top of page

My Blog (WordPress)

Follow me on Tumblr        or WordPress        or find my related stories on Medium 

  • Tumblr Social Icon

Keith Tse


  • Writer's pictureKeith Tse

Chinese clausal configurations

It is a difficult task teaching Chinese to foreigners, though not impossible. Over the years, my aim has been to make Chinese grammar (both Mandarin and Cantonese) as accessible as possible to non-Chinese speakers, and I have come up with this constructional schema which I have argued underlies all Chinese/Sinitic varieties (see The Sino-Tibetan Languages by Graham Thurgood and Randy La Polla (2003) for a comprehensive review):


Some of these technical grammatical terms need brief explanations: COMP stands for complementiser, which consists of sentence-initial (or sentence-final, as in head-final languages e.g. Japanese) particles that generally express clausal force e.g. English that (declarative), because (causal), when (temporal) etc, and these types of words are also clause-initial in Chinese e.g. 因為 ‘because’, 但是 ‘but’, 所以 ‘and so’, 當 ‘when’, 然後 ‘afterwards’. Chinese also has a common word order in the form of S(ubject)-V(erb)-O(bject) (like English), and the clause-internal word order is fairly transparent: T stands for Tense and AUX stands for auxiliary, which, in the case of Chinese, represents modal auxiliaries (cf English can, may, should, would, could etc). While T and AUX are consistently preverbal, ASP(ect) markers tend to be postverbal as they are suffixed to the main verb (V), and the three main ones in Mandarin are了 (perfective), 過 (experiential), 著 (durative). The two adverbial (ADV) slots also need to be differentiated, as in Chinese there are two types of adverbs which are sharply distinguishable in terms of syntactic position: preverbal adverbial modifiers (ADV1) tend to denote circumstances, let it be temporal and locational, whereas postverbal adverbs (ADV2) express extent, manner and result and are realised as objects of the main verb which may require a second occurrence of the verb to license them. Finally, there are numerous sentence-final particles (SFP) throughout Chinese dialects which are tagged onto the end of the sentence. To illustrate this underlying word order, here are a couple of examples:

因爲                       妳                 想                   跟     他                  一起                       走        吧

yinwei                  ni                 xiang             gen   ta                  yiqi                       zou      ba

because (COMP) you (SUBJ) want (MOD) with him (ADV1) together (ADV1) go (V) (SFP)

‘… because you want to go together with him, I guess.’

他              在  家裏                          唱           歌                唱-了                        好久

ta              zai jiali                          chang    ge                chang-le                  haojiu

he (SUBJ) at  home-LOC (ADV1) sing (V) song (OBJ) sing-PERF (V-ASP) long.time (ADV2)

‘He sang for a very long time at home.’

I have mentioned numerous dialectal variations before e.g. preverbal (Mandarin)/postverbal (Cantonese + southern) adverb 先 ‘before’ and 多 ‘more’ / 少 ‘less’, different uses of verbal affixesoverlapping uses of quantificational 都/也, polysemous 得, sentence-final particles, but all such microvariations can be mapped onto this constructional schema, which makes this an extremely powerful tool for the language teaching/learning of Chinese, whether it be Mandarin or any regional variety.

There is a corresponding structural configuration in the Chinese nominal domain, which, as mentioned in a previous post, is as follows:


DEM stands for demonstrative, which, in addition to definiteness, denote spatial relations (proximal, distal e.g. English this, that respectively), and numbers (NUM) (cardinal (e.g. one, two, three etc) and ordinal (e.g. first, second, third etc)) and quantifiers (Q) (e.g. few, some, several) come immediately after them. CL represents classifiers, which are a major word class in Chinese and are used in all noun phrases (both countable and non-countable). MOD here stands for any form of modification, which may be adjectival or clausal (e.g. relative clauses) and DE is termed as an adnominaliser which comes lowest on the nominal spine just above the main noun (N) e.g.

這                    兩                本    我們           昨天                            買           的  書

zhe                 liang           ben women     zuotian                      mai       de  shu

these (DEM) two (NUM) CL   we (SUBJ) yesterday (T/ADV1) buy (V) DE book (N)

‘these two books which we bought yesterday’

那                    幾           個 剛                           出           牢                  的   犯人

na                   ji            ge gang                      chu        lao                 de  fanren

those (DEM) few (Q) CL (ADV1) exit (V) prison (OBJ) DE prisoner (N)

‘those prisoners who have just gone out of prison’

These are also dialectal variations here in the nominal domain, namely southern classifiers which can stand independently as the uppermost determiner or as possessive markers in place of the adnominaliser, marker of number (plurality) in personal pronouns, but these are also underlied by the schema above which puts it on a par with the clausal spine above in terms of universality and usefulness.

The structural complexities of Chinese dialects/Sinitic varieties are hence astounding, since for all the microvariations which exist between varieties, there is an underlying system which is quite regular and consistent, and it is on these types of schemata that Chinese dialectal grammar is based. Spectacular.

1 view0 comments


bottom of page