Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
- This article describes the grammar of Standard Mandarin. For the grammars of other forms of Chinese, see their respective articles.
All Chinese dialects share a similar grammar system, different from those employed by other language families. All words have only one grammatical form, as the language lacks conjugation, declension, or any inflection at all (there are minor exceptions). Concepts like plural or past tense are expressed in a syntactical way.
Tenses are not indicated grammatically; their tense is clarified with adverbs of time ("yesterday", "later") or aspect particles or prepositions (such as 了, 在, 要; le, zài, yào respectively in Mandarin) indicating completion of an action or change of state (along with several other context-dependent meanings). Particles are also used to form questions; the syntax of a question is exactly the same as a declarative statement (basically Subject Verb Object) with only the appended particle, such as 吗 (ma) in Mandarin, making it a question. Similarly, the plural is not indicated grammatically except in pronouns and polysyllabic nouns referring to people.
Because of the lack of inflections, Chinese grammar may appear quite simple compared to that of the Romance languages to a speaker who is used to inflected languages. However, Chinese displays a very high level of complexity in its syntax (the arrangement and structuring of words into sentences).
Chinese is considered to be a topic-prominent language, where the topic of the sentence (defined as "old" information whereupon the sentence is based) takes precedence in the sentence. For example, the following sentences do not seem to follow normal subject-first word order, but adhere perfectly to the topic-comment structure:
本 书 我 看 过 了。 [這本書我看過了。]
This book I have read.
院 子 里 停 着 一 辆 车。 [院子裏停著一輛車。]
In the yard is parked a car.
今 天 爬 山， 明 天 野 营。 [今天爬山，明天野營。]
Today climb mountains, tomorrow camp outdoors.
游 泳 我 最 拿 手。
Swim[ming] I am the best.
Aspect is a feature of grammar that gives information about the temporal flow of language. Chinese has a unique complement of aspects: for example, there are two perfectives, 了 (-le) and 过 [過] (-guo) which subtly differ in meaning.
- le (perfective)
我 当 了 兵。 [我當了兵。]
I became a soldier (and I still am).
他 看 了 三 场 球 赛。 [他看了三場球賽。]
He watched three ballgames (and he probably will watch many more during his lifetime).
- guo (experiential perfective)
我 当 过 兵。 [我當過兵。]
I've been a soldier before (but no longer am).
他 看 过 三 场 球 赛。 [他看過三場球賽。]
He has watched three ballgames (and that is the sum of all the ballgames he has ever watched.)
The two imperfectives, 正在 (zhèngzài-) and 着 [著] (-zhe) also differ in nuance:
- zhèngzài/zài (dynamic)
我 正 在 挂 画。 [我正在挂畫。]
I'm hanging pictures up. (The "hanging" is a continuous dynamic event.)
- zhe (static)
墙 上 挂 着 一 幅 画。 [墻上挂著一幅畫。]
A picture's hanging on the wall. (The "hanging" is a continuous current state.)
In other words, if the sentence could be sensibly phrased with "in the middle of", then zhèngzài is probably needed; otherwise, zhe. So, "I'm [in the middle of] hanging pictures up" is zhèngzài, but "A picture's [in the middle of] hanging on the wall" is zhe.
- Reduplication is used to form the delimitative aspect — an action that goes on for a little bit:
我 到 公 园 走 走。 [我到公園走走。]
I'm going for a walk in the park.
Another category of devices unique to Chinese are the modal particles, used to express mood, or an expression of how a statement relates to reality and/or intent. Among them, the most important are:
- Le (inceptive)
我 没 有 钱 了。
As of now, I have no money. (I've gone broke.)
- Ne (pending) — frequently co-ordinates with 还 hái (still)
他 还 没 有 回 家 呢。
He still has not returned home. (There has been no change in the old situation)
The perfective le and the inceptive le are two different words. The Chinese linguist Y.R. Chao (Zhào Yuánrèn) traces the two "le" back to two entirely different words. The fact that they are now written the same way in Mandarin can cause confusion. Consider the following sentence:
The aspect marker le comes after a transitive or intransitive verb. The modal particle le comes at the end of a sentence and governs the entire sentence. When an intransitive verb comes at the end of a sentence, then the only way to determine whether the le at the end of the sentence is perfective or inceptive is to look at the social context. The sentence given above can have two different meanings. In one case, someone is perhaps engaged in a long distance telephone call with Mother. He is trying to convince her to travel to where he is for some celebration. He hangs up the phone and says, "Māma (yào) lái le!" That sentence gives the information that Mother had not previously agreed to travel here, but the situation has changed and she will be coming after all. If, however, there is a knock on the front door and someone who has gone to answer the door shouts, "Māma lái le!" it means that she has come.
Serial Verb Constructions
Serial verb construction is a basic feature of Chinese grammar, in which two or more verbs are concatenated together. Also known as verb stacking, serial verb construction typically manifests itself in two ways: verbal complements, which appear after the main verb, and coverbs, which appear before the main verb.
Chinese sentences typically concern themselves greatly with the result and direction of a verb, where applicable. Because of this, Chinese has developed powerful grammatical machinery which facilitates the construction of sentences that supply this information. Western texts concerning themselves with Chinese grammar sometimes refer to this as double verbs.
Essentially, the active verb of a sentence is suffixed with a second verb which indicates either the result of the first action, or the direction in which it took the subject. When such information is appropriate, it is generally mandatory.
Complement of Result
A complement of result comes in two flavors: one indicates an absolute outcome, and the other a possible or likely outcome. To illustrate, the verb 聽 [听] (tīng, to listen) will serve as the active verb, and 懂 (dǒng, to understand, to know) will serve as the complement of result.
