Getting a handle on complex verbs in Mandarin Chinese – by Kurt Vall

Kurt Vall is a postgraduate student in International Relations and has completed undergraduate studies in linguistics and Chinese language. Here he presents his thoughts on Mandarin grammar, offering insights into the action-oriented and context-focused aspects of Mandarin grammar that will be thought-provoking to students of Chinese and English alike.

The grammatical structure of Mandarin can seem elusive at the best of times. But if we view it as a mainly verb driven language, we can orientate ourselves within the apparent fluidity of Chinese syntax.

Mandarin utterances are usually constructed around verbs with considerable variability in the use and omission of noun phrases. In some cases, using nouns can actually be inappropriate, such as the second person pronoun (你 ) in front of a request for someone to do something.

Mandarin also demonstrates a preference for verbal predicates to express states (stative verbs), and restricts the use of the copula (是 shì ‘to be’) to equations between two noun phrases (它是猫 tā shì māo ‘it is a cat’), as well as other non-adjectival functions such as marking statements about past states of affairs (是 shì… 的 de construction).

Centring on the Verb

These verb-centric tendencies in modern Chinese are also evident in the lack of grammatical marking of semantic roles – i.e. who does whatever to whom – that would allow for clear analyses in terms of more familiar grammatical categories like subject and object. This all makes context even more essential for interpreting many Chinese sentences than might be the case for their English equivalents.

Active verbal constructions, however, often centre around the person as actor, and a relatively well-structured system of directional suffixes in complex verb clusters helps make this work conceptually (e.g. 买回来了mǎihuílaíle ‘bought and brought back’).

Complex verbs come in a range shapes and sizes in Mandarin. Unlike the common verb-object compound (e.g. 吃饭 chīfàn lit. eat-rice’, ‘to eat’), complex verbs involve two or more verbs, e.g. 我打开了窗户 wǒdǎkāile chuānghu ‘I opened the window’. In this case, each verb in the cluster has different relationships with each of the two noun phrases.

While I am the actor of 打 dǎ, the verb 开 kāi describes the resulting state of the window and not me.

While English has some directional verbs (e.g. ‘she rose up’), resultatives are more often expressed by perfective verbs (‘she unwrapped the package’) rather than with verbal or adjectival complements (‘she broke open the safe’).

Other interesting phenomena in Mandarin’s rich verbal toolkit include co-verbs (e.g. 给 gěi ‘to give’), passive constructions, and the analytically slippery 把 bǎ construction.

The Chinese matrix

At the centre of the traditional Chinese world view is the human (人 rén) perspective, with heaven (天 tiān) above and earth (地 ) below. This gives us a centre (中·zhōng), and the vertical dimension, 上 shàng ‘up’ and 下 xià ‘down’. It also gives us tiānxià (天下 lit. ‘heaven-below’), which denoted the human world centred on the Chinese state (中国 zhōngguó lit.‘centre-state’).

Horizontally around us (四周 sìzh­ōu, lit. ‘four sides’) are the four cardinal directions (东 dōng, 南 nán, 西, 北 běi). In early China, state rituals included sacrifices to the spirits of the four directions. This pattern is also seen in the five sacred mountains of China.

Directions are also localised in the form of 前 qián ‘(in) front’, 后 hòu ‘behind’, 左 zuǒ ‘left’, 右 yòu ‘right’, taking the suffixes 边 bian or mian 面 (e.g.左边 zuǒbian ‘left side’, 前面 qiánmian ‘ahead’). There are also lateral variants, including 旁边 pángbian ‘side’, 侧面 cèmian ‘side, flank’.

The speaker of Mandarin also has at their disposal verbs of motion, especially 去 ‘to move towards’, and 来 lái ‘to move away’, from the speaker at the centre of the situation. To these are added verbs for ‘to enter’ (进 jìn) and ‘to exit’ (出 chū), as well as ‘to cross’ (过 guò). These can be used in complex verb clusters in a variety of more or less productive ways with constraints on ordering in the sequences, noting that Mandarin grammar in general is not terribly systematic.


Combinations of directional verbs include: 出去 chūqù ‘to go out’, 进来 jìnlái ‘to come in’, 过来 guòlái ‘come over’. These verb clusters can be negated by infixing 不 bù (‘not’) as in 出不来进不去, which means literally, ‘can’t come out, can’t go in’, and idiomatically, ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’.

As we’ve seen, the vertical dimension is represented by 上 shàng and 下 xià, and this derives 下去 xiàqù ‘to go down’, 上来 shànglái ‘to come up’, for example.

