What Are 形容词? Are They ‘Adjectives’ or ‘Adjectival Stative Verbs’?


Some grammar guides suggest that Chinese does not have “adjectives” in the traditional sense; instead, words which describe properties of things or states of movement (known as 形容词) are categorised as “adjectival stative verbs”. This article will systematically compare how these “adjectives” or “adjectival stative verbs” are manipulated in various sentence patterns to evaluate which title is most fitting. It is concluded that, while there are similarities in usage with other stative verbs, a number of significant differences also exist meaning that the traditional categorisation of these words as “adjectives” is useful afterall.



Different Interpretations
Examples of 形容词 and ‘Regular Stative Verbs’
Why are there two approaches to understanding 形容词?
Comparing 形容词 and Stative Verbs in Use
a) Using 很 and other Intensifier Adverbs
b) Making Questions with 吗 and the ‘Verb 不 Verb’ Pattern
c) 形容词 Can’t Take Objects
d) Modifying Noun Phrases with 的
e) Verb Aspect and Time
f) The 比 Pattern
g) Using 更 and 最
h) Reduplication Patterns
References and Further Reading


In English, adjectives are words that describe the properties of things or people (e.g. ‘tall’, ‘blue’, ‘exciting’, ‘new’) or the states of movements or actions (e.g. ‘fast’, ‘steady’). An adjective can be used before a noun (e.g. ‘the big event’, ‘my clever cat’) or it can be used with the verb ‘to be’ (e.g. ‘the event was big’, ‘my cat is clever’). To show a comparison, some adjectives use the suffix ‘er’ (e.g. ‘taller’, ‘steadier’) while some adjectives use ‘more’ or ‘less’ (e.g. ‘more expensive’, ‘less remarkable’). To show a superlative, some adjectives use the suffix ‘est’ (e.g. ‘tallest’, steadiest’) while some adjectives use ‘most’ or ‘least’ (e.g. ‘most expensive’, ‘least remarkable’.)

Of course, Chinese differs significantly from English in its use of adjectives. The Chinese word for adjective is 形容词. 形容词 often use 的 to connect with a noun, and (in general) do not use 是 to link a subject. Chinese does not have suffixes to describe comparative and superlative 形容词, but instead uses 更 and 最 respectively. In addition, there are a number of sentence patterns to express comparisons (e.g. the 比 pattern) or to otherwise manipulate adjectives (e.g. the 越来越 pattern).

Different Interpretations

Many textbooks and grammar guides state that Chinese has adjectives like any other language, but concede that, of course, there are many differences in usage. For example, the New Practical Chinese Reader and Integrated Chinese textbook series both explain the various ways “adjectives” are manipulated. In most native Chinese grammar guides, adjectives are called 形容词, literally meaning ‘description words’.

However, other textbooks and grammar guides argue that Chinese does not have adjectives. 形容词, according to these approaches, are in fact a special kind of verb. Schaum’s Outlines Chinese Grammar states that there are three main types of verbs: Activity Verbs, Achievement Verbs and Stative Verbs. 形容词, according to this approach, are a sub-set of Stative Verbs called “adjectival stative verbs”. The Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar takes a similar approach, but give 形容词 the title “adjectival verbs”.

A learner of Chinese may wish to know the answers to the following questions: Why are there two different approaches to understanding 形容词? What are the implications of adopting each approach? Which definition of 形容词 – namely, ‘Adjective’ or ‘Adjectival (Stative) Verb’ – is most helpful for learners of Chinese?

Examples of 形容词 and ‘Regular Stative Verbs’

Let’s first compare examples of 形容词 and ‘Regular Stative Verbs’.

形容词 / Adjective / Adjectival Stative Verb Regular Stative Verb




简单 simple

舒服 comfortable

to love

to be afraid

to understand

喜欢 to like

愿意 to be willing (to do something)

尊敬 to respect

Please note that both 形容词 and ‘Regular Stative Verb’ are usually made up of either one or two characters.

Why are there two approaches to understanding 形容词?

There are two main reasons why linguists prefer the term ‘Adjectival Stative Verb’ instead of ‘Adjective’ to describe 形容词. One reason is 形容词 can sometimes be used in a similar manner to Regular Stative Verbs, in a way that is not easily compared to the use of adjectives in English and many other languages. Another reason is that 形容词 do not need a copula verb (i.e. ‘to be’ in English or 是 in Chinese) to link the subject, although the verb 是 may be used with adjectives in some sentence patterns. These points will be elaborated on in more depth later.

Comparing 形容词 and Stative Verbs in Use

However, things get complex when we understand that 形容词 do not always function in the same way as Regular Stative Verbs. In fact, there are many instances when 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs operate in completely different grammatical ways.

The two different approaches can be visualised in the following ways. According to the first approach, 形容词 are Adjectives that share some grammatical patterns with Regular Stative Verbs. According to the second approach, 形容词 are a special kind of Stative Verb, although there are patterns where they operate differently from Regular Stative Verbs.


Of course, both approaches are merely differing categorisations of the same grammatical phenomena. It seems to me that deciding which approach is most useful for learners of Chinese depends on whether differences between 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs are emphasised (the first approach) or whether the similarities between 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs are emphasised (the second approach.)

