21 Glossary of Selected Grammatical Terms for Classical Chinese

Glossary of Selected Grammatical Terms for Classical Chinese

Note that words in Classical Chinese are traditionally divided into two primary categories: 實詞 shící (“full” or “content” words) that are the main carriers of meaning in the discourse in contrast to 虛詞 xū cí (“empty” or “function” words), whose role is purely grammatical: specifying, modifying, joining, etc.

adversative – but, rather, however, instead – a conjunction that indicates that information is being given that goes against what has just been said.  然 rán 而 ér etc.

adverb  – precedes and modifies the verb. Note that words can be used more freely as adverbs in Classical Chinese than English. When a noun precedes the verb, and if it does not function as the subject, then it must be taken as an adverb.  For example: 馬食之 mǎ sì zhī  (“fed him in the manner one would feed a horse”) , 徒多道亡 tú duō dào wáng  (“the convicts mostly escaped along the road”).

adverb of aspect – adverbs that indicate when actions take place – in the future, in the past etc . One of main ways to indicate tense explicitly in Classical Chinese. 將 jiāng (about   to), 且 qiě (about to), 已 yǐ (already), 未 wèi (not yet), etc.  For example: 子將安之 zǐ  jiāng ān zhī, (where are you going)?

adverb of scope – an adverb in that it precedes the verb, but rather than describing the verb it gives the information about the quantity or number of scope of the subject or the object of the verb depending on context. 皆 jié (all), 莫 mò (in no case or no one), 或 huò (in some    case or someone). eg.

左右皆笑之 Those present all laughed at him (refers to the subject)
zuǒ yòu jié xiào zhī
漢皆已得楚乎? Has Han already won over all of Chu’s army?  (refers to the object)
hàn jié yǐ dé chǔ hū?

causative verb – an intransitive verb or some word belonging to another word class that is used as a transitive verb and means” to cause the object to verb.  Eg. 坐 zuò is an intransitive verb, but in a sentence such as zuò Xū Gǔ yú tang xià  坐須賈於堂下 (to sit Xu Gu somewhere below the hall) this intransitive verb takes a proper noun as its object  and has a clear causative reading.

clause – part of a complex sentence that has a verb (or an implied verb in the case of the equational nominal usage of 也 yě) but can’t stand independently on its own as a sentence. Eg. in a 如…則 rú…zé construction, we can speak of an “if” clause and a “then” clause.

conjunction – words that serve to link two words or two clauses or two sentences together, such as 則 zé,  而 ér,  及 jí, etc. These can be temporal (indicating a sequence in time) or  logical (indicating a sequence in reasoning).

coverb – basically the English prepositions.  This category covers such words as 以 yǐ, 於 yú,  從 cóng, etc.  Like regular verbs, coverbs take objects and thus are transitive. The 0S-iect of a coverb usually drops out if it is the object pronoun 之 zhī.  Eg. 以(之)告 yǐ (zhī) gào  (told about it). In fact, the combination 以之  yǐ zhī virtually never occurs in an actual  usage.  The function of coverb phrase is to indicate in what manner, with what means, on    whose behalf, for what purpose an action is taken.

demonstrative – the equivalent of” this”, ” that” in English.  其 qí,  之 zhī,  此 cǐ,  彼 bǐ  etc.

double negative– a double negative, of which Classical Chinese is inordinately fond, equals an emphatic positive.  Eg. 物有不可不忘 wù yǒu bù kě bú wàng (there are things which   must be forgotten).

equational nominal predicate – in the X, Y (X is Y) construction, it refers to the “is Y.”  Eg. 雀, 鳥也 Què, niǎo yě.  In general, we use this to describe the function of 也yě in such sentences, which we call “equational sentences.”

explicit particle of subordination– one of the map functions of 之 zhī is to show that one term is modifying another.  Eg.  廉頗者,趙之良將也  Lián Pō zhě, Zhāo zhī liáng jiàng yě.  Note that之 zhī  can be used in this way to modify verbs as well as nouns:  eg. 既患秦兵之來 jì huàn Qín bīng zhī lái (fear the arrival of Qin’s army).  IN this case之 zhī   functions like a nominalizer which changes a verb phrase or a clause into a nominal element.

