Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety

13 Oct 2008

你中文说得很好! You speak Chinese very well.

This is a compliment paid nearly every person with the guts to try out his spoken Mandarin skills in China. All you gotta do is try.

But the simple sentence above contains a grammar pattern which students of Mandarin Chinese take quite some time getting the hang of. Translating word for word, a beginner student will take this English sentence:

> You speak Chinese very well.

…and render it as this sentence:

> ×中文

Unfortunately, in Mandarin Chinese this sentence is ungrammatical. This pattern, fine in English, is all broken in Chinese:

> ×Noun + Verb + Object + [Modifier of Verb]

There are two solutions to this brokenness in Chinese:

#1 Repeat the Verb

That object between the verb and its modifier breaks a sacred connection. You can’t do it. But while you can’t break the connection, you can simply duplicate the verb:

> 中文

> Noun + (Verb + Object) + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

Voila! Connection preserved. You just have to get used to duplicating the verb, which, to a speaker of English, seems mighty unnecessary.

#2 Move the Object

As mentioned above, you can’t break the sacred verb-modifier connection. So why not move the object? This totally works, and it’s usually moved to right after the subject:

> 中文

> Noun + Object + (Verb + [Modifier of Verb])

This is just really awkward for a beginner student. Why do you have to put the object before the verb? It seems really weird. Well, you don’t have to. You can also duplicate the verb. But that feels awkward too.

This pattern is so common, however, that it cannot be ignored. The more input the student gets, the more he sees that (a) Chinese people just don’t say it the way I really, really want to say it, and (b) Chinese people use these other two sentence patterns instead. It seems to me that given the choice between the two awkwardnesses, this is how the linguistic drama tends to unfold over time:

1. Broken sentences following the forbidden pattern
2. Experimentation with the verb duplication workaround
3. Attempts to use the verb duplication workaround exclusively
4. Reluctant acceptance of the object-movement workaround
5. Relative verb-object-modifier harmony

These are just my own observations, but apparently the verb duplication seems easier, while the object moving is actually more common in the casual Chinese of native speakers (although both are common).

How about you? Are you in the midst of this syntactic anguish? Do you remember being there once?

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. 谢谢,您中文教书嘚很好!
    I hope I said that right . 🙂

  2. hitokiri6993 Says: October 13, 2008 at 11:01 pm

    So, is this ok? 嘿, 你的台灣話說的不太好。

  3. @Melissa: 谢谢! Very close: 您中文教得很好!

    @hitokiri6993: It’s fine, but to follow the exact same pattern I laid out above, you can drop the 的 at the beginning: 嘿, 你台灣話說得不太好。

  4. Thanks to the wisdom of my first tutor, I avoided much of this particular syntactic drama. I spent my first month studying Chinese working on pronunciation, repeating a lot of structures I wouldn’t “learn” until much later. By the time I got to the grammar, it already sounded more natural the right way.

  5. Oops! I’m ok with the pattern, but learning audio faster than written Chinese (yay chinesepod!) means I was assuming that the 得 was the same as 的. Thanks for inadvertently showing me otherwise!

  6. I don’t think I ever really used the first, wrong one, since I never got to speak to an actual Chinese until after I got all this down. But I think I still have this problem with loads of other structures.

    As an aside, I normally don’t say things like this but since this is a post about language: it’s voila (from French ‘there it is’) not viola (flower? violin?).

  7. I don’t think I’ve ever tried complimenting someone’s Chinese before, so I never really thought about it, but I did notice the weird pattern before, just never really tried to put it to use in this particular manner. I think I noticed it whenever someone complimented someone else’s playing in “Secret.”

  8. I learned these two patterns really late – when I bought my first grammar book. Interestingly, only after I became aware of how often they are used. I seem to have a filter that blocks everything I don’t know. 😉

    Unfortunatelly, when speaking Chinese real-time, the pattern-parser often cannot follow and I make the most silly and basic mistakes (and, by the way, fall back to stoneage Elementary vocab).

    Sidenote: This is the type of drug I would love to see in a QW, by the way, and have a quazillion of tough exercises on.

  9. @Melissa:
    I’m very intrigued by this 错别字: 嘚 dē – 嘚勒 to nag. I’ve never seen it before, and it’s very rare (according to my dictionary). How did you ever manage to enter it?
    @hitokiri6993:
    John neglected to point out a very common mistake you made (in written Chinese, although when he copied it, he silently corrected it). You used “的” where you should have used “得”.

    I remember when I first came across this construction, and it reminded me of reverse-polish notation of some early HP calculators. (I guess I’m showing my age by admitting this.) It’s an elegant and often more efficient way of entering formulas, and I had just read something about Chinese being a topic-comment grammar, and so I was impressed.

    The examples you give are all very simple, but what still gives me trouble is when trying to use v-o words with objects and modifiers. Like, using “见面”, how do you say “I met him a long time ago”? I want to say “我很久以前见过他的面”, but I don’t have much confidence.

  10. @Lu: Ah, yes. Voila. My bad.

    @Klortho: I think the trick is knowing when to use the Noun+Verb combo and when to use the Verb alone. In your example, it would be best just to say, “我很久以前见过他.”

  11. I learnt this as a kid. The benefits of growing up in a bilingual family!

  12. My Chinese is pretty rudimentary, but I never really had a problem with this construction. I always just thought of it as a TOPIC – COMMENT sentence pattern and moved on. I’m sure I get tripped up on anything more complex than a simple sentence though.

