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Part of speech

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"Part of speech" (词类 in Mandarin) is a key term in any book about grammar, and even any dictionary, for that matter. Common examples of a word's part of speech include noun, verb, adjective, and so on. Many native speakers are not at all clear on the parts of speech of the words they use on a daily basis. This is not a problem in any language, but if you're a learner that really wants to master Chinese grammar in all its subtle nuances, you'll find that classification by part of speech is a very useful tool. Part of speech comes in handy not just in instantly knowing the main ways a word can be used, but also in helping you cut to the chase and identify the key exceptions and special properties of a word. In Mandarin Chinese, you'll frequently encounter words that push the boundaries of their parts of speech, or subcategories of words that act like freak "hybrids" (such as "adjectives acting like verbs").

Part of speech is the tool which will help you start to make sense of what seems like a chaotic mess of words "just doing whatever they want." Don't worry; it's not as difficult as it sounds! We'll start by introducing the main concepts related to part of speech.

Content Words and Function Words

Since ancient times, the words of the Chinese language have been grouped into two main categories: xuci (虚词) and shici (实词). The astute sinophile will notice the very dualistic nature of this classification system. These two words can be translated in many different ways, but here we'll use the term function words for the former, and content words for the latter.

Function Words (虚词)

The character 虚 refers to that which is "false" or "not real," or "empty." In this case, the words are "empty" in that they don't do anything by themselves. They serve important grammatical functions by making clear relationships between words, logical connections, or modifications of meaning. Hence, the Chinese word 虚词 is a bit difficult to translate, and is listed in the ABC Dictionary as all of the following: "function word/form word/cenematic word/empty word/syncategorematic word; functive; particle."

Function words are the "grammar words" of modern Chinese. They're the 了, the 着, the 于, the 向, the 和, and the 却. These are the ones that tend to give learners are a hard time. The good news is that it's not random words that are designated as function words; it's whole categories of words, whole parts of speech. The parts of speech classified as function words are: prepositions, conjunctions, and particles.

Content Words (实词)

As you might know (or guess), the character 实 means "real," "actual," "true." Contrary to function words, these content words refer to real objects in the real world, whether solid and palpable, or observable in some other way. These words refer to objects, actions, concepts, and even emotions, which exist in some real way as more than just grammatical tools.

The ABC lists all of the following translations for the Chinese word 实词: "notional word/plerematic word; autonomous word/content word/full word/lexical word; contentive; substantive." The parts of speech classified as content words are: nouns, pronouns, verbs, auxiliary verbs, adjectives, adverbs, number words, measure words, interjections, and onomatopoeia.

Parts of Speech in Mandarin Chinese

(For a more complete list including subcategories, see the full parts of speech list.)

Determining Part of Speech

When you study a European language, part of speech seems very much cut and dry. Parts of speech seem to have been designated in antiquity, and even have all kinds of telltale features which help the learner to recognize them. Such is not the case in Mandarin Chinese. Let's take a look at three key ways for recognizing a word's part of speech (in any language) and see what works best for Mandarin Chinese.

Part of Speech by Form

Some words have certain features (called "morphological features") which help you recognize their parts of speech. For example, verbs in Spanish end in -ar, -er, or -ir. Some English verbs end in -ize. Adjectives in English often end in -al or -y. Verbs in English often take the endings -ed or -ing. Both nouns and verbs can take the ending -s. You get the idea.

This may be a handy shortcut for identifying parts of speech (or at least eliminating possibilities), but it doesn't often work in Mandarin. This is because Mandarin words rarely have these telltale morphological markers. Yes there are some, such as -性 or -化 or -们, but they're not common. So we'll point them out when they exist, but they're not something you can consistently count on in your studies of modern Mandarin.

Part of Speech by Meaning

Often, a part of speech is clear simply by its meaning. An action is a verb. A person or a thing is a noun. Simple right? Well... sometimes. But often not. The issue is that there are many words in Mandarin with very similar meanings, but different parts of speech. One oft-cited example is 忽然 and 突然. Both mean "suddenly." But 突然 can also act as an adjective ("sudden."). A simple "meaning check" would be misleading for these two words in many contexts. So while this method is not without value, it's not reliable for tricky cases.

Part of Speech by Function

When we talk about "grammatical function," we're talking about what a word does in a sentence. What words does it combine with, and in what order? What words (or classes of words) does it not combine with? Furthermore, for the other words that any given word can combine with, what role does it play?

This grammatical function test relates not only to other parts of speech, but also to the main elements of a sentence (e.g. subject, predicate, etc.). It is the most reliable and most useful way of determining a given word's part of speech in Mandarin Chinese, and will therefore be used extensively throughout this resource when discussing part of speech.

One problem with this method is that it does feel difficult to "break in." If you're determining a word's part of speech by examining its role in common usage and seeing how it combines with other parts of speech, it's difficult if you don't have a full grasp of the functions of any part of speech in Mandarin. It does feel a little circular. Don't worry, though; many parts of speech are actually quite simple in function, and breaking into this "exclusive club" and getting to know the "key players" is not as impossible as it feels at first.

Sources and further reading