Tag Archives: Chinese grammar

Many a mickle makes a muckle

Or a muck up.

In the past, I’ve observed that Chinese seems to have about half a dozen words for everything, and even quantifiers are no exception. Several compounds of 多 (duō) “many, much; more” were plaguing me this morning, and further investigation, using the Youdao translation service, only seemed to make things worse. The words in question are 繁多 (fánduō) and 众多 (zhòngduō), which both mean “numerous”, and 好多 (hǎoduō) and 许多 (xǔduō) which both mean “many, much”.

My big dictionary says that 繁多 can also mean “various”, and that 众多 also means “many, multitudinous”. It translates 好多 as “a good or great many; a good deal; lots of” and merely adds the meaning “a lot” to 许多.

The problem is that my dictionary doesn’t explain whether these words are written or spoken, formal or informal, or what their range is (i.e., do they modify the same range of things or specific groups of things with some overlap?). On the basis of circumstantial evidence, 繁多 and 众多 may be synonyms because Youdao sends readers from the former to the latter.

Using Youdao to translate phrases doesn’t help, either. I thought the rule in Chinese was that adjectives of two or more syllables usually took 的 when they preceded their noun, but this does odd things to 繁多 and 众多, viz.

繁多的猫 “a cat in a wide range of” vs. 繁多猫 “many cats”
众多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 众多猫 “many cats”

[The Bing translator on my phone gives “a wide variety of cat” and “many cats” for the first two phrases in these pairs. On the other hand, using Youdao to translate “multitudinous cats” gives me 众多的猫. Bing also gives the same translation.]

I wonder whether quantifiers or quantifier-like words don’t take 的, or whether it’s just compounds of 多.

If I reverse the process in Youdao, and translate “numerous cats” into Chinese, I get 许多猫 “many cats” (but Bing gives me 很多猫). Would anything actually get me 繁多猫 or 众多猫 as a translation from English to Chinese? If I try to translate “various cats”, I get 各种各样的猫 (Youdao) or 格式各样的猫 (Bing), which strikes me as being closer to “all manner / sorts / types of cats” in English.

With a mass noun, I get the following:

繁多的黄油 “butter in a wide range of” vs. 繁多黄油 “various butter”
众多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 众多猫 “many butter”

Apart from the third phrase, I don’t know whether the rest are even grammatical in Chinese (regardless of the English translation). Again, reversing the process produces something different, with Youdao and Bing translating “a lot of butter” as 大量的黄油.

What about 好多 and 许多? As the example above showed, these seem to be used sans 的, but I’ll try both sorts of phrases.

好多的猫 “a lot of cat” vs. 好多猫 “a lot of cat”
许多的猫 “many of the cat” vs. 许多猫 “many cats”

Reversing the process again, Youdao produces 很多猫 for “a lot of cats” while Bing gives me 多猫. For “many of the cats”, Youdao returns 许多猫, but perhaps Chinese makes no distinction between “many of a whole” (e.g. many cats) and “many of a part” (e.g. many of the cats). Bing translates this phrase as 很多人的猫 and Youdao translates it back into English as “many cats”.

Again, let’s look at what happens when these words are used with mass nouns.

好多的黄油 “a lot of butter” vs. 好多黄油 “a lot of butter”
许多的猫 “a lot of butter” vs. 许多猫 “a lot of butter”

The results from Youdao are a good deal more uniform. Bing translates 好多黄油 as “quantity of butter” and the rest as “lots of / a lot of butter”. But reversing the process in either Youdao or Bing gets 大量的黄油 again.

What, though, is the generic form for “a lot of / much / many” in Chinese, which could be used under any circumstance? 许多? 多 alone? Some modifier + 多? A perusal of my sources doesn’t answer these questions.

As I said at the outset, Chinese seems to have half a dozen words for everything. The issue, again, is knowing how they are used and what their scope is, but I end this post with no definite answers.

Case closed

Guess what I found.