  13. 你啤酒喝很快。

    Like this?

  14. “Noun + Verb + Object + [Modifier of Verb]” is confusing in Chinese because it is hard to tell whether the modifer is modifying just the verb or the whole sentence. E.g., the example can mean “it is good that you speak chinese” or “you speak chinese very well”.

  15. Ahh I think I made a mistake there, don’t have the Hanzi IME here at work so I will do in pinyin. I realised after I left home that I had made the mistake, as I was tossing the rule around in my head. I think it should be:

    ni pijiu he de hen kuai

    or

    ni he pijiu he hen kuai

    I definitely prefer the first way more than the second because it makes more gramatical sense than the second way with the two verbs.

  16. @Klortho: If I type in “de,” I do get “嘚” as a possibility. Since it looks like “得” except for the addition of the mouth radical, I think it’d be pretty easy to accidentally choose “嘚” instead of “得,” though I have no idea when you’d actually need to use “嘚.” I guess the designers of Microsoft thought it was important enough to include it.

  17. Sometimes this pattern adds a lot more emphasis to what you’re trying to say, especially when the verb & object go together a little more naturally – what I mean is when the object is almost always paired with the same verb. For example:

    你放屁放得很香
    is way better than
    你屁放得很香

    Sure, there are other verbs you can match with it like 吃, but the most common verb paired with it sounds better with the first structure.

  18. Ha. I think that’s part of the Mandarin student China initiation/hazing, along with asking new 美国人 students “你是哪国人?” and all personal-space-invading sidewalk conversations (yesterday afternoon our neighbourhood bike repairman was feeling my arm hair before we both pulled down our shirt to compare chest hair).

  19. I never had a problem because I did pimsluer mandarin as a beginner. After that, anything except for the mentioned grammer patterns feels unnatural.

  20. I’m reading 你中文 as the subject in the second sentence. The counter-intuitive thing here is recasting the object as the subject, no?

  21. 我有不概念什麼你是講關於.

  22. I learned the “#2 Move the Object” method first, and when I learned the duplicated verb version I thought it was a total waste. I absolutely adore the construction — it’s something English should really borrow. Maybe a contraction of “to the point of” — “he flipped out 得 totally destroying the hotel room.”

  23. i just kinda accepted the different order early on. never really though of it as a problem. but i’ve studied languages that aren’t SVO before so that’s probably a big part of it.

    but verb duplication, well, that’s just absurd.

  24. I don’t recall ever having any trouble with this, but then again, like others, previous language learning experience probably helped. And like all of us, I’ve definitely screwed it up in real life conversation more than a few times. But I never really thought of these as two separate constructions. For some reason, perhaps the textbook I had at the time, I always thought of these two as essentially the same construction, just that there was the possibility of dropping the first iteration of the verb.

  25. @Jeremy: Ha, nice example! You get told that a lot? 🙂

    @trevelyan: This is the maddening thing about Chinese grammar: there’s no one way to look at it. Typically the topic-comment analysis comes into play (as Jon mentions). You can say that 你 is the subject and 中文 is the topic, or you can take 你(的)中文 as one big topic.

    In a more traditional Chinese grammar approach, you could look at it as a 主谓谓语句, where 你 is the subject and 中文说得很好 is the predicate. That makes 你 the 大主语 and 中文 the 小主语.

    This kind of grammatical analysis is pretty boring and unhelpful, in my opinion, beyond opening your eyes to the fact that “subject-predicate” analysis in the traditional Western tense doesn’t tend to work too well for Chinese grammar.

  26. Another use of that structure could be:

    她做饭做得很不错

  27. I learned this in America where I studied under an American teacher in a Chinese class. Does that even make sense? he was an American with a French name but perfect Chinese and a Japanese wife… anyway…that is the best way to learn it I think… learn it in your native language, learn it well, practice it, hear it a billion times… then it will be natural…

  28. I never had a problem with object-verb constructions like the one mentioned as well as ba (把) constructions. I use these constructions quite often. Even when I studied Japanese, object-verb seemed fairly natural for me.

    Other parts of the language I have had problems internalizing, such as putting 没and了 together. (You can’t say 我没去了, but you can say “我没去北京了!”)

  29. Thanks John! Your blog entry ignites my passion for my own language. I am just not sure how long it will last….

  30. I do my best when studying Chinese to relate it to my native language as frequently as possible…just doing my best to “accept” it for how it’s said and not question it. Then again, I’m not studying it from a linguist’s perspective, I just want to be functional.

  31. Lorean in standard Chinese you cannot say 我没去了。You can say 我不去, 我没去,which have different meanings with the first one indicates denial or I do not have this intention to go and the latter just the simple fact I didn’t go. If you desperately want to tag 了 along, you have to say 我一个星期没去了 or 我不去了,which again have different meanings….

  32. You can also say “我没去过.” “了” just isn’t the right particle in that sentence, since you’re saying that you “haven’t gone.” So, if you haven’t been to Beijing, it would be “我没去过北京。”

  33. I’m not following the “move the object” grammatical explanation in the original post.

    I understand that both

    你說中文說得很好 and

    你 中文說得很好

    are both grammatical, but I always assumed that the shorter construction was a simplification- not a different grammar pattern. I didn’t know that an object had moved, I thought the first verb was simply dropped. Like in the way that all languages (especially in speech) will delete parts of the sentences which are sufficiently obvious to everyone.

    Also, can you recommend a grammar reference book for an intermediate learner of Chinese that is practical enough for general communication (not overly academic)?

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