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Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Adverbial and quantifier placement

I have mentioned before several times that Chinese dialects have some very subtle differences in terms of the placement of adverbs, the most striking (and famous) of which is the adverb 先 ‘before’, which is strictly preverbal in Mandarin but postverbal in Cantonese and most southern dialects e.g.


我 先         回         家      了

I   before return home SFP


我返         屋企    先         啦

I   return home before PTC

‘I should go home first.’

The differences are clear: while in Mandarin 先 ‘before’ precedes the verb phrase (here 回家 ‘return home’), in Cantonese it comes after it (返屋企先 ‘return home first’). Please also note the dialectal correspondences here, namely most of which have been dealt with before e.g. 回家 ~ 返屋企 ‘return home’, 了 ~ 啦 ‘sentence-final particle’, which have been dealt with many times before.

A similar phenomenon applies to the placement of comparative adverbs 多 ‘more’ and 少 ‘less’, which are also preverbal in Mandarin but postverbal in Cantonese e.g.


我要      多       喝       一点  水,   少    吃   一点  肉

I  must more drink a.bit water less eat a.bit meat


我要      飲       多       啲     水,    食   少    啲     肉

I  must drink more a.bit water eat less a.bit meat

‘I must drink more water and eat less meat.’

There is a little caveat which I have noticed in my recent chat with a former pupil of mine. This pupil is from mainland China and although it was a while since I had last taught her (or even seen her), she seemed eager to practice her Cantonese with me (which is most gratifying indeed). The thing she said was:

練習        多       啦

practise more SFP

‘Practise more!’

She clearly remembered my note about adverbial placement in Chinese (again, very pleasing that my students remember my teaching, which shows that my efforts from a long time ago have not been in vain) and produced this utterance by postposing 多 ‘more’ from the Mandarin equivalent 多練習吧 ‘practise more’. However, this structure is totally ungrammatical in Cantonese since it is impossible to use 多 ‘more’ (or 少 ‘less’) in the same way as 先 ‘before’ by simply postposing it after the verb phrase (here 練習 ‘practise’). Rather, there is a very subtle difference in category between Mandarin and Cantonese 多 ‘more’ and 少 ‘less’ in that while these are preverbal adverbs in Mandarin, they are postverbal complements (i.e. objects) in Cantonese. It might seem strange to non-Chinese speakers that quantifiers denoting ‘more’/’less’ can function as verbal objects, but this is well-attested in Chinese (see Audrey Li (1985, 1990)), and in this particular example, the correct Cantonese form should be:

練            多      啲      啦

practise more a.bit SFP

‘Practise more!’

While the Mandarin equivalent would use 多 ‘more’ as a preverbal adverb (i.e. 多练一点 ‘practise (a bit) more’), Cantonese has re-categorised 多 ‘more’ as a verbal object which regularly comes after the verb (i.e. 練多啲啦 ‘practise (a bit) more’, which also applies to 少 ‘less’ i.e. 練少啲啦 ‘practise (a bit) less’). Not only then are there syntactic differences in the ordering of adverbs with respect to the verb, there are also small categorical differences which can give rise to some subtle variations between our dialects. Chinese dialectal and comparative grammar is truly astonishing.

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