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Using "ba" sentences

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Also known as: 把字句 ("bǎ"zìjù), 把 construction, preposition 把, disposal construction and pre-transitive 把.

The 把 (bǎ) sentence is a useful structure for focusing on the result or influence of an action. It's really common in Mandarin, but can feel a bit strange for English speakers at first.

What is a 把 sentence?

A basic sentence in Mandarin is formed with a subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, as in English:

Subj. + [Verb Phrase] + Obj.

A 把 sentence shakes things up a bit, and you get this structure:

Subj. + 把 + Obj. + [Verb Phrase]

Note that the object has moved, and is preceded by 把. You now have SOV word order.

This is all well and good, but most students of Chinese, on learning about 把 sentences for the first time, have the same reaction: "Why the hell would I ever use this structure? The SVO word order always works just fine, right?" The answer is: well, no... not always. It's true that 把 sentences are often used to achieve somewhat subtle differences in emphasis, but there are also very good reasons to use 把 sentences when a regular sentence just won't do. Take this sentence for example:

  • 桌子 "Put the book on the table." shū fàng zài zhuōzi shàng.

How would you say this without the 把 construction? You might try this:

  • 在 桌子 Fàng shū zài zhuōzi shàng.

The only problem is that the above sentence is not grammatical. You can't put an object right after a verb, and then put other modifiers of the verb after the object. Here are other examples of how to successfully use 把 and 放 in the same sentence.

  • 我 的 手机 她 的 包 了 。 wǒ de shǒujī fàng zài tā de bāo le.She put my phone in her bag.
  • 脏 衣服下面 了 。 zāng yīfu fàng zài chuáng xiàmiàn le.He put his dirty laundry under his bed.
  • 你 是 不 是 护照 行李箱 了 ?Nǐ shì bu shì hùzhào fàng zài xínglixiāng le?Did you put your passport in your suitcase?

Notes about 把

  • The object is known. (It's already been mentioned or discussed previously.)
  • 把字句 is often used to describe what happened to the object in some detail (it's not just a "bare" verb; there's "more stuff" after the verb).
  • It's not necessarily used in past tense. You also use 把字句 for making a request or asking for a favor.

把 Sentences with Two Objects

The usual structure for 把 sentences, as described above, puts the object right after 把 for certain verbs, however, you can have two objects in a 把 sentence. Their use in a 把 sentence will also involve prepositions.

They use the following structure:

Subj. + 把 + Obj. 1 + Verb + 给 + Obj. 2

Common verbs that take two objects include: 送 (sòng), 拿 (ná), 递 (dì), 卖 (mài), 借 (jiè), 还 (huán), 介绍 (jièshào).

Some examples:
Subject Object 1 Verb Preposition Object 2
我们 礼物 客人
房子
介绍 我 老板

把 Sentences with Complements

Because 把 sentences are all about disposal, and complements in Mandarin often handle this issue, it's good to be aware of how these two grammar features interact.

Result complements work particularly well in 把 sentences. When you consider that both structures deal with the result or outcome of an action, this makes sense. The majority of result complements (except for perception verbs) fit in very well in a 把 construction. For example:

  • 作业 做 了 。 zuòyè zuò wán le.I finished doing my homework.
  • 老师 我 的 名字 读 了 。Lǎoshī wǒ de míngzì dú cuò le.The teacher read my name wrong.

Direction complements also work well in 把 constructions, for similar reasons. For example:

  • 客人 带 进去Qǐng kèrén dài jìnqù.Please take the guests inside.
  • 我 的 眼镜 拿 过来 wǒ de yǎnjìng ná guòlái.Please bring my glasses over here.

Note that potential complements do not appear in 把 sentences. This is because they are hypothetical, whereas a 把 sentence must describe what actually happens.

Forming 把 Sentences

Negating 把 Sentences

To negate a 把 sentence, insert 不要 or 别 (present or future) or 没有 (past) directly in front of 把. You can't put it after 把, 'inside' the 把 construction, as this would break the rule about describing what happened to the object. It would be like saying "What happened to ... was nothing." It doesn't sound natural.

