“Separable Verbs” – A Misleading and Unnecessary Concept

Abstract

Many textbooks and dictionaries published in China and abroad discuss “Separable Verbs” (离合词) as grammatically distinct from Verb-Object Phrases (短语). Although the idea of “Separable Verbs” may arguably help beginners understand differences between English and Chinese verb manipulation, I argue that “Separable Verbs” and Verb-Object Phrases are essentially the same thing and intermediate learners should abandon this distinction to better understand the Chinese language on its own terms.

离合词

Contents

Introduction
List of Commonly Cited “Separable Verbs”
Explanations of “Separable Verbs”
Comparison of “Separable Verbs” and Verb-Object Phrases
Sources of Potential Confusion for Users of “Separable Verbs”
a) What Constitutes a “Separable Verb” is a Subjective Choice
b) Verbs Don’t Always Need an Object
c) Double-Character Verbs
d) Comparisons with Phrasal Verbs in English
e) Grammatical Exceptions
Summary
Disclaimer
References and Further Reading


Introduction

If a beginner student asks their teacher, “How do you say ‘swim’ in Chinese?”, the teacher will probably answer with the word 游泳. This is a fair translation, but if this word is used in a sentence it is likely that the two characters of 游泳 will be separated by other characters, or other manipulations of the verb may occur.

你喜欢游泳吗?
Do you like swimming?

他游了很长时间的泳。
He swam for a long time.

他没有游过泳。
He has never been swimming.

游游泳吧!
Have a swim!


List of Commonly Cited “Separable Verbs”

These are some of the “Separable Disyllabic Verbs” introduced by the New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook in chapter 27.

游泳 to swim

吃饭 to eat

起床 to get up

睡觉 to sleep

开学 to start a new term of school

上课 to have a class

发烧 to get a fever

看病 to see a doctor

住院 to be hospitalised

开车 to drive

打的 to get a taxi

说话 to speak

聊天 to chat


Explanations of “Separable Verbs”

In the translations above, many of these words would be considered intransitive verbs in English, meaning to they do not require an object (e.g. chat, speak, drive, eat, swim). Other verbs are best considered transitive verbs in English, meaning that they usually require an object (e.g. to get a taxi, to see a doctor, to have a class).

Let’s take 吃饭 as an example. Whilst 吃饭 is usually simply translated in English as ‘eat’, we could also say ‘eat a meal’. In this way, 吃 is the verb and 饭 is the object (饭 literally means ‘rice’, an abbreviation of the word 米饭). In reality, the word 吃饭 is a Verb-Object Phrase made up of 吃 and 饭 together.

Since rice has historically been the staple food of Chinese-speaking people, the word 饭 has been associated with ‘food’ generally, so 吃饭 could also be translated as ‘eat food’. But in English, we usually wouldn’t say ‘eat food’, we would just say ‘eat’. Hence, 吃饭 is simply ‘eat’.

So far, so simple.

But now let’s look at 聊天, for example. This word can not be so easily imagined as a Verb-Object Phrase by beginner learners of Chinese, because the meaning of ‘chat’ is more abstract. For 聊天, what could the object of the Verb-Object Phrase be? Certainly, you can say ‘have a chat’ in English, but 聊 doesn’t mean ‘have’ and 天 doesn’t mean ‘chat’. (In fact, 天 on its own means ‘day’, but this usage of ‘day’ is completely unrelated to the word 聊天 or ‘chat’ in this context.)

The concept of “Separable Verbs” is used to help a beginner overcome the initial confusion related to the conception of abstract objects which do not have a direct translation in English. Some explanations of “Separable Verbs”, whilst implying that they are in some way ‘special’ or ‘different’ without defining exactly why, may also describe them as composed of a Verb-Object structure.


Comparison of “Separable Verbs” and Verb-Object Phrases

In this article, I argue that “Separable Verb” is a misleading term and that so-called “Separable Verbs” are, in theory and in practise, exactly the same as other Verb-Object Phrases.

Let’s compare some “Separable Verbs” and other Verb-Object Phrases in various aspects and sentences patterns, to see if their grammatical use is different.

“Separable Verb” examples Verb-Object Phrase examples
Expressing Change of State with 你吃饭了吗?Have you eaten?

我起床了。

I’ve got up.

你吃晚饭了吗?Have you eaten dinner?

我买东西了。

I have bought some stuff.

Expressing Experience with 你住过院吗?Have you ever stayed in the hospital?

他开过车。

He has driven before.

你坐过飞机吗?Have you ever taken a plane?

