- Also known as: 离合词 (líhécí) and verb-object phrase.
"Separable verbs" get their name from their ability to "separate" into two parts (a verb part and an object part), with other words in between. In fact, you could also simply call separable verbs "verb-object phrases."
- 1 What Are Separable Verbs?
- 2 How to Use Separable Verbs
- 3 Common Examples and Common Mistakes with Separable Verbs
- 4 Why Use Them
- 5 Academic debate
- 6 See also
- 7 Sources and further reading
What Are Separable Verbs?
Separable verbs are "verb-object phrases." They consist of two characters: the first is the verb, and the second is the object. Very often, these two will appear together, seemingly acting as a single verb, as in 吃饭, "to eat," 见面, "to meet," or 睡觉, "to sleep." But the two can also separate, and the verb can also be used without the object.
Verb + Object
Verb... [Other Stuff]... Object
The Typical Learner Mistake
Let's look at a typical example in Chinese, using the verb 见面, meaning "to meet." 见 is the verb; 面 is the object, which literally means "face," but is never translated as such. The mistake everyone makes is to put an object after 见面. You can't do this, though, because 见面 already has its own object.
- 我 没有 时间 见面 。It may seem like it has no object, but 面 is the object.I don't have time to meet.
- 我 没有 时间 见 你 。Here, 见 is the verb and 你 is the object.I don't have time to meet you.
- 我 没有 时间 见面 你 。面 is the object, so adding 你 after it is wrong.
The key features of separable verbs are:
- Many separable verbs can't be easily translated into other languages in a way that makes both the verb and the object part clear. For instance, 见面 ("to meet"), 睡觉 ("to sleep"), and 游泳 ("to swim") are such examples. In these examples, it's just not easy to think of the objects as a separate word.
- The relationship between the verb and the object in a separable verb pair is very close; adding the object to the verb is sort of the "default form" of the verb, even if the verb part can be used without the object.
- Separable verbs are a source of frequent errors from learners of Chinese because you can't add an object after a separable verb. Many learners don't know if a verb is a regular two-character verb like 工作 or a verb-object construct like 开会. If you don't know, you're sure to use it wrong.
The key to using separable verbs correctly is to remember that they are "Verb + Object" constructs. The verb alone must be treated as a verb, and the object cannot be treated as part of the verb.
How to Use Separable Verbs
The first step in mastering separable verbs is knowing which verbs are actually separable verbs.
Some of the more common separable verbs you should already know include: 吃饭 (chīfàn), 出差 (chūchāi), 读书 (dúshū), 过年 (guònián), 见面 (jiànmiàn), 讲话 (jiǎnghuà), 开车 (kāichē), 开会 (kāihuì), 看病 (kànbìng), 聊天 (liáotiān), 生气 (shēngqì), 谈话 (tánhuà), 洗澡 (xǐzǎo), 游泳 (yóuyǒng).
Slightly less common (but still useful for intermediate learners) separable verbs include: 帮忙 (bāngmáng), 分手 (fēnshǒu), 结婚 (jiéhūn), 请假 (qǐngjià), 离婚 (líhūn), 跑步 (pǎobù), 报名 (bàomíng), 道歉 (dàoqiàn), 散步 (sànbù), 排队 (páiduì).
Perhaps the most common examples of separable verbs that beginners first struggle with are 见面 and 睡觉. What makes them especially hard is that the "object" part of each word seem to have no counterpart in English. "Meet face?" "Sleep a sleep?" It all feels very odd.
Below we will introduce separable verbs in more detail, provide more examples, and also offer more specific cases which can trip up learners.
Using 跟 with Separable Verbs
A few verbs allow you to effectively add an additional object by using a 跟 (or 和) phrase before the verb.
跟 + Person + Verb + Object
In this pattern, the verb-object construct remains unseparated.
- 我 明天 跟 他 见面 。I'll meet him tomorrow.
- 我 不要 跟 她 结婚 。I don't want to marry her.
- 你 还 没有 跟 我 道歉 。You still haven't apologized to me.
You'll have to learn which separable verbs allow this pattern on a case-by-case basis.
Where to put 了, 过, 着 with Separable Verbs
Hint: they go after the verb, not the object.
Verb + 了 / 过 / 着 + Object
- 我们 昨天 见 了 面 。separated, 了 insertedWe met yesterday.
- 我们 见 过 面 。separated, 过 insertedWe've met.
- 我们 早上 开 了 会 。We had a meeting in the morning.
- 你们 开 过 会 了 吗 ？Have you had the meeting yet?