A few examples:
Subject Negative Object Verb Phrase
阿姨 没有 房间 打扫 干净
借给 他
你们 不要 这 件 事 告诉 她

Question Forms of 把 Sentences

You can make 把 sentences into questions in the usual three ways to form questions in Mandarin:

  • With a question particle
  • With a question word
  • With positive-negative verbs

Some examples:

  • 你们 那个 问题 解决 了 吗 ?Nǐmen nàge wèntí jiějué le ma?Did you solve that problem?
  • 我 手机 放 在哪儿 了 ? wǒ shǒujī fàng zài nǎr le?Where did you put my cell phone?
  • 借 给 谁 了 ? qián jiè gěi shéi le?Who did he lend the money to?
  • 你 能不能 你 房间 打扫 干净 ?Nǐ néng bu néng nǐ fángjiān dǎsǎo gānjìng?Can you clean your room or not?

Be careful how you form questions with 把 sentences though. Remember that you have to have a definite object, and you have to describe the disposal of that object. A question form could easily get in the way of one of these conditions.

Adverbs in 把 Sentences

Adverbs can usually be placed before 把 or before the verb (the exception is negative adverbs, as described above). Adverbs in each of these positions can change the meaning in slightly different ways, as demonstrated with 都 in the examples below. In the first sentence, 我们都把作业做完了, 都 modifies 我们 to make "We all finished the homework." In the second sentence, 都 modifies 咖啡 to make "He finished all the coffee".

Some examples:
Subj. Adv. Object Adv. Verb Phrase
我们 作业 做 完 了
咖啡 喝 完 了
已经 还给 我 了
可能 手机 忘 在 朋友 家 了

(Note the subtle difference in meaning between the first two sentences.)

把 Sentences with Aspect Particles

The particles 了 and 着 can both be used with 把 constructions, while 过 cannot. This is because the object of a 把 construction must be obvious, or 'present' in some way in the context. 过 indicates some kind of action in the past, which suggests that the object is no longer present in the context, so it's not suitable for a 把 construction.

了 and 着, though, can be used to indicate that the disposal of the object is complete or ongoing, respectively.

Some examples:
Subject Object Verb Aspect particle
你 的 电脑
这件事
垃圾

把 Sentences and Quantity Phrase

As mentioned above, the object of a 把 sentence must be something specific and definite. This might involve noun measure words, which will come after the 把 and before the object.

Some examples:
Subject Quantity Phrase Noun Verb Phrase
两 件 脏 衣服 洗 干净 了
最后 三 块 蛋糕 吃 完 了
几 句 读 一下

Verb measure words are frequently used in 把 sentences and come at the end of a 把 sentence.

Some examples:
Subject Object Verb Quantity Phrase
课文 一 遍
这个 字 写 了 十 遍
手机 摔坏 过 两 三 次

Note that in all of these sentences, the object is something specific and definite.

Verbs for 把 Sentences

Some verbs generally can't indicate what happened to the object. They only describe what the subject did. Here are some examples of verbs that do not generally work in 把 sentences:

  • Psychological verbs
    • 爱 (ài) to love
    • 喜欢 (xǐhuan) to like
    • 想 (xiǎng) to miss
    • 了解 (liǎojiě) to know
    • 害怕 (hàipà) to fear
    • 恨 (hèn ) to hate
  • Perception verbs
    • 看 (kàn)
    • 听 (tīng)
    • 闻 (wén)
    • 像 (xiàng)

Other Use of 把

It's important to note that 把 has other uses. The most common is as a measure word for things with handles, or things that you hold. Examples include 一把伞, 一把枪, and 一把椅子. So, you've got to look at how 把 is being used in a sentence before you can understand its meaning.

To demonstrate the difference, here's a sentence with both kinds of 把 in:

  • 请 你 伞 拿 给 我 。Qǐng nǐ sǎn ná gěi wǒ.Please give me that umbrella.

See also

Sources and further reading

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