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Complement

(Redirected from Complements)
Also known as: 补语 (bǔyǔ) and objective complement.

A complement is a word following a verb that completes the meaning of the sentence. Complements are a special type of structure found in modern Mandarin which follow verbs (or sometimes adjectives) and provide additional information. They can be as short as one character, or practically as long as a sentence. According to A Practical Chinese Grammar for Foreigners, complements "show the duration, quantity, degree, result, direction or possibility of an action; or to illustrate the state, number, degree of a thing"[1].

Complements are not a form of flattery (those are compliments)[2]; they're much more versatile than that! But because complements have no exact counterpart in English, they can be a little bit difficult to get the hang of at first. As is often the case, plentiful examples will help clarify.

Summary of complement types

Below you'll find all the major complement types (as well as some of the minor ones), with representative examples of each. The first four (result complement, potential complement, direction complement, and degree complement) are the critical ones. Click on the complement names for more detailed explanations and plenty of additional examples.

Main Complement Types, with Examples
Type of ComplementVerbParticleComplementEnglish
Result complement to finish doing
to see
to buy (successfully)
计划 to plan (properly)
清楚to speak clearly
Potential complement 不了cannot go
can go
不到cannot hear
can see
不懂to (listen but) not understand
to be able to read and understand
can finish eating
Direction complementto put down
上去to walk up
回来to fly back (here)
过来to look (over) this way
Degree complement很好to speak (very) well
好* 极了great
累* 死了tired "to death"
脏*不得了terribly dirty
State complement很简单to think very simply
很乱to make a mess (of things)
Quantity complement 一次to go once
工作 十个小时to work for 10 hours
Location complement 在北京to live in Beijing
到中国to come to China
Time complement 到明年to wait until next year
于69年to be born in '69

* OK, these are adjectives, not verbs!

Composition of complements

You might be wondering: what is the complement, exactly? For example, is it another verb, or an adjective or what? The answer is that it varies. It can be a verb, an adjective, a prepositional phrase, a measure word phrase, or a long, complex phrase. The following chart breaks it down.

Structure of Complements
Word Preceding ComplementComplement ContentComplement TypesExample
VerbVerbResult complement
Potential complement得懂
Direction complement回来
AdjectiveResult complement
State complement得很简单
Prepositional phraseLocation complement在北京
Time complement于69年
Measure word phrasesQuantity complement一次
AdjectiveAdjectiveDegree complement
Result complement
AdverbDegree complement极了
Result complement
Other phraseState complement得让人发疯

When to use complements

You might be wondering: when do I use a complement? That's a good question, because often there are non-complement ways to express what the complement expresses. For example, do you use the 不了 complement after a verb, or do you put 不能 before the verb? Do you use an adverb before the verb (快快地跑), or do you put the same information in a complement after the verb (跑得快)? The sad answer is that it depends. There are many factors involved.

As a learner, the best thing you can do is to memorize the complements you encounter the most often, and start using them. The longer you've been using them, the more natural they'll feel, and when to use them will become clearer and clearer. One good place to start is our list of common verbs with complements.

References

  1. A Practical Chinese Grammar for Foreigners, p. 271
  2. For more info on this common mistake, see this website.

Sources and further reading

Books

Websites