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:
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:
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:
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:
- Broken sentences following the forbidden pattern
- Experimentation with the verb duplication workaround
- Attempts to use the verb duplication workaround exclusively
- Reluctant acceptance of the object-movement workaround
- 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?