Here’s a mystery from the character-a-day pad.

relative pronoun (he, she, it, they)

The two lexical definitions in my dictionary are

  1. (prn) – he, she, it; they
  2. (prn) – that; those; such

but two other books give the meaning “his, her, its; their”. The dictionary also has three functional definitions, including the formation of adverbs. The word gets no special mention in any of my grammars so that I can’t determine whether this is formal or informal, written or spoken, bound or free, productive or frozen.

The basic sense would appear to distal, “that over there” rather than “this here” (e.g. 其次 qícì “next, then; second, secondary”; 其他 and 其它 qítā “other” [其他人 “other people”]).

I assume that 他/她 are the unmarked third-person pronouns. Perhaps 其 is used to mean “that person over there”, but this is just a guess.

A couple of linguistic notes


I went through Bonner trying to find instances of cci the adverb with verbs of motion rather than cci the pronoun to see whether I could find enough examples to formulate some sort of principle of usage, or find some statement about it. I found a couple of examples, viz.

A: Ti piacissi iri ô cinima? “Would you like to go to the movies?”
B: Sì, cci vulissi iri. “Yes, I really would.”
Iu dissi ca cci ieva però ora non cci vogghiu iri. “I said that I’d go, but now I don’t want to.”

I don’t know whether cci is obligatory; obligatory under certain circum­stances; or optional. I have a slight preference for the second choice, but can’t confirm that. There may be other examples I missed, but most of the instances Bonner gives are pronominal.

Theof . Or . Or .

Here are three characters which, if ever proof were needed, confirm that the exclusive use of pinyin to render Chinese would be a disaster. They’re all pronounced de. Why am I confused? Because Po-Ching and Rimmington (1997) uses pinyin throughout their book. In §5, they’re talking about 的, which introduces complements in the NP. Sometimes, you’ll see it written in signs here in its supersimplified form, の, which renders the syllable no in hiragana, a particle which seems to have a similar function in Japanese to 的 in Chinese. When they get to §13.4, I’m led to believe they’re talking about 得, which is a clausal complementiser. I think it’s the same character in §14.1ff. In fact, the constructions in §§13, 14 are identical in form, though not function. The glossary at the back of the book makes these characters easy to identify, although actually including them in the right sections would help.

What about 地? I’m informed that I should go to §22 which is all about the 是…的 (shì…de) construction. Nope, I haven’t mistyped that. I know that Chinese has a 是…的 construction. As far as I can see, 地 doesn’t appear to be mentioned in this section at all. Po-Ching and Rimmington gloss it as “particle, to indicate an adverbial”. Is there a typo in the book? Am I missing something? (All rude comments about the latter gleefully deleted.)

T’ung and Pollard (1982) Colloquial Chinese suffer from the same pinyin-only problem. Chinese Grammar Without Tears doesn’t appear to mention it, but that lacks a glossary; Chinese for Beginners only mentions 地 “earth” which I know perfectly well from 地铁 dìtiě “the Underground; the Tube”.

This all started from something different. I had originally planned an entry about the use of 得 because I noted as I looked at the examples in Po-Ching and Rimmington that the constructions are identical, being differentiated by the lexical content before and after 得. In the original post (deleted; I was worried I was getting my characters severely muddled), I proposed that the true complement is not what follows 得, but rather what precedes it. I also noted that Chinese is sufficiently ambiguous for there to be no clear interpretation, but since the language is somewhat OV and inclined to be right-headed, it seemed more likely that the complement precedes 得. Well, that’s how it looks to me.


Well, it’s at the start of the sentence.

One of the items on Chinese syntax that I saved from Chinese Linguistics at the University of Southern California was a thesis in which the author says that Chinese sentences have locative subjects. For example,

桌上放着三本书 (zhuō shàng fàng-zhe sān běn shū) “There are three books on the table”

Literally “table-on put-pcl. three MW book”. But is 桌上 actually the sub­ject of the sentence? Can an adverbial of any sort in any lang­uage actually function as a subject?