- 我们 正 开 着 会 呢 。We're having a meeting right now.
- 他 昨天 来 我 家 了 ，还 吃 了 饭 。He came to my house yesterday and he ate a meal with us.
- 他 吃 过 饭 了 吗 ？Has he eaten yet?
- 他 正 吃 着 饭 呢 。He's eating a meal right now.
Note: unlike the particles 过 and 着, the particle 了 is especially tricky, and it can also appear after the object. So it can be correct in multiple places.
Where to Put Measure Words with Separable Verbs
You guessed it: they go after the verb, not the object.
Verb + [Measure Word Phrase] + Object
- 我们 见 个 面 吧 。Let's meet.
- 我们 见 过 几 次 面。We've met a few times.
- 我们 一起 吃 过 几 次 饭 。We've had several meals together.
- 老板 请 大家 吃 了 一 顿 饭 。The boss treated everyone to dinner.
- 晚安！睡 个 好 觉 。Good night! I hope you have a good sleep.
- 昨晚 我 只 睡 了 两 个 小时 觉 。I only slept two hours last night.
How to Reduplicate Separable Verbs
Reduplication is a way to express the casual nature of a verb or that it happens only briefly. When it comes to separable verbs, only the verb part reduplicates.
Verb + Verb + Object
- 见见 面
- 吃吃 饭
- 聊聊 天
- 吃 饭 吃饭饭 is the object; it should not be repeated.
- 聊 天 聊天天 is the object; it should not be repeated.
Note that you can't put 一下 after separable verbs to express that it happened briefly.
- 见面 一下
Common Examples and Common Mistakes with Separable Verbs
帮忙 (bāngmáng) to help; to do a favor. 帮 is the verb; 忙 is the object, meaning "a favor."
- 我们 可以 帮忙 你 。
- 我们 可以 帮 你 。We can help you.
- 我们 可以 帮忙 。We can do (you) this favor.
If you want to ask someone to do you a favor, check this out:
- 你 可以 帮 我 一个 忙 吗 ？Can you do me a favor?
结婚 (jiéhūn) to get married. 结 is the verb; 婚 acts as the object, meaning "marriage." However, 婚 cannot typically be used as a noun by itself.
- 我 想 结婚 她 。
- 我 想 跟 她 结婚 。the prepositional phrase, literally "with her," comes before the verbI want to get married to her.
聊天 (liáotiān) to chat; to talk (about things in general). 聊 is the verb; 天 acts as the object.
- 他 很 喜欢 聊天 女生 。
- 他 很 喜欢 聊 女生 。He loves talking about girls.
- 他 很 喜欢 跟 女生 聊天 。the prepositional phrase, literally "with you," comes before the verbHe loves talking with girls.
Literally, 天 doesn't mean anything. The object needs to be something specific if you mean to be clear.
- 爸爸 不 喜欢 聊天 他 的 工作 。
- 爸爸 不 喜欢 聊 他 的 工作 。My father doesn't like to talk about his work.
Why Use Them
If separable verbs are simply verb-object phrases, then why the special name? It's because there are some special features of Chinese verb-object phrases worth special attention, and the name "separable verbs" helps call attention to this. Mastering separable verbs can be a little tricky and is an essential objective of the intermediate (B1) level learner of Chinese.
Separable verbs are just one of those things you can't avoid. Many extremely common verbs, such as "to sleep" (睡觉) or "to meet" (见面) are separable verbs, and until you understand which verbs are separable verbs and how they work, you'll forever be making mistakes with these words, even in very basic sentences. In addition, you will continue to encounter new separable verbs, and being already familiar with the concept makes mastering new words much easier.
There is some debate as to how useful the concept of separable verbs really is. For our purposes, we're only concerned with whether or not separable verbs are a useful concept for the student of Mandarin Chinese. Many learners do, in fact, find the concept to be quite useful in helping them speak more natural Chinese.
- List of separable verbs (categorized by difficulty level)
Sources and further reading
- Chinese Grammar Without Tears (简明汉语语法学习手册) (pp. 208) [ →buy]
- New Practical Chinese Reader 3 (新实用汉语课本3) (pp. 16-7) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 113) →buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (pp. 111) →buy
- The Canadian TCSL Association: 离合词教学的理论与实践
- 北京语言大学网络教育学院: 离合词及其教学
- 百度百科: 离合词
- Sinosplice.com: Syntactic Anguish of the Verb-Object-Modifier Variety
- ChinesePod (free content): Qing Wen - Separable Verbs
- Mandarin Friend: “Separable Verbs” – A Misleading and Unnecessary Concept