fusion word– when two characters fuse together to form a new character that is a contraction of the original two characters. They are rather limited in number, the main ones being: 耳 ěr  (而 +已)  焉 yān (於 + 之) and 諸 zhū (之 + 於).

imperative– a verb that gives a command or order. ” Do this!” In Classical Chinese positive imperatives are structurally indistinguishable from other kinds of verbs. Only negative imperatives make use of distinct characters.

interrogative – question words, such as 孰 shú,  何 hé, etc.

kernal sentence – the basic, minimal skeleton of a sentence which remains after you’ve gotten rid of modifiers, time words, and other phrases – generally either topic/comment or subject-verb-(object) construction.

locative – indicating location or place

measure word – a counter or classifier for nouns or verbs. Note that when nouns are counted with a number the order is usually: Noun + Number + Measure word. Eg. 馬三匹  mǎ sān pí.

modal particles – 1) introduces a rhetorical question or 2) changes a declarative sentence into one expressing desire, exhortation, doubt or 3) adds emotion by turning a sentence into an exclamation.  Eg.  豈 qǐ,  其 qí.

negative imperative– A negative command or order – “Don’t!”  Rather than using 不 bù, which negates ordinary verbs, negative imperatives are formed with the characters 勿, 無, 毋 wù. Eg. 無扑之wù pū zhī (Don’t hit him!).  In clauses following certain verbs such as 令lìng (to order), 使 shǐ (to cause), 欲 yù (to want), 恐 kǒng (to fear), a negative imperative (i.e. any of the 3 possible characters for “wu”) will be used to negate the  second verb.  Eg. 欲勿予  yù wù yǔ (if we want not to give it to them).

nominalizer– a word that turns a verb or a clause into a nominal (noun) phrase- such as 者 zhě for verbs and 之 zhī for clauses.

object pronoun– a pronoun that is the object of a verb, such as之 zhī (it, that, them, her, him, etc.),   己 jǐ (oneself), 我 wǒ (me), etc.

oblique object– used to describe the nouns or noun phrases following the coverb 於 yú.  A sentence can have a regular object and a oblique object. The order would be: [Subject] + Verb + Object + yu + oblique object.  Eg.  王殺臣於院  wáng shā chén yú yuàn (The king killed the vassal in the courtyard).  There are some linguists who consider oblique object a type of complement rather than object.

particles – words without a real meaning of their own, but that play a rhythmic emphatic or grammatical role in the sentence, such as final particles like 也 yě,   矣 yǐ, etc., and initial particles like 夫 fú.  Important in punctuation.

partitive – a construction that singles out or defines and individual or a sub-group out of a larger group using 之 zhī and 者 zhě .  “One of”, “those of,” “someone who”, etc. Eg.  事之不可知者一shì zhī bù kě zhī zhě yī (One of the (three) things that cannot be known).  Remember that 之 zhī  frequently drops out in this construction.  Eg.  求人可 使 報 秦者 (I seek someone who can be sent to report to Qin).

passive – a verb that is not active. Passive may be explicitly indicated as follows:

1) by inverting verb and its object Eg. 一人蛇先成 yī rén shé xiān chéng (one person’s  snake was completed first)

2)  by explicit markers like 見 jiàn,  被 bèi, or  為 wéi.  Eg.   殺  shā  (to kill) vs. 見殺 jiàn shā (to be killed)

3)  by the presence of a passive agent marker 於 yú (see below)

4) verbs coming after the following words are taken in the passive:可kě (be able to be verbed), 易 yì (easy to be verbed)  難 nán (difficult to be verbed) 足 zú (worthy of being verbed or sufficient to be verbed).  An  以 yǐ can be inserted after any of these four words to make the verb coming after it active. E.g. 可以救趙  kě yǐ jiù Zhào (be able to save Zhao).

passive agent – indicated by:

1) following a 於 yú that follows a verb.  Eg. 軍幸於趙王jūn xìng yú  Zhāo Wáng (you are favored by the kind of Zhao) where 趙王 is the passive agent.