I don’t want to give an unequivocal “No” to this question, but I don’t see how it’s possible for an adverbial to be a true subject. I know that subjects can have different thematic roles depending on the nature of the verb, but the subject remains the subject. It seems to make more sense to propose the presence of an empty subject node so that underlyingly the sentence is S-A-dO-V which becomes S-A-V-dO. Without an overt subject, the sent­ence has an existential sense. If the sentence had an overt subject, pre­sum­ably it’d remain the first element of the sentence as a consequence of the underlying OV-like syntax of Chinese. The postpositional phrase (PostP.) also remains exactly where it started.

In trying to identify a subject, you might ask, “What are located on the table?”, in which case the answer is “three books”, but there seems to be no suggestion that 三本书 is the subject. The sentence would then be 三本书桌上放着 which is beginning to look like a covert reflexive in a passive function (“Three books placed [themselves] on the table”; i.e., “Three books were placed on the table”; cf. Sicilian “Libbra si vinninu nnâ chiazza” Books are sold in the square [lit. Books sell themselves in the square]). I don’t know whether the Chinese sentence is even grammatical, although it looks like a topic-comment sentence of some sort.

Po-Ching and Yip (1997:112; their italics) say “The subject in these ‘topic + subject-predicate’ structures may be omitted if its sense is understood from the context. Sentences of this type superficially become ‘topic + predicate’ structures and can be seen as notional passive sentences in which the topic is notionally the object of the verb.” It’s possible the sentence above falls into this particular category.

In many languages, what constitutes a subject isn’t an issue because there’s overt subject-verb agreement. In Latin, 1st decl. nouns ended in -a, pl. -ae; 2nd decl. in -us, pl. -i and so on. In Greek, 1st decl. -η, -α, pl. -αι; 2nd decl. -ος, pl. -οι and so on. The verb would then agree in number with the sub­ject.

I believe that the claim that Chinese can have a locative subject is, in fact, wrong, but since my knowledge of Chinese syntax is somewhat slight I may yet find proof that the claim is justified.

[05.08.14. In English, a locative phrase can lead to a verb-second construction (e.g. Beside the lake stood an old house), but I don’t believe anyone would claim that “beside the lake” is the subject of the sentence. It’s an interesting construction because “Beside the lake, an old house stood”, where the subject is restored to a preverbal position, feels incomplete without saying something further about the house.]

Ba [sic!], humbug!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Chinese syntax.

It seems that I’m not the only one who Chinese syntax confuses the hell out of. While I’ve been surfing the Net this morning, I’ve also been skim­ming through an article on the 把 () construction. Whereas the 被 (bèi) construction is about subjects, the 把 construction focuses on ob­jects. Like the 被 construction, phrases introduced by 把 follow the sub­ject, but precede the main verb, which tells the listener the result. 把 can mean “grasp” or “handle” so that the sentence seems to have meant some­thing like “S deal with dO – result”. For example, “I deal with orange got peeled”; i.e., “I peeled the orange”. Of course, you can also say “I peeled the orange”. (NB. The whole “deal with” thing is just my way of trying to understand the construction.)

But just to complicate things, the element following 把 isn’t necessarily the dO. The sentence “The bandit killed his father” ends up as “The bandit 把 him killed father”. It appears that “him” has to be “his” from the original sentence because if 把 takes the dO, then the dO position after the main verb remains empty.

To me, such sentences look like another version of Chinese topic/focus-comment sentences.

The question I have is “Under what circumstances would you use this construction?” Po-Ching and Rimmington (1997:119; their emphasis) say “The construction is a grammatical feature unique to the Chinese language”. They describe it, but they don’t say anything about when I might use it. Could I start a conversation with a 把 sentence or do I have to say something else first?

Chinese Grammar without Tears (2002:168) has the following examples

我洗衣服了 (wǒ xǐ yīfu le) “I washed the clothes”
我把衣服洗了(wǒ bǎ yīfu xǐ le)

and then says “Sentence 2 is a “” sentence; it answers the question ‘What did you do with the clothes?'” (05.08.14. Another thought is whether the construction is cataphoric, where 把 is analogous to “do” in an utterance such as “I completed the crossword. I did it”, but it must be in that order unlike English in which it is possible to say “I did it. I completed the crossword.”)

