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Exploring the Generality and Individuality of the Chinese Language

Hiroshi Ishimura/Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Chinese Grammar Theory

1. My research

The Chinese language has a long history of several thousand years, and its grammatical system is complex and diverse. The Chinese language dates back to the era of hieroglyphic characters left on bones and tortoise carapaces in the late Shang Dynasty (13th to 11th century BC), and we can see the actual characters. My research aims to deeply examine Chinese grammatical phenomena in order to uncover the regularities inherent therein and their linguistic characteristics. Stated simply, from a grammatical perspective, I am researching the question "What kind of language is Chinese?"

2. Western grammar and Chinese complements

According to a popular theory, serious research on Chinese grammar began with Mashi Wentong, which was published by Ma Jianzhong in 1898. Mashi Wentong is the first work to discuss the Chinese grammatical system based on Western grammatical models. Most of the grammar books that were published during this period were modeled after Mashi Wentong, so the differences between Western languages and the Chinese language were not deeply considered. However, upon entering the 1940s, prominent linguists such as Wang Li and Lu Shuxiang appeared and attempts were finally made to investigate the unique grammatical system of the Chinese language. Since then, a massive number of studies have been conducted up until the present day. Despite these efforts, research in this field is still tied to the direct import of Western grammar. One example is "complements" in grammar.

Complements in Chinese differ from complements in general linguistics, and are a grammatical category that groups together grammatical components other than the object (noun component) placed after the predicate verb. This category includes things with different types and properties, such as resultative complements, simple directional complements, compound directional complements, possible complements, modal complements, degree complements, momentum complements, temporal complements, and prepositional complements. The category is so extensive that some scholars even deride complements in the Chinese language as "grammatical wastebaskets". It's no wonder that learning complements is a difficult area when studying the Chinese language. Of course, the cause of these inconveniences is not the Chinese language; rather, it lies on the side of writing. In this article, I will consider the problem with complements using the Chinese resultative construction as an example, while including a comparison with English.

3. Differences between English and Chinese

The term of resultative construction (or resultative expression) refers to a sentence in which a change in the state of an object is caused by two events in a causal relationship; in other words, a sentence expressing an action and a result. The following example is a typical resultative construction using a transitive verb to express the cause.

  a. He broke the vase to pieces.

  b. She painted the wall white.

  a. 他打碎了花瓶。 (Same as (1) a.)

  b. 她刷白了墙壁。 (Same as (1) b.)

English resultative constructions are constructed using the so-called fifth sentence pattern (SVOC). Sentence (1) a. states that the event of a man striking the vase caused the vase to shatter into pieces. Similarly, sentence (1) b. states that the event of a woman painting the wall caused the wall to turn white. The components "to pieces" and "white" that express results are called resultative predicates. On the other hand, the Chinese resultative constructions that correspond to these English words usually use a "verb + resultative complement" structure, as in sentences (2) a. and (2) b. Chinese, like English, is a language with SVO as its basic word order, but compound predicates are used in this type of resultative construction ("他打花瓶碎了" is not acceptable). A substantive word, that is, a non-volitional intransitive verb or an adjective, is used as the component that expresses the result.

When comparing typical examples, there are no major differences between Chinese and English other than word order. However, upon careful examination, you will notice that Chinese allows for combinations that are not possible in English.

  a. 小王放乱了顺序。 (Free translation: Mr. Wang messed up the order.)

  b. 邻居吵醒了孩子。 (Free translation: The neighbor was noisy and woke up the child.)

Sentence (3) a. states that Mr. Wang's act of placing certain things ("放") caused a situation in which the order of the things which had already been placed there was messed up ("乱"). Although "放" is a transitive verb, since the phrase "放顺序" (place the order) is not permitted, it functions like an intransitive verb in this sentence. Similarly, sentence (3) b. states that the neighbor made a noise ("吵") which caused the sleeping child to wake up ("醒"). Although both "吵" and "醒" are intransitive verbs, but when they are compounded, it becomes possible to place an object afterwards.

Furthermore, in Chinese, in addition to the usual combinations such as "修好" (to repair) and "洗干净" (to wash cleanly), compound predicates can be used to express even results that are the exact opposite of the purpose of an action; for example, "修坏" (to break while trying to repair) and "洗脏" (to wash and stain). The English sentence "She washed the clothes dirty" is clearly unacceptable.

Why is this kind of special combination acceptable in Chinese? This is where a change in thinking is required.