Let’s compare 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs to evaluate which approach is best.

a) Using 很 and other Intensifier Adverbs

Beginner learners are taught that one major distinction between English and Chinese is that there doesn’t need to be a copula verb (i.e. ‘to be’ in English or 是 in Chinese) to link a 形容词 to a subject. Instead, the adverb 很 is usually used. Although 很 is sometimes translated as “very”, this is unnecessary as the primary function of 很 in this sentence is grammatical (i.e. as a linking word between the subject and adjective.) In a negative sentence, 很 is not used and the negating word 不 goes in its place.

He is tall.

My friend isn’t happy.

很 can also be used with Regular Stative Verbs. However, in this sentence, 很 is not necessary in a grammatical sense. Therefore, 很 can be translated as “really”. In the negative sentence, 不 is used to negate the Stative Verb, but unlike with 形容词, the Stative Verb can retain the adverb 很.

He’s willing to move to Beijing for work.

He’s really willing to move to Beijing for work.

He’s not willing to move to Beijing for work.

He’s really not willing to move to Beijing for work.

In spoken Chinese, 好 can be used in place of 很 before 形容词. This colloquial expression is very common, although it is more informal and used less often for serious topics. Often 好 is used with words that have a positive, or at least neutral meaning. Using 好 in this way is less commonly seen with Regular Stative Verbs; in most cases 很 is preferred.

I’m happy!

I really liked that movie.

From the table below we can see that uses of 形容词 are more limited than Regular Stative Verbs in respect to the adverb 很.

形容词  example: Regular Stative Verb: 喜欢
Without -* 他喜欢。He likes it.
Using 他很高。He’s tall. 他很喜欢。He really likes it.
Using 他不高。He isn’t tall. 他不喜欢。He doesn’t like it.
Using and 他很不喜欢。He really doesn’t like it.

*Note that while the sentence 他高 is also grammatically correct, I have omitted it from this table since its meaning derivies from the comparison sentence using 比 (see ‘The 比 Pattern’ below.)

Whilst 很 is arguably the default modifier for 形容词, other adverbs describing intensity can be used. For example, 太,非常,特别,真,挺 and 比较 are more commonly used in spoken Chinese while 极其,尤其 and 相当 are used in more formal language. Notice that the English translation of the adverbs in these examples may be very different for 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs.

形容词  example: Regular Stative Verb: 喜欢
Using 特别 他特别高。He’s especially tall. 他特别喜欢。He particularly likes it.
Using 比较 他比较高。He’s relatively tall. 他比较喜欢。He likes it to some extent.

Things start to get more difficult when negation is involved. Different intensity adverbs have different word orders when negating 形容词 or Regular Stative Verbs. Notice, for instance, that 不 is usually placed before other adverbs except when 不 is placed after the adverb 真. Also, some adverbs sounds peculiar when negated (e.g. 比较).

Adverb + 形容词 Negated Adverb + 形容词 Adverb + Regular Stative Verb Negated Adverb + Regular Stative Verb
非常 他非常胖。He’s extremely fat. 他非常不高。He’s really not fat at all. (他非常矮 is more commonly used). 她非常爱我。She loves me a lot. 她非常不爱我。She really doesn’t love me much at all.
他太胖了。He’s too fat. 他不太胖。He’s not too fat. 她太爱我了。She loves me too much. 她不太爱我。She doesn’t really love me.
比较 他比较胖。He’s pretty fat. 他比较爱我。She loves me to some extent.
他真胖。He’s really fat. 他真不胖。He’s really not fat. 她真爱我。She really loves me. 她真不爱我。She really doesn’t love me.

With regard to intensifier adverbs, students should study each adverb in turn and be aware that there are exceptions in usage. Whilst grammatically, 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs are similar in their use of intensifier adverbs, 很 is a significant exception which learners should master.

b) Making Questions with 吗 and the ‘Verb 不 Verb’ Pattern

As far as making questions are concerned, 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs have practically the same grammatical structure. Both can be made into simple ‘yes-no’ questions with the particle 吗.

Was the train ticket expensive?

Do you understand?

In addition, both can utilise the ‘Verb 不 Verb’ Pattern. If the 形容词 or Regular Stative Verb has two characters, then the pattern A不AB can be used (where AB represents the two character word.) Notice that 很 is not used in this sentence pattern.

Was the train ticket expensive?

Do you understand?

Is the library quiet?

Does he like reading?

c) 形容词 Can’t Take Objects

One major difference between 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs is that 形容词 can’t take objects. Therefore 形容词, if defined as a kind of Stative Verb, are intransitive. Notice in the examples below the verb 爱 taking the object 我, and the verb 尊敬 taking the object 老师.

My girlfriend loves me.

The whole class respects their teacher.

d) Modifying Noun Phrases with 的

Another similarity between 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs is that they can both modify noun phrases with 的. Notice that using 的 with 形容词 and using 的 with Regular Stative Verbs utilises very different grammatical structures in English.

I can cook simple dishes.

The book that I like is really interesting.

