Word Order Strategies of Standard Chinese: An Analysis in Regard to Temporal Sequence

Term Paper (Advanced seminar) 2004 27 Pages

American Studies - Linguistics



1. Introduction

2. An investigation of the “Principle of Temporal Sequence”

3. Other parameters influencing Chinese word order

4. Conclusion



1. Introduction

Linguists studying the syntactic relations of Chinese have often argued that Chinese, being a non-inflectional language, was more reliant on iconic principles than most Western languages. Since Chinese is largely dependent on the use of grammatical particles (PAR) and word order, it was sought to represent conceptual mappings more directly than other languages, i.e. denoting states and events as direct reflections of human perceptions. But how iconic is Chinese really? And what are the main determinants of Chinese word order?

The aim of this paper is to investigate the influence of temporal sequence on Chinese word order, as proposed by Tai (1985). I will in particular examine the pre- and post-verbal placement of adverbials and try to display the limitations of this theory. I will furthermore demonstrate how other factors can account for word order questions not sufficiently resolved by the “Principle of Temporal Sequence”. Accordingly, I will try to show that not just one major parameter is involved in Chinese word order, but several – interacting to various degrees in different contexts.

For this purpose, I have examined Chinese sample sentences taken from dictionaries: Wu (1997), Wu (2000), Zhen (2000) and Zhou (1998), as well as Chinese language learning material and grammar books: Chao (1986), Li (1988) and Ramsey (1987). Examples taken from other sources are marked for their origin in particular. My analysis was moreover verified by the intuitions of native speakers of Chinese[1] and is only concerned with “Standard Chinese”, or Putonghua (PTH) – the standardized variant of Chinese as it is used on mainland China since the 1950s.

Hence, I will start this analysis with a discussion of the “Principle of Temporal Sequence”, its possible means for Chinese word order and its limitations. I will then consider other influences, e.g. topicality and definiteness by examining problematic cases of word order which can otherwise not be explained thoroughly by the temporal sequence hypothesis. A brief summary will conclude this investigation, pointing to further possible determiners of Chinese word order.

2. An investigation of the “Principle of Temporal Sequence”

In an article examining the correlation of temporal sequence and word order principles of Chinese, Tai (1985) defines the “Principle of Temporal Sequence” (PTS) as the “relative word order between two syntactic units [which] is determined by the temporal order of the states which they represent in the conceptual world.”[2] To illustrate this principle, Tai refers to the following example:[3]

(1) a. Wo chi guo fan, ni zai da dianhua gei wo.

I eat ASP food, you again do telephone to me.

‘Call me again after I have finished the dinner.’

The first sentence in (1a) is linked to the second by the use of the temporal connective “zai” (‘again’), indicating a precedence in temporal sequence of the first sentence. Another example involving a temporal connective:

b. Ni xia xingqi lai, women jiu na shi jianmian.

you next week come, we then that time meet.

‘We’ll see each other when you come next week.’

In (1b) the temporal adverbial connecting the two sentences (“jiu” ‘then’) is an obvious indicator that the event of “jianmian” (‘meeting’) is happing after the action of ‘coming’. The examples above furthermore show that the respective English conjoined sentences are not as constrained by PTS as the Chinese ones.

PTS seems to have the same influence on the juxtaposition of verbal phrases (VP), i.e. when a VP occurs after another VP, they both observe PTS in that they denote actions or events happening in linear order. Tai mentions example (2a):

(2) a. Li xiaojie chi le ban wan fan jiu bao le.

Li Miss eat PAST half bowl rice then full MOD

‘Miss Li was (already) full after eating (just) one bowl of rice

b. ?Li xiaojie bao le jiu chi le ban wan fan.

‘After Miss Li was full she (still) ate half a bowl of rice’

As can be seen from (2b), when the position of the VP “chi le ban wan fan” and “bao le” are exchanged, the meaning of the sentence changes as well. The fact that VPs observe PTS like conjoined sentences do, is not surprising, since they behave, in this respect, like contracted sentences:

(3) a. Ta bing le mei lai.

she sick PAST NEG come.