2) preceding 所 suǒ in the pattern X 為 Y 所 verb where Y is the passive agent.  Eg. 父為人所殺 fù wèi rén suǒ shā (her father was killed by someone).  Note that the 所 can drop     out sometimes as in: 身為宋國笑 shēn wéi song guó xiào  (he was laughed at by the whole state of Song).

phrase – a mini-unit or building block within a sentence that is incomplete on its own and does not on its own add up’ to a full independent sentence because it lacks a full pledged verb.  Eg. 天下之事 tiān xià zhī shì  or 軍之來 jūn zhī lái (In the last example, the clause 軍來jūn lái is turned into a noun phrase by the nominalizer 之 zhī.)

place word – indicates a place and may be a proper noun. It can come at the beginning of the sentence after a time word (if there is one). Eg. 邯鄲 Hándān, 咸陽 Xiányáng or it can come at the end of a sentence as a locative complement of  於 yú,   死於關中sǐ yú Guān Zhōng [(he) died in Guanzhong].  It can of course also be the complement of other verbs such as 至 zhì (to reach).

predicate – the part of the sentence containing the verb or the verb-object that comes after the subject. Note that while the subject frequently drops out in Classical Chinese, the       minimal sentence requires some sort of predicate.

pronoun – substitutes or stand in for some other noun or noun phrase, such as 者 zhě or 其 qí.  Remember that pronoun objects and verbs are usually inverted following a negative.  Eg.  恐其不我於也kǒng qí bù wǒ yú yě  (I was afraid that they would not want me!).

putative verb – works exactly like a causative verb, except that it means to treat or consider something like the verb. Eg. 其夫美之 qí  fū měi zhī (her husband considers her to be beautiful).

rhetorical question – distinguished from a real question in which the questioner really wants to know the answer. A rhetorical question is used for polemical, emphatic, oratorical, or emotional reasons and need not always be translated as a question in English.  Interrogative words such as 安能ān néng,  豈能qǐ néng,豈敢qǐ gǎn are often found in rhetorical questions.

stative verb – an adjective, but stative verb is preferable because in Chinese adjectives can function as intransitive verbs if they come after a noun, and they can take aspect marker.  Eg. 月明yuè míng (the moon is bright).  They act like English adjectives when they precede and modify a noun – eg. 明月  míng yuè (the bright moon).

time word – indicates a specific time such as 今 jīn (now) or 趙文王二十四年Zhāo Wénwáng èrshísì nián (the 24th year of the reign of King Wen of Zhao).  In a narrative the time word will precedes the place word at the head of the sentence. To be distinguished from “adverbs of aspects.”

topic/comment – A topic is a subject of discussion that being introduced. A comment is some statement or remark or information regarding the topic. Note that topic can be the object as well as the subject of the verb in the comment- this is one of the advantages of the topic/comment explanation over plain subject/predicate. Eg, 然而不王者,未之有也 rán ér bù wáng zhě, wèi zhī yǒu yě (it has never happened that in such circumstances true kingship was not obtained).  Here the topic 不王者 is actually the object of the verb 有in the comment.

transitive verb – a verb that requires an object.  Eg. 人殺吾子 rén shā wú zǐ  (someone killed my son)

word class – the grammatical function or” class” of a word, such as ” verb,” ” adverb,” ” noun,” etc. Note that Chinese shift class with much greater ease and frequency English, a phenomenon that our grammar notes call” class spread” – shifting from one word class to another.



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Introduction to Classical Chinese by Patrick Hanan; David Lattimore; Judith Zeitlin; Margaret Baptist Wan; Anthony George; Xiaofei Tian; Regina Llamas; Hu Hsiao-chen; Liu Lening; Paul Rouzer; Shang Wei; Andrew Schonebaum; and Kong Mei is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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