[05.08.14. Ross and Ma (2006), Modern Mandarin Grammar. A Practical Guide, Rout­ledge, echo the question in “What did the subject do to the object?” E.g.

弟弟把饺子吃完了 “Younger brother ate up the dumplings” (lit. “Younger brother took dumplings and ate them up”; R&M’s more literal translation.)

Unlike the 被 construction, the implications of this construction are not negative.

However, this seems to be another instance of one language paraphrasing another because 把-construction isn’t really passive beyond a focus on the dO in an active sentence. Presumably, if I wanted to say “The dumplings have been eaten” (where the people who ate them are an anonymous mob, and I’m stating a neutral fact), I’d have to specifically say 人把 etc. But perhaps it would be stated more naturally in Chinese in some other fashion.]

What do foreign learners of Chinese do? Probably make a lot of mistakes with this construction. I know I would, but my Chinese is a long, long way from me using this construction – if ever.


The Style Killer.

There’s been yet another post on Language Log about America’s inherent fear of the passive voice, which leads me to conclude that this should be considered to be a psychiatric affliction. The symptoms seem to include dogmatic assertions and the writing of reams of misguided and ignorant gibberish about the passive. Fortunately, the boys at Language Log Plaza are on hand to administer sensible observations. Unfortunately, one of the side effects of passiviphobia is Deaf Ear Syndrome, so the advice being dispensed may well be ineffectual.

Chinese has a couple of constructions which are similar in nature to the passive. There’s the 被 bèi construction where the agent is introduced by 被. It often conveys a sense that something has gone wrong. I don’t know enough about syntactic theory to be able to say whether there’s the same sort of syntactic movement that you get with the English passive. The examples in the book (Po-Ching, Yip and Don Rimmington (1997). Chinese: An Essential Grammar. Routledge: London.) suggest that this is is a typical SAV sentence in Chinese because 被 is a coverb (sort of equivalent to a preposition) and would appear to be functioning no differently from, say, 在 zài “at, be in” which is found in sentences of the same structure.

In other words, this isn’t an instance of “[e] is seen the cat by the dog” –> “The cat is seen [e] by the dog” because 被+NP is already in situ (in the A position) underlyingly. The Chinese sentence seems to me more bound up with θ-roles. The patient (person/thing affected) is the subject and the agent (the doer) is introduced by 被, but the only element which moves (although this is not obvious on the surface) is the verb. The construction functions like the passive in English, but it isn’t really a passive.

Chinese also has notional passives where an inanimate/non-human noun functions as the subject, but really has a patient role. A rough literal translation of the sentence 信写完了 xìn xiě wán le (“letter write finish-PT”) is “The letter finished writing”. A more natural translation in English is “The letter has been written”.

If you’re wondering why I’m sitting here thinking, it’s because I’m trying to analyse the sentence in some other way. I’m kind of thinking that the sentence could be [信写]S [完了]V where the subject is a compound meaning “letter-writing”. But the subject could be a clause where 信 is the dO of the verb 写. In other words, like German, the subordinate clause is OV.
I think what I’m really observing is the ambiguity that’s inherent in Chinese. I’ve noted many times before that although the dictionary might say that a word is, for example, a verb, it may appear to me, as a speaker of English, to be functioning as a noun.
How would you say in Chinese He finished writing the letter? I know the language is underlyingly SOV. Does that mean that the underlying form of the sentence is he letter write finish which then surfaces as he finish letter write? Or is the surface form he write finish letter? A telling example is 我已经做完了我的作业 (wǒ yǐjing zuò wán le wǒde zuòyè) “I’ve already done my homework” where 做完 is like 写完 where 完 is almost behaving like an aspect marker. Even then, it doesn’t seem to be that simple, but I’m going to stop because this is going to do my head in if I keep going.