‘She didn’t come because she was sick’

b. Yinwei ta bing le, ta mei lai.

because she sick PAST, she NEG come.

Sentence (3a) is a contracted version of (3b). Yet, the content of a complex sentence remains and thus does the linear order. However, (3b) does not contain a temporal connective, but a causative adverbial functioning as a conjunction (‘because’). And this raises the question whether linked sentences and VPs also observe PTS when not making use of temporal connectives. Consider the following examples:

(4) a. Wo chi guo fan, ni da dianhua gei wo.

I eat ASP food, you do telephone to me.

‘Call me after I am finished eating dinner.’

b. Ni da dianhua gei wo, wo chi guo fan.

‘I had finished eating dinner when you called me.’

c. Feng ting le, yu bu xia le.

wind stop PAST, rain NEG fall down PAST.

‘It stopped raining, when the wind stopped blowing.’

d. Yu bu xia le, feng ting le.

‘The wind stopped blowing, when it stopped raining.’

As can be observed from the above examples, juxtaposition of sentences and VPs not containing any adverbial connectives also seems to observe a temporal linear order. If the order of clauses within a Chinese sentence is changed, so does the semantic content. It is notable that in these cases the respective English sentences do not have to follow PTS. (4d) could also be translated into: ‘When it stopped raining, the wind stopped blowing.’ This is a considerable piece of evidence that Chinese is more dependent on PTS than English.

If Tai’s argumentation is right so far, the example[4] stated below should also fall within his prediction of the applicability of PTS to VP constructions expressing consecutive order:

(5) a. Zhangsan shanglou shuijiao.

John upstairs sleep.

‘John went upstairs and (then) slept.’[5]

(5a) is here translated as two consecutive actions: ‘going upstairs’ and ‘sleeping’. This is the most obvious form of PTS observance. Yet, there is another meaning to this sentence: ‘John went upstairs to sleep.’ The purposive translation of (5a) may here be viewed as a further instance of PTS, because it reflects the precedence of one action to another one: the purposive action has to be achieved first, before the mainly intended action can take place, in this case ‘go upstairs’ to (be able to) ‘sleep’.

However, the purpose >[6] mainly intended action (as an instance of consecutive order) cannot account for a sentence like the following:

b. *Zhangsan shuijiao shanglou.

’John slept and (then) went upstairs/John slept to go upstairs.’

In Chinese a sentence like the one above is grammatically incorrect. Some might argue that even though a purposive reading would be logically abstruse, a consecutive reading might occur in a context of sleepwalking. Nevertheless, such a case would be expressed by using an adverb of manner to modify the main verb, or using a completely different syntactic structure. Please compare (5a) and (5b) with the following:

c. Kaili shanglou shoushi.

Kylie upstairs tidy up

‘Kylie went upstairs and tidied up/Kylie went upstairs to tidy up.’

d. Kaili shoushi shanglou.

‘Kylie tidied up and went upstairs/Kylie tidied up to (be allowed/

able to) go upstairs.’

Although the purposive reading of (5d) would be considered less common, it is still a syntactically correct and logically acceptable interpretation, i.e. conceptual standards may be ruled out by means of context. Concerning PTS involvement in VP series of non-consecutive actions Tai claims that “two verbal phrases can have either order with different interpretations in temporal sequence.”[7] Obviously (5c) and (5d) are such cases. Tai, however, tries to prove his claim by referring to these examples:

(6) a. Zhangsan dao tushuguan na shu.

‘John went to the library to get the book.’

b. Zhangsan na shu dao tushuguan.

‘ John took the book to the library.’

