Say It Right Series
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Why I don't believe in separable verbs

Posted by simonpettersson July 31, 2010 in the Group General Discussion.


This discussion started in the QW episode about separable words. I thought I'd start a new discussion for us grammatically inclined. I've been thinking about the issue overnight and here are my thoughts.

The grammar explanation as presented in QW is false. It's a lie, curtesy of Ockham's razor. There's a simpler explanation that accounts for the facts, which means that the more complex explanation is false. This simpler explanation is that bigrams like "帮忙" and "结婚" are not in fact words but two-word expressions. This explanation means that no special rules need to be invented to explain their behavior; they behave just as one would expect if they were two-words expressions.

This, of course, doesn't mean the "separable verb" explanation not useful. It can be a useful lie. The concept of "separable verbs" seems to be defined by its relation to English (and a Google search on "离合次" mostly turns up results about teaching Mandarin to foreigners), so it figures that it can be useful to English speakers who are learning Mandarin. This site is dedicated to teaching Mandarin to English speakers and not to accurate linguistic theory about the language. I have no beef with CPod about their lesson, which I thought was great, and it obviously helped people.

Turning about once again (if this post seems to be flailing wildly, that's just to keep you on your toes), I would, however, argue that thinking of these expressions as single words is NOT, in fact, useful, and is not going to make your Chinese as fluent as it would be with the two-word explanation.

If it's not useful, how come so many people on the QW discussion page claim the lesson helped them so much? I think that's because they were already thinking of these expressions as single words. CPod, the dictionary and The Man have been teaching these expressions as if they were single words. Learners were confused because they didn't behave as other words do. When the special rules were introduced, they say "Ah, that explains it. There are special rules!" An analogous situation would be a child brought up thinking of crocodiles as mammals. She's confused because crocodiles lay eggs, which mammals generally don't. Her mum then explains that crocodiles are special mammals that don't look like other mammals. That's why they lay eggs. This explanation satisfies the child, despite being false. (Please don't drag platypuses into this. It's just an analogy.)

Now then, why would I argue that this isn't a useful classification that will benefit your Mandarin, when even John (whom I will admit is far superior to me in both Mandarin and linguistics) says it will? Three reasons:

1: As I've already said, people without an explanation tends to think of these as single words. Thus, this explanation will make your Mandarin better than having no explanation would. This is why John says it will make your Chinese more fluent. It will, but that doesn't mean that another explanation won't make it even better.

2: I've seen many people on this webpage talk about how it's important to "think in Chinese" and not in English. This category of words is pretty much defined by how they're translated into English. It's not going to help you break out of your English-centered mindset.

3: The explanation as given has some special rules, but they don't cover all the circumstances. A two-word expression behaves radically different from a single word. The rules presented by the QW crew takes care of the most common situations, but there are situations that slip through the cracks. One such situation is that of measure words.

Now, looking at these expressions as single verbs does not invite you to add measure words to the mix. Measure words belong to the realm of nouns, after all. However, when we think of them as verb + noun, we realize that we can do to the noun part all the wicked things we do to other nouns, like add measure words. I don't think I've ever heard the expression "结这次婚". I recently googled it and got a bunch of results, indicating that it's perfectly legit. This is not an expression you'd come up with if you think of "结婚" as a single word. Or how about an expression like "我帮不了你的忙" or the even cooler "他帮不上太多忙"? Or how about "你在游什么泳"? There are cases where the object comes before the verb, like "这顿饭我吃不下". That one gets a million hits on the HK Google (which, admittedly, is not reliable in these matters, but at least we can conclude it's used). You can also add adjectives, like "出很远的差". If these are really verbs, then we need to do some serious grammatical acrobatics to explain why we can add adjectives to them.

These constructions are easily and naturally constructed if you think of the expressions as one verb and one object. I doubt they come naturally to mind if you think of them as "separable verbs".

As to the identifying of these expressions, you can generally look at the characters. If the first one is a verb and the second one a noun that is the object of the verb in question, it's probably not a single compound word. There are apparently some single words that do have a noun as a second character. Quoting Go_manly: "Li and Thompson have a good discussion of this in Mandarin Chinese: A functional Reference Grammar on pp. 73-78. They say that only a small minority of verb-object compounds do not allow any sort of separation, and they usually have highly idiomatic meaning."

Finishing off, it's possible I haven't thought of all contingencies. John alluded that there are reasons why the "separable word" is a useful classification.


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