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Using "bei" sentences

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Bei Sentences, which are called 被字句 (bèizìjù) in Chinese, are a key way to express the passive in modern Mandarin Chinese. In passive sentences, the object of an action becomes the subject of the sentence, and what would have been the subject of the normal (active voice) sentence, the "doer" of the action, becomes secondary, and may or may not be included in the passive sentence.

What is a 被 sentence

被 (bèi) sentences (被字句 in Chinese) are simply sentences which use a passive verb and the preposition 被. 被 sentences are not the only way to create the passive verb form in Chinese, but they are the most common, and definitely the type to tackle first.

For the sake of clarity, let's give some examples of the passive in English first:

  • The boy ate the hot dog. normal sentence in the active voice; note that "the hot dog" is the object of the verb "ate")
  • The hot dog was eaten by the boy. the same sentence in the passive voice; "the hot dog" is now the subject, and "the boy" is the "doer")
  • The hot dog was eaten. also in the passive voice, but with the "doer" omitted)

Now let's see those same sentences in Chinese:

  • 男孩 吃 了 热狗the original sentence)
  • 热狗 男孩 吃 了 。the passive sentence)
  • 热狗 吃 了 。the passive sentence, with no "doer")

Why use them?

Passive sentences are used for several main reasons[1]:

  1. To indicate that one has been negatively affected.
    • 开除 了 。 He got fired.
  2. To shift emphasis from the "doer" of the action to the one affected by that action.
    • 他 肯定 会 开除 。 He will definitely get fired.
  3. To avoid having to mention the "doer" of the action, either because it is unknown, or for other reasons.
    • 开除 了 。 I have been fired (but I'm not saying who fired me, probably because it's obvious).
    • 你 做 的 事 发现 了 。 You got caught for what you did (but I'm not saying who found it, probably because it's obvious).

How to use them

Normal use of 被 has a few preconditions:

  1. The verb to be used with 被 needs to have an object (this will become the new subject of the 被 sentence). Verbs that take objects are called transitive verbs.
  2. If you're going to state who the verb was done by (the "doer"), then the subject doing the original action must be known.
  3. The verb can't be too simple (for example, a one-character verb like 吃). Put simply, something needs to come after the verb. That "something" can be a particle, a complement, or sometimes even an additional object.

Forming a 被 Sentence with a doer

Let's use our example above to show how the process works:

  • 男孩 吃 了 热狗 。The boy ate the hot dog.

In this sentence, "the boy" is the subject. The verb is 吃, "to eat," but it needs something else after it, which is 了 in this case. The object is 热狗, "the hot dog."

This sentence meets all the preconditions. Now all you need to do is introduce the preposition 被 and move the parts of the sentence around a bit:

  1. The object is 热狗. Move that to the front; it's the new subject in the 被 sentence.
  2. Add 被 after the subject, then insert what was previously the subject (It's now the doer.)
  3. Finish off with the verb phrase 吃了. (Don't forget to include the part that comes after the verb!)

So the new 被 sentence is:

  • 热狗 男孩 吃 了 。The hot dog was eaten by the boy.

Subj. + 被 + Doer + Verb Phrase

Here's a table illustrating the process of converting a regular sentence into a 被 sentence:

Creating a 被 sentence from a normal sentence
Subj. Verb Phrase Obj.
男孩 吃了 热狗
Subj. Doer Verb Phrase
热狗 男孩 吃了
  • 男孩 吃 了 热狗the original sentence)
  • 热狗 男孩 吃 了 。the passive 被 sentence)

Forming a 被 Sentence with No "Doer"

If we want to, we can also omit the "doer" (男孩) and say:

  • 热狗 吃 了 。The hot dog was eaten.

Subj. + 被 + Verb Phrase

Let's take a closer look at how you build this kind of sentence.

Creating a 被 sentence with no "doer"
Subj. Verb Phrase Obj.
男孩 吃了 热狗
Subj. Doer Verb Phrase
热狗 男孩 吃了
热狗 吃了
  • 男孩 吃 了 热狗 。 the original sentence)
  • 热狗 男孩 吃 了 。 the passive sentence)
  • 热狗 吃 了 。 the passive sentence, with no "doer")

Forming a Negative 被 Sentence

There's just one other complication. What if you want to make a sentence in the negative? For example, continuing with our wonderful theme, if you wanted to say:

  • The hot dog was not eaten by the boy.

In this case, the negative adverb 没有 needs to be inserted before the 被[2], and the verb still needs something after it, which in this case is 掉. (We're using 掉, which adds a meaning of "totally" to the verb, because you don't use 了 when you use 没有 to negate.) This is what we get:

Subj. + 没有 + 被 + Doer + Verb Phrase

Creating a negative 被 sentence
Subj. Negative Verb Phrase Obj.
男孩 没有 吃掉 热狗
Subj. Negative Doer Verb Phrase
热狗 没有 男孩 吃掉
热狗 没有 吃掉
  • 男孩 没有 吃 掉 热狗 。 the original sentence, using the negative adverb 没有)
  • 热狗 没有 男孩 吃 掉 。 the passive sentence, using the negative adverb 没有)
  • 热狗 没有 吃 掉 。 the passive sentence, using the negative adverb 没有, and no "doer")

Adding Adv.s in a 被 Sentence

What if you want to include adverbs in your 被 sentence? Where should those go? They go in the same place as the negative adverb 没有, above. (Frequently you'll see the word "adverbial" or "adverbial adjunct" used in this case, because some words in Chinese, such as time words, act like adverbs but are technically nouns.) In the following example we'll use the adverb 刚, which is used to express that something just recently happened.

Subj. + Adv. + 被 + Doer + Verb Phrase

Creating a negative 被 sentence
Subj. Adv. Verb Phrase Obj.
男孩 吃掉 热狗
Subj. Adv. Doer Verb Phrase
热狗 男孩 吃掉
热狗 吃掉
  • 男孩 吃 掉 热狗 。 the original sentence, using the Adv. 刚)
  • 热狗 男孩 吃 掉 。 the passive sentence, using the Adv. 刚)
  • 热狗 吃 掉 。 the passive sentence, using the Adv. 刚, and no "doer")

See also

References

  1. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide, Section 17.3, "Conditions for using the passive in Mandarin"
  2. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide, Section 17.2, "The passive and negation"

Sources and further reading

Books

Websites