I came across this sentence:

According to von Kármán, a scientist seeks to understand what is; an engineer, to create what never was.

What's the grammar of "what is" and "what never was"? The clause "what is" seems to be incomplete. For me a correct sentence would look like "according to von Kármán, a scientist seeks to understand what exists."

Are there any other sentences that use 'what is' similarly to this one?"

  • They are both noun phrases, not clauses.
    – BillJ
    Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 6:57
  • 1
    Is is sometimes used to mean exists in statements like this. c.f. Alexander Pope's Whatever is, is right. Commented Aug 27, 2023 at 7:41

1 Answer 1


The verb "to be" has a number of uses, with different grammatical expectations. In this context, it means roughly "to exist", and does not need any adjective, noun, or secondary verb. It just is.

Famous examples include Shakespeare's Hamlet contemplating his own existence and death:

To be, or not to be; that is the question.

And the traditional translation of René Descartes on the nature of thought:

I think, therefore I am.

(I believe the original French "je suis" and Latin "sum" both use "to be" in the same sense.)

So, your suggested "correct" sentence is in fact an accurate paraphrase of the original: "what is" means "what exists", and "what never was" means "what has never existed".

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