Archive for the 'Grammar notes' Category

Grammar notes: 是 … 的 without the 是?

A while back, I wrote about how the 是 … 的(shì … de) construction is used for focus. I even went so far as to look it up in a grammar book, where I was informed that this construction could be used without the 是(shì). I was not the only one to find this claim a bit sketchy. So, for our further edification, here’s an example of a sentence where 的(de) is used for focus without a 是(shì).  The following two sentences are identical except for the final 的(de). (For the non-character-readers among you, please note that this is not the same character as the medial 得(de).)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘She cleaned the room until it was REALLY CLEAN.’ (focus on really clean)

房间 打扫 干干净净
fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjīngjīng
she ba room clean de clean (red.

‘She CLEANED the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on cleaned)

In the first sentence, the final 的(de) places the focus on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, the result of the action.  In the second sentence, the focus falls instead on the action itself, 打扫 (dǎsǎo) ‘clean’.  I assume that this is the natural place for the focus to fall in this sentence. The 把(bǎ), I think, takes emphasis away from 房间(fángjiān) ‘room’, and 她(tā) ‘she’ is presumably given information, so also a poor candidate for focus. So the added 的(de) in the first sentence is a focus marker; it draws the focus away from its natural placement–and in this case, at least, places it on the information that immediately precedes it.

So it looks like the book was right about one thing.  的(de) can be used for focus without a 是(shì) in sight. But is this in fact an example of a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction without the 是(shì)? If it is, then we should be able to add 是(shì) into the first sentence somewhere and (and this is the really important bit) the meaning and focus should be the same. How does our example sentence measure up? It is possible to put a 是(shì) into the sentence, but only in one location, at the beginning. The resulting sentence does have a good focus-shifting 是 … 的 (shì … de) construction. However, the focus falls, not on 干干净净(gāngānjìngjìng) ‘very clean’, as it did in the first sentence, but rather on 她(tā) ‘she’:

房间 打扫 干干净净
shì fángjiān dǎsǎo de gāngānjìngjìng de
be she ba room clean (v.) de clean (adj. red.) DE

‘SHE cleaned the room until it was really clean.’ (focus on she)

So, grammar book, I hate to say it, but I think you’ve got it only half right. There is a 是 … 的(shì … de) construction, and it is used for focus. 的(de) can also be used for focus, but it doesn’t come from an underlying 是 … 的(shì … de) construction where the 是(shì) just happens to be omitted, or at least, not always. The two might be related, but they’re not the same thing.


Grammar notes: 是…的 construction mysteries

I decided it was time to emerge from flashcard misery and keep this blog going.  So without further ado, a question from a reader that got buried in a comment section:

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?

So I have a guess about what’s going on here.  It’s probably not a random sentence–at least, so far as I know, there’s not a particle that’s pronounced ‘de’, though my knowledge of such things is pretty limited.  I think what you’ll probably find is that somewhere in the sentence, there is also a ‘shì’ that appears to be random.  They go together.  However, while I’ve noticed that this is pretty common, I too am a bit puzzled about when to use it. Here’s an example of 是 … 的 (shì … de) in action:

周二 回来
shì zhōu’èr huílái de
I am Tuesday return de

What you wouldn’t say (but might think you should say if you’re anything like me in your Mandarin proficiency, or lack thereof) is:

周二 回来
zhōu’èr huílái le
I Tuesday return le

Now there might be one other important bit of data here–when I was discussing these two sentences with some friends, the context we were talking about was an answer to a question–When did you come back? So what I can’t tell you is whether, if you were just talking about your week, whether the second one might be acceptable.

I actually looked it up in a book (!) and am told that this construction is used for focus when talking about past events. In other words, I have to use the first sentence because I’m answering a question that specifically inquired about the time I came back, so I put the focus on the day. Apparently, if I understand the book correctly, I can put the focus on pretty much anything except the verb this way.  It’s sort of like saying in English “It’s Tuesday that I came back” or “It’s me who came back on Tuesday”, except it’s far more common in Chinese than English.  (Don’t even try to convince me that you’d say “It’s I who came back on Tuesday” in anything approaching a normal conversation.)