他喝过酒。

He has drunk alcohol before.

Expressing “a little” with 一点 吃一点吧。Eat a little. 喝一点吧。Drink a little.
Expressing the Continuous Aspect with 她在唱歌。She’s singing. 她在买菜。She’s buying vegetables.
Expressing Duration with a Time Duration Phrase 她已经开了很长时间车了。She’s already been driving for a long time. 她已经看了很长时间电视了。She’s already been watching TV for a long time.
Modifying the Object 他生了很大气。He got really angry.

我朋友帮了我的忙。

My friend helped me.

他吃了很多苹果。He ate a lot of apples.

我朋友骑了我的自行车。

My friend rode my bicycle.

Notice that in all the examples in the table above, the only thing that fundamentally differs between the “Separable Verb” examples and the Verb-Object Phrase examples is the English translation. The grammatical structures, as far as the Chinese language is concerned, is the same.


Sources of Potential Confusion for Users of “Separable Verbs”

Here are some reasons why I think the idea of “Separable Verbs” is misleading, as well as some additional causes of verb-related confusion.

a) What Constitutes a “Separable Verb” is a Subjective Choice

Some teachers suggest that “Separable Verbs” are a Verb-Object Phrase with a “default” object. For example, 饭 could be described as the default object of 吃 in 吃饭, while 觉 could similarly be described as the default object of 睡 in 睡觉.

But the notion of a ‘default’ verb is entirely subjective, therefore which words are defined as “Separable Verbs” and which verbs are commonly seen Verb-Object Phrases are also subjective choices, and not based on a distinctive grammatical features.

For instance, consider the Chinese word for the English word ‘drink’. This word isn’t considered to be a “Separable Verb” in any textbook I’ve seen, although common Verb-Object Phrases might be 喝水 (drink water), 喝东西 (drink something), 喝酒 (drink alcohol), 喝茶 (drink tea), etc. Why is 吃饭 usually called a “Separable Verb” when 喝水 isn’t? There is no objective reason why some Verb-Object Compounds are given the special title “Separable Verb”, whilst others are not.

b) Verbs Don’t Always Need an Object

Some teachers and textbooks, in an effort to emphasise that in many sentences Chinese verbs take objects more often than in comparable English sentences, lead students to believe that verbs should always take an object. But in many Chinese sentences, particularly sentences where context is clear, the object in a Verb-Object Phrase is often unnecessary. This is true also for “Separable Verbs” too, of course, which can lead to additional confusion.

你多吃一点。
Eat a little more!

她睡了很长时间。
She slept for a long time.

However, many textbooks explain that “Separable Verbs” cannot take an object. This is misleading. “Separable Verbs” cannot take an object because in reality there is already an object as part of the so-called “Separable Verb”.

In fact, stating that “Separable Verbs” are different from other Verb-Object Phrases makes Chinese grammar unnecessarily complex. In other words, it is easier to understand that ‘some objects are abstract and can be omitted in some sentence patterns’ than to create a new class of verbs, distinct from other Verb-Object Phrases, but not fully define what makes them special.

c) Double-Character Verbs

One source of confusion is the difference between Double-Character Verbs and Verb-Object Phrases (including so-called “Separable Verbs”). Double-Character Verbs (e.g. 离开,浪费,了解,发现) cannot be separated in the same way as Verb-Object Phrases, because both characters constitute the whole meaning of the word. Moreover, many Double-Character Verbs can also take an object.

你想离开吗?
Do you want to leave?

你想离开北京吗?
Do you want to leave Beijing?

Confusingly, sometimes Double-Character Verbs can be abbreviated to their first character, yet still retain the same meaning. In some sentences, this abbreviation does not require an object, but in other sentences an object can be used.

我每天学习中文。
I study Chinese everyday.

他学了两个小时。
He studied for two hours.

他喜欢学习法语吗?
Do you like studying French?

Many textbooks and dictionaries do not differentiate between so called “Separable Verbs” (which are, in fact, Verb-Object Phrases) and Double-Character Verbs. This is a huge problem for learners, who will not be able to confidently manipulate verbs unless the distinction is clear.

My advice for students is to always ask teachers whether a newly introduced two character word is in fact a Double-Character Verb or a Verb-Object Phrase.

d) Phrasal Verbs in English

Additional confusion is created by some explanations which compare phrasal verbs in English to “Separable Verbs” (for example, the Chinese Grammar Wiki). A phrasal verb in English is a verb phrase with two or more words; for example, ‘pick up’, ‘put down’, ‘take away’, ‘move over’, ‘turn off’. Usually, a phrasal verb in English involves a verb followed by a preposition or directional element; an object can sometimes be placed between these two parts of the phrasal verbs.

