- 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."
What Are They
Purely from the "separable" aspect, Mandarin's separable verbs have a counterpart in English: phrasal verbs (also called two-word verbs). While the grammatical components of English's phrasal verbs are different, the "separable" quality works in a very similar way. Take the phrasal verb "check out" for example:
- Check out my new computer.
- Check my new computer out.
Do you see what happened there? The verb "check out" can split into two parts (a verb and a preposition), and other words can go in between those two parts. Separable verbs work much the same way in Chinese, except that the two parts are a verb and an object (a noun).
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, literally meaning "face."
- 我 想 见面 你 。
- 我 想 见 你 。
- 我 想 跟 你 见面 。the prepositional phrase, literally "with you," comes before the verb
Perhaps the most common examples of separable verbs that beginners struggle with are 见面 and 睡觉. For a more complete list, see the list of separable verbs.
Below we will introduce separable verbs in more detail, provide more examples, and also offer more specific cases of where separable verbs can get tricky.
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 verbs, even in very basic sentences.
First, you need to understand the structure of separable verbs. Most separable verbs are a "Verb + Object" (the object is a noun) construct. One might wonder, then, why there needs to be a separate category called "separable verbs" instead of just thinking of them as a verb and an object. There are several reasons to think of them as special verbs:
- 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) and 结婚 (to get married) are such examples. In these examples, it's just not easy to think of the objects as an object.
- 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. No matter how you think of them, it's good to give these "words" or "phrases" extra attention to make your Chinese more natural.
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 a verb. It's from this essential relationship that the following principles flow:
- 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 be used as a noun very much.
- 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 。
- 上班 时间 不要 聊天 。
- 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. An important note to keep in mind is that you don't need to translate "about" into 关于 in this scenario.
- 爸爸 不 喜欢 聊天 他 的 工作 。
- 爸爸 不 喜欢 聊 关于 他 的 工作 。
- 爸爸 不 喜欢 聊 他 的 工作 。My father doesn't like to talk about his work.
- 创业 (chuàngyè) to start up one's business
创 is the verb; 业 is the object.
- 我 想 创业 自己 的 公司 。
- 我 想 创业 。I want to start up my own business.
If you mean to say "to launch a company" or "to set up your business," use this sentence below:
- 我 想 开 公司 。I want to lunch my business.
Where to put 了, 过, 着
- 我们 昨天 见 了 面 。separated, 了 insertedWe've met yesterday.
- 我们 见 过 面 。separated, 过 insertedWe've met.
- 我们 早上 开 了 会 。We had a meeting this morning.
- 你们 开 过 会 了 吗 ？Have you had the meeting yet?
- 我们 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 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
- 见面 (jiànmiàn)
- 我们 见 个 面 吧 。Let's meet.
- 我们 见 过 几 次 面。We've met a few times.
- 吃饭 (chīfàn)
- 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 invited everyone to dinner.
- 睡觉 (shuìjiào)
- 晚安！睡 个 好 觉 。Good night! I hope you can have some good sleep.
- 昨晚 我 只 睡 了 两 个 小时 觉 。I only slept two hours last night.
How to Reduplicate
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.
- 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 separable verbs can't used with 一下 to express it happens briefly.
- 见面 一下
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.
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
- Chinesegrammar.info: A look into the seperable verb 帮忙 by comparing it to 帮.
- Mandarin Friend: “Separable Verbs” – A Misleading and Unnecessary Concept