4. Formation pattern of Chinese resultative construction

As mentioned above, non-volitional intransitive verbs or adjectives are used as components expressing results in Chinese resultative constructions. These are predicate classes that have no transitive usages. In other words, the transitive verb usages corresponding to these predicates are compound predicates as exemplified above. Based on this linguistic fact, the following formation pattern can be identified in the construction in question.

  a. 碎 (to break) → V 碎 (to break up something) [×他碎了花瓶。]

  b. 白 (white) → V 白 (to whiten something) [×她白了墙壁。]

  a. 乱(messy) → V 乱 (to mess up something) [×他乱了顺序。]

  b. 醒 (awake) → V 醒 (to wake up somebody) [×邻居醒了孩子。]

With the exception of some unique expressions such as idioms, resultative components in Chinese do not have transitive usage. As in (4), if you want to use the intransitive verb "碎" (to break) or the adjective "白" (white) as a transitive verb, such as "to break up something" or "to whiten something," you must add a verb (V) to express the cause; for example, "打碎" and "刷白." Stated differently, we add a cause to the result (that is, a complement). The validity of this explanation can also be supported from the perspective of historical grammar (omitted from this article due to space limitations). Which verb is added in front of the resultative component depends on whether there is a direct causal relationship between the two events and the degree of customary use. This is why combinations such as "放乱" (to mess up after placing) and "修坏" (to break while trying to repair) are acceptable.

5. Individuality of Chinese language: Focus on result

In summary, the two predicates that compose the resultative construction in Chinese are not in a dominating-dominated relationship like in English, but in a relationship of juxtaposition (this is called a serial verb construction). The difference in the formation patterns in the resultative constructions of the two languages can be shown as follows.


The diagram above shows how we understand and verbalize events that occur in the real world from different perspectives in English and Chinese. The perspective of the English resultative construction is directed from the actor's side to the result. Resultative predicates are dominated by action verbs. In contrast to English, the direction of perspective in Chinese is from the result to the action (cause). The mechanism of syntax formation based on "complements" seems to be reflected in other important Chinese constructions as well.

The framework of complements in traditional grammar, which is already well-established, will no doubt continue to be used in the future. Still, there is room to examine the content from the individuality perspective mentioned above and discuss what supplementary words are in the true sense in Chinese. The observation that the Chinese language focuses more on the result state than on the causal action offers new possibilities for Chinese grammar research, which until now has often emphasized peculiarity that cannot be fully grasped by grammatical theories built on Western languages (mainly English).


  • Ishimura, H., 2011, Study of Chinese Resultative Constructions: From the Perspective of Serial Verb Constructions, Tokyo: Hakuteisha.
  • Kageyama, T., 1996, Verb Semantics: At the Interface of Language and Cognition, Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers.
  • Tai, James. 1984. "Verbs and Times in Chinese: Vendler's Four Categories," Papers from the Parasession on Lexical Semantics, 289-96. Chicago Linguistic Society.

Hiroshi Ishimura/Professor, Faculty of Letters, Chuo University
Area of Specialization: Chinese Grammar Theory

Hiroshi Ishimura was born in Tokyo. He graduated from the Faculty of Letters, Keio University in 1992. In 1998, he completed the Master’s Program in the Graduate School of Humanities, Tokyo Metropolitan University. In 2008, he completed the Doctoral Program in the Department of Linguistics, Graduate School of Arts and Letters, Tohoku University. He holds a Ph.D. in literature. He served as a Full-Time Lecturer and Assistant Professor (then Associate Professor) at Seijo University and an Associate Professor and Professor at Nishogakusha University before assuming his current position in 2011.

His current research themes are the inheritance relationship between ancient and modern languages in Chinese from a typological perspective.

His major research achievements include “动结式的致使意义和使动用法的双音化 (The Causative meaning of the Chinse Resultative Construction and Disyllabification of Unmarked Causative Usage),” Contemporary Linguistics, 2016, Number 3 (中文精品学术期刊双语数据库收录论文), “汉语动结式在语言类型上的两面性——从藏缅语的自动和使动的对立谈起 (Duality in the Linguistic Typology of Chinese Resultative Constructions: From the Viewpoint of the Non-causative and Causative Alternation in the Tibeto-Burman Languages),” Chinese Teaching in the World, 2019, Number 4 (中国人民大学复印报刊资料《语言文字学》收录论文), and more.