These biverbal compounds can also be combined with other verbs of motion to form triplex clusters, e.g. 走过去 zǒuguòqù ‘walk over’. A prominent example of this is 起  ‘rise’ in 起来 qǐlái ‘get up’. The verb 拿 ‘to take hold of’ can be used this way, 拿起来 náqǐlái ‘to pick up’, as well as 拿过来 náguòlái ‘to bring over here’. 拿Ná is quite versatile, including acting very similarly to the 把 construction discussed below.

Lái ‘to come’ is also an interesting verb, getting lots of usage in more or less abstract contexts, including as a transitive verb for ordering food: 我来个包子 wǒ lái ge baōzi ‘I would like a baozi’. The 起来 qǐlái verb cluster can combine with verbs of perception, which can be literal or abstract: 看起来 kànqǐlái ‘seems as if’, 听起来 tīngqǐlái ‘sounds like’; or just 看来 kànlái for use in more abstract situations.

This just scratches the surface of Mandarin’s rich array of complex verbs which perform a range of functions, including helping to situate and orient the actor and action in the absence of clear information about semantic roles in many Mandarin sentences.

Action and result

Resultative verbs are another widespread phenomenon in Mandarin. Many verbs will take another verb as a complement indicating the result of the primary verb. Sometimes this can be redundant, such as in 杀死 shāsǐ (lit. ‘kill-dead’, ‘to kill’), but this is following a common pattern, as seen in 弄死 nòngsǐ (‘put to death’).

Less morbidly, though, there are almost endless uses of this type of complex verb cluster, and only a flavour can be given here. For example, 完wán is used to indicate that an action has been completed, as in 吃完 chīwán (‘eat-complete’), which can be contrasted with 吃饱 chībǎo ‘eat-full’. You can also 看完 kànwán (‘watch-complete’) a movie.

Of course, some resultative verbs are more productive than others, meaning they can combine with a wider range of head verbs representing more varied semantic contexts. 好 Hǎo ‘good’ is another productive verb complement indicating a satisfactory outcome. For example, you can 买好mǎihǎo ‘buy-well’, 学好 xuéhǎo ‘study-well’ or 睡好 shuìhǎo ‘sleep-well’. Because they generally indicate completed actions, resultative verbs are often accompanied by use of the le particle marking a currently relevant state (e.g. 我做好了wǒzuòhǎo le ‘I’ve finished doing [it]’).

Enter the notorious 把 bǎ

As with co-verbs like 给 gěi, the notorious 把 is sometimes designated as a preposition, but there are good reasons for also treating it as a verb. The original meaning of 把 is something like ‘to handle’, and is still in use as a transitive verb.

As a heuristic, if a Mandarin word looks like it might be a verb, then it probably should be treated as a verb until it is shown to be something else.

Although the 把 construction is grammatically quite different from resultative verb clusters, it requires some type of consequential verbal complement, sometimes referred to as ‘disposal’, which is the main grammatical constraint on the use of 把 . Semantically, however, the options are quite flexible, and relate to the original verbal meaning of 把 , which is also a measure word for things that can be handled (e.g. 一把花 yī bǎ huā ‘a handful of flowers’). The 把 construction can be deployed either literally (把衣服洗洗 bǎ yīfu xǐxǐ‘ wash the clothes’) or metaphorically (她把我吓死了tā bǎ wǒ xiàsǐle ‘she scared me to death’).

Similarly, the passive 被bèi construction (e.g. 被逮捕了 bèi dàibǔle ‘to be arrested’) is often classified as a preposition but can also be considered a type of verb. Indeed, there are other verbs that can also function as passive markers, such as 叫 jiào (‘to call’) and 让 ràng (‘to let/force’) which behave similarly to 被 bèi in this usage.

In fact, in some sentence patterns, a great variety of verbs can look like zero-marked passives (e.g.这些衣服都洗好了zhèxiē yīfu dōu xǐhǎole ‘these clothes have all been well washed’). From a surface marking perspective, this type of clause could also be interpreted as a topic-comment construction, or as inverted object-verb word ordering.

And … Action!

The lack of grammatical markings for case, person, gender and number familiar in many Indo-European and other languages means modern Chinese does not cross reference semantic roles through agreement of verbs and their arguments, or nouns and their modifiers. In practice, any theory of Mandarin grammar will be underdetermined, requiring language users to rely much more on inference from context than speakers of, say, English, French or Japanese.

This has inevitably resulted in an often confusing array of quite different grammatical explanations and classifications for Mandarin, many of which are incompatible to varying degrees, without necessarily being wrong.

However, as discussed here with regard to directional and resultative verb clusters and other complex predicates, seeing Mandarin as an actor-action focused, verb-centred language can be helpful in understanding some of the key grammatical phenomena encountered by Mandarin language learners.

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