Those of you who speak better Chinese: Is this the answer to all mysteries? Or is there more to it than this?

And as long as we’re on the topic, here are a few other questions I have no answers to:

  1. My book also says the 是 (shì) can be omitted–which makes me a little bit skeptical. If the whole point of the 是 (shì) is to tell you, by its placement in the sentence, what’s being focused, then how can you get away with deleting it?  Or would this actually just happen in speech where you use some sort of stress to show where the focus is?
  2. Why the 的(de), anyway?  This 的 is normally used to show that something is modifying a noun–it follows possessives, relative clauses, and adjectives.  I fail to see the connection.  Is there one?

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:

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?

The Karma Conjunction

In Chinese, 因为 … 所以 … (yīnwèi … suǒyǐ…) ‘because … therefore … ‘ is known as 因果连词(yīnguǒ liáncí)–the karma conjunction.  Well, ok, it’s really probably better translated as the cause and effect conjunction, but karma is the same word, and karma conjunction is much catchier.  Maybe English speakers would be more inspired to study grammar if we had more interesting names for grammatical terms.  The past perfect subjunctive (“if only I had sent her flowers, maybe she would have forgiven me.”) could be the “get over it already” mood, for example.  And I bet people would be much more likely to remember what that was than a past perfect subjunctive anyway.

Chinese: where numbers are numbers

In Chinese, numbers are numbers. Yes, I can see you all thinking to yourselves, “Brilliant insight! Now I too can speak Chinese!” But English speakers, work with me here. How many English numbers do we really treat like numbers? If I want to know how many people were at the party, I ask “How many people were at the party?” But here’s a little list of other places we use numbers:

– Age
– Page number
– Telephone number
– Floor in a building
– Time (on a clock)
– Date
– Distance

Now, how would you ask questions about these? The first thing that comes to mind for me:

How old are you?
What page are you on?
What’s your phone number?
What floor do you live on?
What time is it?
What’s the date?
How far is it?

How many ‘how many’s ? None. (For the last one, you could say “How many miles is it?” For the first one, you could ask “how many months is she?” for a baby. For the ‘what’ questions, I don’t think it’s possible. Compare Chinese, where we’re at least 6/7:

– Age: use 几(jǐ) ‘how many–for small numbers’*
– Page number: use 多少(duōshǎo) ‘how many’
– Telephone number: use 多少
– Floor in a building: use 几
– Time (on a clock): use 几*
– Date: use 几
– Distance: use 多(duō)


For age and time, other possibilities exist. You can ask about time with 什么(shénme) ‘what’. For age questions, 几 is for children. You can ask older people with 多大 (duōdà). I’m not quite sure how to translate or classify that one. It’s kind of like ‘how big’. Likewise, I’m not sure how to classify the 多 (duō) for distance, or if ‘how’ is the best translation, hence the 6/7. Is it a coincidence that the 多(duō) and 多大(duōdà) questions in Chinese correspond to the ‘how’ questions in English? They feel more adverbial to me, but of course they do because I’m an English speaker.

There’s one other exception to the “numbers are numbers” principle that I know of in Chinese–if you’re asking which year it is, you use 哪 (nǎ) ‘which’. I suppose this is because 几 is only for small numbers, and 多少 is used with time to ask about duration–how many (多少)months you’ve been in China, for example.

FAQ: Didn’t you bias your results with the examples you chose?

A: Of course I did, with the English at least. For Chinese, I’m sure there are other numbers that aren’t number-like but I don’t happen to know what they are. My point, really, is that this set of questions takes English speakers by surprise, and if you forget you’re talking about a number and use ‘what’, the Chinese person your talking to tends to be rather puzzled.