It’s certainly an interesting subject (all right, interesting to me). See, this is how dangerous passiviphobia is. Even at a great distance from the States, I end up babbling dementedly.

Additional note (05.11.06): from one article I was reading and my own ob­serv­at­ions, 完 is something like a cross between an auxiliary verb and an inflection. Verb + 完 is different from a verb such as 拉开 (lākāi) “to separate” since I’d assume that you can have 拉开完 “finish separating”. In other words, 完 isn’t an obligatory element.

Old linguists never die. They just can’t remember the word for it

Twenty-five Years On

Although the circumstances of my life might change, I still remain interested in languages and linguistics. I have a greater aptitude for languages than most of the foreigners I’ve met here in China. I don’t kid myself that I’ll ever be fluent in Chinese. A lot of people come here thinking they’ll learn the language, but clearly have no idea what it takes to learn one.

I tend to learn bits of Chinese when I need to be able to communicate some specific piece of information. Of course, I promptly forget the word the moment I no longer have any use for it. I like to know what the characters say because so much written information goes begging in this country because the writing system is unfamiliar.

I didn’t turn up in China completely ignorant of Chinese. I knew the facts that everyone knows about Mandarin Chinese – it’s a Sino-Tibetan language; it has the largest number of speakers in the world; it’s a tone language; it’s allegedly monosyllabic; it’s written with characters; characters have radicals and stroke counts. And that was it.

What have I learnt about it since then? Well, it’s not really monosyllabic. Most words are disyllabic because the language has a very limited syllable structure  –  (C)V(N) – which means lots of potential ambiguity. The meanings of these disyllabic words can either be transparent, partly transparent, or utterly opaque. In the last instance, this means that Chinese words have spelling. weiji (危机) means “crisis”. The character wei means “danger”, but ji can mean “machine”, “aircraft”, “opportunity” etc. In other words, weiji happens to be spelt with these characters. Dongxi (东西) means “thing”, but is written with the characters for “east” and “west”. Zuoyou (左右) can mean both “vacillate” and ”control, influence”, and is written with the characters meaning “left” (zuo) and “right” (you).

The Chinese consonant system is heavy on affricates. (This is only true of standard Mandarin; most regional varieties have simplified the consonant inventory to such an extent that pinyin is wholly inaccurate.) Curiously enough, the basic set of stop consonants – labial, alveolar, and velar – are phonetically similar to English, although phonemically the languages are different. Mandarin Chinese opts for a contrast between plain and aspirated non-continuant obstruents.

Chinese has [l], but no [r], although it has a consonant that is acoustically similar, and rhotic vowels. (Japanese goes the other way with an r-like consonant, but no [l].)

The vowel system is a bit weird with centralised and back unrounded vowels, and a rhotic vowel. The realisation of the high front vowel is determined by the preceding consonant. It’s centralised after [s]; rhotacised after retroflex consonants; but otherwise [i].

Chinese does have inflectional and derivational morphology. The inflectional system is minimal, but it’s there. Nouns have a possessive form and verbs tend to take temporal and aspectual particles. In fact, it might even be possible that there are a few more nominal inflections, even if they aren’t analysed in that way. Adjectives are actually stative verbs. And prepositions are verbs of a sort as well. Chinese word classes tend to be a little nebulous.

Syntax is SVO with some SOV-like elements. Locative phrases come first in the clause. There is a ba-construction (把) which places the direct object at the start of the sentence. There’s not much co-ordination, or even subordination. The existential verb is you (有) “is/are; have”. Chinese uses measure words (a little like “piece” in “a piece of paper”), although their range of use is often restricted and there’s the all-purpose measure word ge (个). But just to be quirky, the Chinese word for “two” when you count two things is liang (e.g. liang ge piao “two tickets” 两个票), but er (二) “two” when counting.

18.06.13. Edited the HTML, added Chinese characters, and added tags. I also added some extra information and broke up one of the longer paragraphs.