Classical Chinese
Grammar Topics

We here introduce some general topics as a supplement to the Grammar Abbreviations page.


Much of what we call "tense" in languages (past versus present, and so on), including English, is really aspect: incipience, degree of completion, level of speaker confidence in the information, and so on. Of aspect in Classical Chinese, we may here note one important contrast.

It is this. Many verbs, without necessarily giving any morphological signals (though such signals do exist, and are sometimes used), can in an actual sentence mean any of the following: (1) coming to the point of doing X, (2) actually doing X, and (3) persisting in a state of having done X. English expresses the first of these only in vernacular language. With apologies, then, and taking the noun yi1 "clothing" in its verbal sense of yi4 "put on clothing," we might have respectively

With the verb jr1 "know," we might similarly have

The three might be called, respectively, the (1) incipient, (2) finite, and (3) durative aspects. The incipient is rather rare; the other two are common.

Another Aspect Dimension

Instead of focusing (as in the previous examples) on the contrast between a pre-state, a moment of transition, and an ensuing post-state, the language can instead be concerned with the completion or non-completion of the action of the verb. We would then have: (1) irrealis, "not yet having done," (2) momentaneous, "finally doing," and (3) perfective, "having done." In this series, stage 3 looks back to the action as completed, whereas in the previous series, stage 3 reported the ongoing situation resulting from the action, rather than the action itself.

These and other nuances are among the things that a given verb in a given sentence may be up to, with or without auxiliary words to make the situation clearer. It is a common vice of translators that they regard the sentence as doing only the work that the dictionary lays out for it, and to imagine that these nuances of aspect are something that they, the translators, have themselves supplied. That misconception has been satirized in HJAS v35 (1975) 229f. We may quote the final sentence of that satire (p233):

Whether in this mild form or the more offensive one sometimes encountered, in which the hapless Chinese language is made to seem utterly incompetent to convey the simplest connected meaning without the constant intervention of the godlike and omniscient translator, these zigzags do less than justice to the texts.

The moral is that the translation "come to be acquainted with" is in principle just as accurate, just as literal, as "know" for an instance of jr1. "Know" makes a handier reference tag when we mention the word, but that fact does not limit what the word itself may be doing in a given actual sentence.

Class Change

It is sometimes denied that Chinese has grammar. Chinese has grammar. It just doesn't have a grammar like Sanskrit, consisting of 276 pages of inflectional paradigms. It is sometimes denied that Chinese has word classes. Chinese has word classes. It just doesn't have word classes which are marked by inflectional gingerbread. The reality of Chinese word classes is attested by the existence of mechanisms by which a word normally in one class is made to operate (or let us rather say, is recognized as operating) in another class.

Sometimes words that do not normally take objects may exceptionally do so. When they do, special meaning shifts apply. A noun (such as chi, "implement") may be used as a verb. In that case, the verb is always an object-taking (transitive) verb, and in this example would have the meaning "treat or regard as an implement." The technical names for these usages are putative and factitive, respectively. Also, a verb which normally does not take an object (they are sometimes called adjectival or intransitive verbs) can take an object, but when it does, those and other meaning nuances arise. Thus:

Conversely, a normally transitive V, such as jr "know," if deprived of an object on a particular occasion, becomes, not adjectival or stative, but specifically passive ("be known"). We cannot fully explain why some VO clauses have putative (or causative, or factitive) meanings, while other VO clauses do not, without recognizing two different classes of V. Similarly with the active/passive contrast. This is the kind of evidence which demonstrates the reality of word classes in Chinese. You need that distinction to explain why the words mean what they do in particular sentences.


The major word-class change in Chinese is nominalization. Nominalization is not a mere contrivance, as it may seem on first acquaintance. It is one of the great architectonic themes of the Chinese language. The advanced student will gradually come to realize that there are in a Chinese sentence only two zones, the verbal area (the actual predicate word, whatever its dictionary class might originally have been) and the nominal area (a penumbra surrounding the verbal area, and including not only nouns serving as objects and subjects of the predicate word, but such seemingly verbal entities as "if" clauses (they are lexically verbal, but they are nominal in form).

Reflecting on the last sentence will suggest that nominalization and subordination may be kindred processes in Classical Chinese. We believe this to be true.

All this is fairly subtle, and it is best not to start with it. Instead, get on good terms with particular examples of nominalization. Then you will have something to think about later on, when questions of whole-sentence structures, or whole-language tendencies, may come up for consideration.

Sentence Types

The three basic types of Chinese sentence (for the symbolism used here, see the Grammar Abbreviations page) are:

The same perplexity of theory (often wrong) attends the question of sentences in English, in case that is any comfort. English is taught in elementary schools by ladies who were exposed during their training to a grammar of English based on the grammar of Latin. Unvfortunately, the fit of Latin on English is very bad.


One thing which disappoints English speakers in search of the exotic is that Chinese, as a language, is typologically very much along the lines of English; for example it is an SVO language; it also has a vowel system with a center (the sound "uh"), as English also does, but as Italian and Japanese do not. This does not mean that Chinese and English are related; it just means that in their separate ways they have arrived at a rather similar set of solutions to the question of how to organize statements, or produce sounds. The abovementioned Italian and Japanese, or (for the adventurous) Navajo, on which see the classic articles by Whorf, offer the English speaker much more that is charmingly unfamiliar.

That general similarity can be so much taken for granted by the student that the few but real differences between the two languages can be are missed. It is thus proper to lay stress on the differences that do occur. We may mention one of those differences just as a sample. It is the handling of "completeness" expressions. Whereas English can modify an object word by a modifier meaning "all of that class," as in "I have all of them" (where "all of" modifies the object "them"), Chinese instead prefers to locate the "all" concept as an adverb on the verb, leading to sentences of the form: "I fully possess them." This also applies to "all" elements which modify nouns used as subjects. In an assertion like "Everybody has," where the English "every" concept is prefixed to a noun meaning "person," giving something like "all people have," Chinese instead characteristically formats the "all" idea as a modifier of the verb. The Chinese counterpart statement is thus SBV rvn2 jye1 you3, or "People all have."

For what exactly it is that all people have (thought you'd never ask!), see Mencius (MC) 2A6. If you look at the cover of Alan Chan (ed), Mencius (Hawaii 2002), you will see it written out, and appreciate how thematically important it is to those who deal with these texts. Irene Bloom and Roger Ames, who were both present at the conference on which that book is based, had had a years-long running argument about how inclusive was the Mencian concept of humanity. It flared up again at the conference. Roger denied inclusiveness. Irene asked him, in open session, "Roger, what does rvn2 jye1 you3" mean?" He did not answer. She repeated the question. Still no answer. That is what is behind the inscription on the cover of the book. Now you know.

Note that it is misplaced syntactic piety to translate Chinese "all" in the position it occupies in the Chinese sentence ("people all have it"). Use the equally natural English equivalent ("all people have it;" thus Legge). If Chinese conveys emphasis by placing an element in an unusual position in the sentence, whereas English conveys the same thing by extra stress at the same position in the sentence, then the extra stress is the best translation of the position change.

If you can get familiar with Chinese, without at the same time deacclimatizing yourself to English, you are on the way to becoming an adequate translator. Or for that matter, an understanding user of English. Your native language is not really native until you have, if only for a moment, stepped outside it, and watched it from that distant perspective.

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26 Feb 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Resources Page