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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:

  • 放 在 桌子 上 。"Put the book on the table." shū fàng zài zhuōzi shàng.

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

  • 你 放 在 桌子 上 。Nǐ 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.

  • 手机 放 在 包 里 了。"She put the phone in the bag." shǒujī fàng zài bāo lǐ le.
  • 钱 放 在 桌子 上 。"Please put the money on the table."Qǐng qián fàng zài zhuōzi shàng.
  • 你 是 不 是 衣服 放 在 办公室 了?"Did you put your clothes in the office or not?"Nǐ shì bu shì yīfu fàng zài bàngōngshì le?

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 + Preposition + Obj. 2

Common verbs that take two objects include: 买 (mǎi), 卖 (mài), 送 (sòng), 借 (jiè), 还 (huán), 介绍 (jièshào).

把 sentences with two objects
Subject Object 1 Verb Preposition Object 2
他 女 朋友
我 的 车 朋友
我们 最 好吃 的 东西 客人

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. A couple of examples:

  • 作业 做 完 了。 zuòyè zuò wán le.I finished the homework.
  • 这 个 汉字 写 错 了。 zhège Hànzì xiě cuò le.You wrote this character wrong.

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

  • 这些 东西 拿 出来。Qǐng zhèxiē dōngxi ná chūlái.Please take this stuff out.
  • 他 推 出去 了。 tā tuī chūqù le.I pushed him out.

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 (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.

Negating 把 sentences
Subject Negative Object Verb Disposal
没有 你的 电脑
不要 我的 水
衣服 穿
没有 她的 房间 打扫 干净
这 件 事 告诉

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:

  • 作业 写 完 了 吗? zuòyè zuò wán le ma?Did you finishing doing your homework?
  • 你 可以 这些 都 吃 完 吗?Nǐ kěyǐ zhèxiē dōu chī wán ma?Can you eat these all?
  • 我 的 东西 放 在 哪里 了? wǒ de dōngxi fàng zài nálǐ le?Where did you put my stuff?
  • 你 的 书 借 给 谁 了? nǐ de shū jiè gěi shéi le?Who did he lend your book to?
  • 你 是 不 是 纸 用 完 了?Nǐ shì bù shì zhǐ yòng wán le?Did you use up the paper or not?
  • 你 能 不 能 你 的 名字 写 清楚?Nǐ néng bù néng nǐ de míngzi xiě qīngchǔ?Can you write your name clearly 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 作业 to make "We finished all the homework."

把 sentences with adverbs
Subject Adverb Object Adverb Verb Disposal
我们 作业 完了
我们 作业 完了
不小心 这 件 事 告诉 别人 了
咖啡 完了

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

把 Sentences and Measure Words

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.

More 把 and quantity examples
Subject Measure Word Object Verb
你 的 两 件 衣服 洗 好 了
昨天 买的 三 块 蛋糕 吃 了
请 你 老师 写 给 我们 的 几 句 读 一下

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

More 把 and quantity examples
Subject Object Verb Measure Word
这 句 话 读 了 三 遍
妈妈 这些 脏 衣服 洗 了 好 几 遍
弟弟 我 的 手机 玩 坏 了 好 几 次

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

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.

把 sentences and aspect particles
Subject Object Verb phrase Aspect particle
那 本 书 翻译 成 英文
不要 把
瓶子 打 破
你 的 电脑

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
    • 喜欢
    • 想念
    • 了解
    • 害怕
    • 痛恨
  • Perception verbs

Notes about 把

  • The object is known. (It's already been mentioned or discussed previously.)
  • The sentence describes what happened to the object in some detail (it's not just a "bare" verb; there's "more stuff" after the verb).

Other Uses 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 sǎn ná gěi wǒ.Please give me that umbrella.

See also

Sources and further reading