars exist two million miles away.

2.The stars are two million miles away.

I know that in the 1, 'two million miles away' is modifying 'exist' as an adverbial phrase, but why we cannot consider it to be modifying 'are' in the 2? At least to me, it can, even in the 2, because 'be verb' clearly has existence meaning as the verb 'exist'.

  • Erm... our own sun (which is getting on for a million miles in diameter) is over 90 million miles away. The nearest star after that is over 25 trillion miles away. Apr 17 '18 at 12:07
  • @ FumbleFingers I should have set the distance more much longer. it was a mistake.
    – GKK
    Apr 17 '18 at 12:10

First, a comment about definite articles. If you say the stars, you are talking about a particular group of stars that you referred to in a previous sentence. The sentence

The stars are two million miles away.

is therefore perfectly valid: The meaning, though, is not that the stars exist, but that you are talking about some stars you mentioned earlier and explaining that their physical location is two million miles away (the DESCRIPTION meaning).

It is true that be has an EXIST meaning, but: it is intransitive, very formal and generally only used in the infinitive. It doesn't really work in your sentence, because your sentence sounds like the DESCRIPTION meaning, where be is a linking verb rather than intransitive. You could, however, say:

The stars ceased to be two million years ago.
If stars there be, they must be a long way from here.

When using exist, it only really make sense if you talk about non-specific stars, stating that stars do exist two million miles away.

Stars exist two million miles away.

On a technical note, if there were stars two million miles away, we would be toast. Our sun is 93 million miles away.

  • IMO, there is a certain sentence in which, even though not used as the infinitive form, be-verb is meant for existence as in I think therefore I am
    – GKK
    Apr 17 '18 at 11:50
  • I'm not sure that the definite article necessarily requires a reference to a specific set of stars discussed earlier. Sometimes "the stars" means "all of the stars in the sky." For example: "Astrologers believe that our destinies are encoded in the stars." Apr 17 '18 at 12:34
  • 1
    @EvaristeGalois: that is a literal translation of Decartes' latin cogito ergo sum. It is not typical english.
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 18 '18 at 3:26
  • @CanadianYankee: I agree that "all of the stars in the sky" is a reasonable interpretation of "the stars". It is also a specific (and very large) set of stars as you can get.
    – JavaLatte
    Apr 18 '18 at 3:30

Exist means to be part of reality observable by someone making that statement. You can follow X exists with a complement answering the question "where?" Thus you can say "X exists at Y" or other prepositional phrase to detail that observation - e.g. where in your observable reality is X.

Grass exists at the park outside of the paths.

Be can mean exist, but it's also frequently used only to connect an attribute to something. "Location" is an attribute that works with be.

I am at the park.

So there is some overlap in meaning/use of be and *exist, but far more complements work with be than exist.

I am hot.

I exist hot (fails).

That is Marvin over there.

That exists Marvin over there (fails).

Also, the "this is part of reality in general" meaning of exist never goes away, and is the reason why you would use the verb. So if you are not clarifying what is real, then exist is inappropriate and sounds weird.

I'm sure the money exists somewhere (I'm certain that in reality there is the money at some location)

I exist in the box today (we don't typically use exist to say where you are at now, though logically and technically this works)

My memories exist in my brain (this is a philosophical statement about the general nature of memories.)

My memories are in my brain (sounds less philosophical, like you are about to write down your memories or take some other action.)

Currently my thoughts exist in my brain only (this is OK because others can't see the thoughts so there is a need to define its nature)

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