Our verb phrase is not like your verb phrase

I learned the word for verb phrase in Chinese the other day.  (For the curious, it’s 动词短语/dòngcí duǎnyǔ.) We were talking about where to put a time phrase in a sentence where the the event is described with a verb-noun compound, such as 开车(kāichē) ‘to drive (= open + vehicle) ‘or 看书(kànshū) ‘to read a book (= look + book)’.  The trick with these sentences is that, if you want to talk about how long an event lasts, the phrase goes between the verb and the noun, so the sentence “I read a book for an hour” is translated as 我看了一个小时的书:

小时
kàn le xiǎoshí   de shū
I look   le   one   CLS   hour de   book

There are a few things about this structure that might pique the interest of a syntactician, I suspect, such as what the 的 is doing there and why the time phrase ends up in the middle of what we thought was a compound word.  If I have any brilliant insight about those, I’ll be sure to dedicate another post to it.  (If you have any brilliant insight into them, feel free to leave a comment!)  But, back on topic, what is the verb phrase in this sentence?  Since I’m asking the question in English, I think the answer must be 看了一个小时的书(kànle yī gè xiǎoshí de shū)–although it’s been a long time since I took syntax, and maybe there’s a fancy way of analyzing it so it’s not all in the verb phrase.  However, in Chinese, the term verb phrase is apparently used outside of technical linguistics analyses, and if I asked instead what the 动词短语 was, the answer, I’m told, would be 看书(kànshū). Does anyone know if this is also the way the term is used in formal syntax in Chinese? And do we have a name to describe this kind of verb-thing-that’s-not-a-word-and-not-a-phrase in English?

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6 Responses to “Our verb phrase is not like your verb phrase”


  1. 1 Confused LaoWai May 25, 2010 at 8:46 pm

    Interesting post. I’m studying General Linguistics, so I don’t have much knowledge on Sinolinguistics per say, but we just did some modules on morphology and compounding. I think, what happens here is that 看书 is a compound, but it can also be seen as a syntactic phrase. Similiar to idioms I guess.

    Thus, compounding in Chinese, here a verb+noun, lends itself to syntactic analysis, in the same way we could say, “I read a book” “我看一本书” the verb phrase or compounding is more open to syntactic modification.

    However, don’t take my word on this. I’m just spitballing here.
    I also posted this up on http://socialmandarin.com

    • 2 Katie Tang May 27, 2010 at 9:56 am

      I think you’re right–that’s actually the view many syntacticians take about compounds in any language, is that they have internal syntactic structure. They’re just usually a little more stuck together than they are in Chinese. (Same thing with idioms, I guess–they typically follow the syntactic structure of the language, and they can even be modified grammatically sometimes, but once you start adding words, you typically lose the idiom.)

  2. 3 jp 吉平 May 25, 2010 at 11:40 pm

    I was trying to get to the bottom of some analysis using my Jedi linguistics skills, but I found that my Chinese teaching colleagues had a totally different way of looking at their sentences. For example, they told me that 今天 was a noun, specifically a “time noun.”

    I said, really? It looks like an adverb to me, modifying the verb. And they said “no” and were embarrassed for me. And I said, if it’s a noun, it should be able do noun things, like be the subject or object of a verb, or maybe have a plural, or perhaps be modified by and adjective. They just said “it’s a time noun.” And looked away, disgusted with me.

    At that point I realized their analysis of sentence constituents and even parts of speech were radically different from mine; we didn’t even have any common ground there.

    The only other American linguist I knew in Shanghai had gotten his degree in the Chinese system. I said something to him once about the language acquisition instinct and he said “aha! you’re a chomskian!” And I said, yes, duh, I’m American, and it says right on my resume that I studied Minimalist Syntax… and I actually studied linguistics, not cognitive science or anthro… That’s when it dawned on me that his preparation at the Chinese university considered Chomsky to be outside of the norm. I didn’t talk to him much after that, I just kind of looked away and tried not to look ashamed for him…

    I guess the moral of this story is that it was hard for me to find a “common language” with people when talking about Mandarin, because of my cultural biases and theirs.

    • 4 Katie Tang May 26, 2010 at 8:10 pm

      Nice story :) I guess I’m not so surprised to hear this–I’ve tried reading some of the stuff Chinese phonologists write (in English, not Chinese), and I have to say it’s pretty painful for me to read a phonological analysis of a non-Sinitic language in Chinese terminology–what happened to the entering tone, and so forth. (What entering tone??? This isn’t Chinese!)

      Still, if your Jedi linguistics skills give you anything, let me know. I’m sure a good Google scholar search would give me something, but what would be the fun of that?

  3. 5 staples May 28, 2010 at 3:42 pm

    Question for all you amazing people:
    I’ve noticed that Taiwanese speakers (and maybe others) tack “de”s onto the ends of random sentences. I asked a Chinese friend what the rule for that was and she couldn’t say. So I thought “meh. I’ll just use it when it sounds right.” But according to her, my knowledge of a sentence sounding “right” is about as limited as the Royal Family’s gene pool. So is there a rule to this?
    Thanks!


  1. 1 Grammar notes: 是…的 construction mysteries « The (y)east also rises Trackback on June 5, 2010 at 8:03 pm

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