Unfortunately, these are not well chosen examples to illustrate his theory. (6a) is typically considered the unmarked case,[8] where a prepositional phrase is inserted between the subject position and the predicate position. This I would like to exemplify by negating the above sentences and then pointing out the most natural questions arising out of them:

c. Zhangsan dao tushuguan bu na shu.

John to library NEG take/get book


‘John did not take the book to the library.’

d. Zhangsan dao tushuguan bu na shenme ?

What did John not take to the library?’

e. Zhangsan bu na shu dao tushuguan.

‘John did not take the book to the library.’

f. Zhangsan bu na shu dao nar ?

To what place did John not take the book to?’

g. Zhangsan dao tushuguan qu na shu.

John LOC library go get/take book


‘John went to the library to get the book.’

Even though Tai argues that “dao” can be used as a full verb (‘arrive’), it is typically used in this sense by either adding an aspectual particle, identifying it as a verb, or linking it to a directional locative main verb as “qu” (‘go/leave’ – leading away from the speaker). A sentence like (6b) is therefore considered incorrect in Standard Chinese[9] as regarding Tai’s stated semantic entailment. Still, Tai’s proposed PTS does nevertheless account for (6g). But how about (6a) and (6b)? Since it is not really possible to argue that in (6a) ‘arriving’ precedes ‘getting the book’. And one cannot justify the assumption that in (6b) the ‘taking the book’ precedes the ‘arriving at the library’. Thus, the PTS does not seem to give a reasonable explanation of why these two sentences appear to have the same meaning, but a different structure (as it would be doubtful that John in one sentence first decides to go some place before taking a book there or vice versa). We will resolve this question in the second part of the analysis, dealing with other influencing factors.

Tai moreover, correctly, observes that in the case of “alternating” readings, i.e. the actor goes back and forth between performing different activities, PTS is not involved. This, however, raises the question of why one activity syntactically does precede another one:

(7) a. Ta zuotian kan shu kan dianshi.

he yesterday read books watch TV

‘Yesterday he was reading and watching television.’

b. Ta zuotian kan dianshi kan shu.

The examples above have different forms, but both sentences carry exactly the same meaning. Exactly? It seems to be an evident case of alternating activities to a native speaker of Chinese, but since PTS cannot explain the precedence of the respective VP, we will have to leave the investigation of this problem to a later discussion.

Another interesting instance of PTS observance is the case of action-result patterns: In Chinese some verbs can function as resultative particles. These are attached to the main verb and thus focus on the achievement of an action. In (8) the linear order of ‘poisoning’ somebody before that person can ‘die’ is apparent:


[1] Since this investigation is concerned with “Standard Chinese”, I have asked native speakers from the North of China for their opinion in order to avoid as many dialectal interferences as possible. Today’s “Standard Chinese”, or Putonghua (PTH), is rarely spoken without any inferences from regional dialects, thus when it comes to grammar, pronunciation and speaker intuition, there are often variations native speakers are not even aware of. It is not a rare incident to get into discussions with Chinese about whether the Chinese or the foreigner is really speaking the standard language. Therefore, I decided to interview northern Chinese (from Beijing and Dalian), because their language is considered “most standard” as it is the foundation of the PTH spoken on mainland China. (cf. Ramsey and Corff)

[2] Tai (1985: 50)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Tai (1985: 51)

[5] Please note that my translation differs from Tai’s in that I translated it as two simple consecutive actions and Tai translated it as a purposive action.

[6] “>” will in this paper be used to indicate precedence.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Here: ‘most common’, for evidence on the importance of markedness see: Birdsong (1995)

[9] However, this might be a correct variation in certain dialects. Ramsey (1987) states that southern dialects do not use certain constructions, or exchange the position of direct and indirect object, for instance. But since we are here not concerned with dialects, we will leave this question to future research.


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Word Order Strategies Standard Chinese Analysis Regard Temporal Sequence Motivation Language



Title: Word Order Strategies of Standard Chinese:  An Analysis in Regard to Temporal Sequence