- 聽懂 [ 听懂]
To understand (something you hear)
Positive absolute complement of result
- 沒聽懂 [ 没听懂]
To have not understood (something you hear)
Negative absolute complement of result
Note that the existance of an absolute complement of result forces the active verb into the perfective aspect, as discussing the absolute result of an unfinished action would be meaningless — hence the use of 沒 [没] (méi) to negate the verb.
- 聽得懂 [ 听得懂]
To be able to understand (something you hear)
Positive possible complement of result
This form is equivalent in meaning to 能聽懂 [ 能听懂]
- 聽不懂 [ 听不懂]
To be unable to understand (something you hear)
Negative possible complement of result
Note that the result is negated in this construction, not the active verb, and that the use of 不 (bù), not 沒 [ 没] is required because the resulting action, being only a possibility, can obviously not be in a completed state.
The complement of result is a tremendously powerful construction, and is used frequently in Chinese. Expressions such as 餓死了 [饿死了] (è sǐ le, literally: hungry-die-PF, meaning (I'm) starving) and 氣死了 [ 气死了] (qì sǐ le, literally: mad-die-PF, meaning (I'm) angry to death) pepper the language. Further, it is possible to analyze many of the aspect suffixes from the perspective of a complement of result; for example, 了 (le) means "finished", so it makes sense that placing it after the verb should force the active verb's aspect into the perfective. The similarity ends there, though, as it is impossible to, for example, construct an possible complement using 了 (le), although it is possible to do so with 了 (liǎo) (same character, different sound). Although this latter reading has the same meaning as the former in principle, in a complement of result it simply indicates inability with some verbs (for example, 受不了, to be unable to stand something or someone, as in "I can't stand it!"). This use of the complement of result (to simply negate certain verbs) is quite common. Those verbs which can be negated with a complement of result often must be negated with a complement of result.
Sometimes, idiomatic phrases develop using the complement of result that seem to have no relation whatsoever to the result in question. For example, the phrases 看不起, 對不起 [ 对不起], and 買不起 [ 买不起] all use 起 (qǐ, to rise up) as their complement of result, but their meanings (to look down upon, to appologize, and to be unable to afford, respectively) are not obviously related to that character's actual meaning.
- 他把盤子打破了。 [ 他把盘子打破了。]
literal: he OBJ-plate hit-break-PF.
He hit/dropped the plate, and it broke.
(double-verb where the second verb, "break", is a suffix to the first, and indicates what happens to the object as a result of the action.)
- 這部電影我看不懂。 [ 这部电影我看不懂。]
literal: This movie I look-no-understand.
I can't understand this movie (even though I watched it.)
(double-verb as well, where the second verb, "understand", suffixes the first and clarifies the possibility and success of the relevant action.)
Complement of Direction
The direction of an action that moves must typically be specified. At the its simplest, the two directional complements 去 (qù, to go) and 來 [ 来] (lái, to come) may be affixed to the end of a verb to indicated that it moves somehow away or towards the speaker, respectively. These may be compounded with other verbs that further specify the direction, such as 上去 (shàng qù, to ascend), 過來 [ 过来] (gùo lái, to come over), which may then be themselves affixed to a verb (such as 走過去 [ 走过去], zǒu gùo qù, to walk over). Typically, these are only found in an absolute form, although counter-examples of course exist (起不來床 [ 起不来床], to be unable to get up out of bed). Another example:
- 他走上來了。 [ 他走上来了。]
literal: he walk-up-close-PF.
He came up (by walking).
(directional suffixes indicating "up" and "close".)
Some serial verb constructions have verbs that take noun phrases in order to express many of the relationships that are expressed by prepositions in English. The verbs that typically convey the meaning of the associated prepositions are called coverbs. For instance:
literally: I help you find him.
I will find him for you.
The coverb phrase, "help you" (bāng nǐ), is used in conjunction with the main verb "find" (zhǎo) and functions the same way as the English prepositional phrase, "for you," in this context.
Certain verbs in Chinese can function as coverbs, taking on a idiomatic prepositional meaning. For instance, when used as a standalone verb, 到 (dào) means "to arrive." However, when used as a coverb, it can mean "to." Many coverbs are often used only in their prepositional sense, such as 从 (cóng), which is almost always seen as a coverb meaning "from." Here is an example showing a serial verb construction involving several coverbs:
literally: I sit airplane originate Shanghai arrive Beijing travel.
I travel from Shanghai to Beijing by airplane.
Because coverbs essentially function as prepositions, they are often referred to as prepositions, even though they are lexically verbs.
Counters (or measure words / unitary)
Main article: Chinese measure word
Finally, Chinese nouns require "counters" (or "Unitary") in order to be counted. Hence one must say 兩頭牛 [ 两头牛 ] "two head of cattle", not two cows, with 頭 [ 头 ] "head" being the "unitary", or unit of measurement, or measure word. There are dozens, if not hundreds of counters in Chinese and these must be memorized individually for each noun.
Parts of speech:
- Yuen Ren Chao [Zhao Yuanren 趙元任]: A grammar of spoken Chinese, Zhongguohua de wenfa 中國話的文法 (Berkeley etc., University of California Press 1968).
- Charles N. Li, Sandra A. Thompson: Mandarin Chinese, A functional reference grammar (Berkeley etc., University of California Press 1981).
- Lü Shuxiang 呂叔湘: Zhongguo wenfa yaolüe 中國文法要略 (Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館 1957).
- Wang Li 王力: Zhongguo xiandai yufa 中國現代語法 (Zhonghua shuju 中華書局; 1955).
- Yip Po-Ching [Ye Buqing 葉步青], Don Rimmington: Chinese, A Comprehensive Grammar (Routledge Grammars; Routledge, 2004), ISBN 0415150329.
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