Turn the TV off.
He took the car away.
Did you pick the newspaper up?

However, these kinds of sentences are entirely different to “Separable Verbs”, which are in essence Verb-Object Phrases, not Verb-Prepositional phrases. In Chinese, verb phrases that involve prepositions are usually expressed using entirely different grammatical formations; namely, Verb Compliments sometimes known as Coverbs (e.g. 到,上,掉,下来,过去,回来) can follow the verb, in sentences which often involve the 把 construction as well.

把电视关掉。
Turn the TV off.

你把报纸拿起来吗?
Did you pick the newspaper up?

Verb-Object Phrases (including so-called “Separable Verbs”) are fundamentally different from phrasal verbs in English, and it is misleading to compare them.

e) Grammatical Exceptions

As in any language, there are sometimes exceptions in actual spoken language that cannot be explained by generalised grammar rules.

Take 结婚, for example. Many textbooks state that 结婚 is a “Separable Verb”, so therefore any modifiers should be placed between these two characters. However, this is not always the case.

我结婚两年了。
I’ve been married for two years.

The textbook grammar pattern from both Verb-Object Phrases and “Separable Verbs” suggests that the Time Duration Phrase should be placed between the two characters in the sentence, but this formation sounds unnatural to most Chinese speakers. However, other separations of 结婚 such as 结过婚 and 结了婚 are possible. There are no rules, to my knowledge, that can explain exceptions like this one.

Don’t let exceptions such as these obfuscate a fundamental fact: Verb-Object Phrases usually function in a predictable grammatical fashion, and exceptions exist for both so-called “Separable Verbs” and Verb-Object Phrases alike. Significantly, I haven’t come across any exceptions that justify making “Separable Verbs” into their own distinct class of verbs, different from other Verb-Object Phrases.


Summary

In conclusion, when we analyse the Chinese language on its own terms, we can see no discernible difference between so-called “Separable Verbs” and regular Verb-Object Phrases.

The only benefit of the idea of “Separable Verbs” is for beginner learners who may not be able to grasp the notion that simple English verbs like ‘eat’ or ‘sleep’ can take the form of two character words in Chinese that can have abstract objects which cannot be translated well in English. The teaching of “Separable Verbs” is, in essence, for students who rely too much on the English-to-Chinese translation in their learning of Chinese verbs.

In the long-term, the subjective and arbitrary notion of “Separable Verbs” is likely to cause confusion for learners. There is no “correct” list of “Separable Verbs”, no distinct grammatical patterns, and Chinese speakers themselves usually do not view their own language according to these distinctions (except insofar as they are teaching Chinese as a foreign language).

Intermediate learners of Chinese are advised to focus on different ways of manipulating Single-Character Verbs and Double-Character Verbs, both with or without objects, without reference to the artificial construct of a “Separable Verbs”.


Disclaimer

Of course, perhaps I’ve missed something. If anyone is able to explain why “Separable Verbs” in general are grammatically or conceptually distinct from regular Verb-Object Phrases, please get in touch and I will, of course, be open to revising my view.


References and Further Reading

I would like to thank my Chinese teacher, Andy, for helping me understand this topic. I was also inspired to some extent by a discussion on the forums of Chinesepod started by user simonpettersson, who argued that “Separable Verbs” are a “useful lie”. View the discussion here: http://chinesepod.com/community/conversations/post/9945

1. The Code of Chinese Verbs, p. 3-10.
2. Mandarin Grammar Wiki, http://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Separable_verbs
3. Chinesepod, https://chinesepod.com/lessons/separable-verbs
4. New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook 3, p. 16-17.
5. Integrated Chinese Level 1 Part 1, p.113.

2 thoughts on ““Separable Verbs” – A Misleading and Unnecessary Concept

  1. Thank you for your long and thorough article. I’m a beginning learner in Chinese and this echoes what I’ve felt about separable verbs for a while, which is that I never saw the difference to normal verb object phrases. The most difficult part to me though, is figuring out WHICH “verbs” are separable/verb-object phrases. For example if you look up “sleep” in an English-Chinese dictionary it will show you 睡觉 as “to sleep” and I can’t find an easy way of telling whether 觉 is the object of a verb-object phrase or the second character of a double character verb. Even if I then look up the meaning of the second character it is often still ambiguous to me, since many characters seem to have the possibility of being both verbs or nouns depending on their use.

    Liked by 1 person

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