Grammar notes: 才and 就

I have to admit that most of the grammar in my current textbook isn’t highly challenging, at least not until I start asking strange questions about whether I can do x, y, and z with it. But this one made my head hurt a little. My book says 就 means something happened earlier than expected, and 才means something happened later than expected. So far, so good. Except that these words also have a bazillion other uses in Chinese, and they keep throwing me off–I keep thinking 就 is later than expected. But setting that aside, here is how it works. Let’s just suppose that the average age a child learns to speak is 2. If I say

她     两     岁     会     说话     了。
liǎng suì huì shuōhuà le。
she two years of age   able to   speak le。

It means she knew how to speak when she was 2. If I say

她     一     岁     就     会     说话 了。
yī suì jiù huì shuōhuà le。
she one years of age   jiu able to   speak le。

it means that she learned to talk when she was one, and that was earlier than expected. The sentence “She had already learned to talk when she was one.” is almost equivalent. If I say

她     三     岁     才    会     说话.
sān suì cái huì shuōhuà.
she three years of age   cai able to   speak

it means she learned to speak when she was three, and that was later than expected. I think the English sentence “She didn’t learn to speak until she was three.” is equivalent.

But here’s the confusing bit. The observant reader will notice a difference between these sentences: If I use 就(jiù),I have to use 了(le). If I use 才(cái), I can’t use 了(le). (If you don’t know what 了(le) is, it’s way too complicated to explain here. It often indicates that something is completed or that a change of state has happened.)

When I asked my teacher why, she didn’t have an explanation. It’s just our habit, she told me. (This is why linguists have jobs. Most people can’t explain why their own language does what it does.) So I thought about it more, and here’s my first theory about the reason.

Our boring sentence just tells us about one time, like this:

. . . . Learn to speak (2) . . . .

However, our other sentences are actually about two times: the explicitly mentioned age when the child learned to speak and the age the child is expected to learn to speak, which is not explicitly mentioned. Our 就 (jiù) sentence tells us this:

. . . . Learned to speak (1) . . . . Expected age of learning (2) . . . .

Our 才 (cái) sentence tells us this:

. . . . Expected age of learning (2) . . . . Learned to speak (3) . . . .

So our 就(jiù) sentence tells us that the event of learning was completed at the explicitly mentioned time, before the expected time. Our 才(cái) sentence, on the other hand, tells us that the event was completed at the explicitly mentioned time, but at the expected time, the event hadn’t been completed yet. So the 了(le) in this construction is about completion– but not with respect to the explicitly mentioned time. Our 就(jiù) sentence requires a 了(le) because the event is completed before the expected time arrives. Our 才(cái) sentence forbids a了(le) because the event isn’t completed before the expected time arrives.

For added fun, my teacher tells me that if I want to really emphasize that an event happened earlier than expected, I can add 才(cái) to a 就(jiù) sentence. This is just like the 就(jiù) sentence given above, except 才(cái) is added in before the time phrase. For this one, however, I have no explanations at all.

Grammar notes: answering questions

Here’s an example of a question-answer pair that surprised me, not for what it is, but for what it isn’t.

电影院 网站 什么?
diànyǐngyuàn de wǎngzhàn shì shénme
movie theater de website be what
What’s the movie theater’s website?

Full answer:

电影院 网站 __。
diànyǐngyuàn de wǎngzhàn shì __。
movie theater de website be __.
The movie theater’s website is __.

Shorter answer:

网站 __。
wǎngzhàn shì __。
website be __。
The website is __.

Not: *它(们)的网站是__./*它的网站是__.

*它(们) 网站 __。
tā(men) de wǎngzhàn shì __。
3 (pl) de website be __。
*Its/Their website is __.

In English, we could answer “What’s the movie theater’s website?” with “The website is __.”, but I think “Their website is __.” is better.  It’s certainly allowed.

If I were a syntactician, I could probably tell you what to make of this.  But I’m not.

Note for non-Chinese speakers: Chinese has no equivalent of ‘the’.  So the shorter answer is the equivalent of “The website is __.”



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