However, it should be noted that single character 形容词 often do not use 的. For example, we say 好书 ‘a good book’ and 新车 ‘a new car’. There are numerous exceptions to this rule, however, which apparently can only be learned through exposure to the language. (Confusingly, 的 can also sometimes be used with single character 形容词 to emphasise the adjectival meaning.)

In contrast, both single character and double character Regular Stative Verbs usually must use 的 to modify a noun.

e) Verb Aspect and Time

The situation gets increasingly complex when verb aspect (e.g. uses of 了 and 过) are compared.

Let’s start with the 了 particle. Unlike other verbs, both 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs can not use 了 to show completion. However, 形容词 can use 了 at the end of the sentence to show a change of state. Regular Stative Verbs also can use the change of state 了 particle.

It’s hot outside now.

I forgot my girlfriend’s birthday so now she’s really angry.

Don’t you like me anymore?

I understand now.

Some grammar guides state that Regular Stative Verbs cannot use 过 to show experience, but in some situations it is acceptable. However, to the best of my knowledge, 形容词 can never use 过.

I used to love him.

Both 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs can use adverbs expressing time (e.g. 以前,以后,现在,当时) as well as time expressions using 的时候.

I used to be poor.

During High School, I was pretty fat, but I was still able to join the football team.

f) The 比 Sentence

Only 形容词 can be used as the main comparative element in the 比 pattern.

She is much taller than me.

It seems the only exception would be a verb phrase using 得 to form an adjectival compliment, usually with 多 or 少.

My boss didn’t drink as much alcohol as me.

Some students are confused by the sentence 他高, and may ask why there is no 很 adverb to link the subject to the 形容词 (see ‘Using 很 and other Intensifier Adverbs’ above). In fact, 他高 is a shortened form of the sentence 他比别人高, where the noun which is compared with is omitted from the sentence.

There are many Chinese people.

China is more populous (than other countries.)

g) Using 更 and 最

The adverbs 更 (expressing a comparative meaning of ‘more’) and 最 (expressing the superlative meaning of ‘the most’) can be used with both 形容词 and other Stative Verbs. Notice that the translation in English may be radically different in each usage.

In our class, she speaks the best Chinese.

The thing I like to eat most is hot pot.

Note that the following uses of 更 are based on the comparative 比 sentence (see ‘The 比 Sentence’ above).

I think you speak Chinese even better than she does.

Barbeque is even tastier!

h) Reduplication Patterns

In Chinese, some words can be ‘reduplicated’. However, the reduplication of 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs not only uses different patterns, but also results in different meanings.

形容词 can be reduplicated for several reasons; namely, to add emphasis, to describe something that is “cute” or to describe it in a “cute” manner, or for literary flair. Reduplication takes the pattern AA的 for single character words (e.g. 高高的,大大的) and AABB的 for double character words (e.g. 开开心心的,安安静静的).

The chubby puppy is so cute!

That girl is quiet.

Regular Stative Verbs are reduplicated much less frequently, and many verbs are never reduplicated at all. The reduplication pattern, in contrast to 形容词 duplication, is ABAB (e.g. 喜欢喜欢). Reduplication of Regular Stative Verbs will almost inevitably sound “cutesy” or “girly”. Learners of Chinese should be careful when reduplicating both 形容词 and Stative Verbs, since in many instances reduplication may sound unnatural to native speakers.


Let’s get an overview of the differences between 形容词 and Regular Stative Verbs.

形容词 / Adjective / Adjectival Stative Verb Regular Stative Verb Is the usage similar or different?
Using is a default particle which links the Subject and 形容词. means “very” or “really”. Different.
Can replace ? Mostly yes. Mostly no. Different.
Can other ‘intensifier adverbs’ be used? Mostly yes. Mostly yes. Similar (but with exceptions.)
Can and the VV pattern be used? Yes. Yes. Similar.
Can objects be taken? No. Mostly yes. Different.
Can noun phrases be modified with ? Yes, but single and double character 形容词 may differ in using . Yes. Similar (but with exceptions.)
Can (showing completion) be used? No. No. Similar.
Can (showing change of state) be used? Yes. Yes. Similar.
Can (showing experience) be used? No. Mostly no. Similar (but with exceptions.)
Can time phrases be used? Yes. Yes. Similar.
Can the sentence be used? Yes. No. Different.
Can and be used? Yes. Yes. Similar.
Can reduplication be used? Yes, but patterns and uses are distinct from other verbal reduplication. Mostly no. Different.

In conclusion, it is clear that although in many circumstances 形容词 do operate similarly to Regular Stative Verbs, there are a significant number of exceptions. In light of these exceptions, I consider the first approach, where 形容词 are categorised as distinct ‘Adjectives’ which sometimes share patterns with ‘Regular Stative Verbs’, to be a reasonable approach.

Ultimately, however, the title of ‘Adjective’ or ‘Adjectival (Stative) Verb’ is to some extent an arbitrary grammatical categorisation. Finding an approach that makes the most sense for each learner is more important. Alternatively, students could abandon the notion of ‘Adjectives’ or ‘Adjectival (Stative) Verbs’ altogether and simply refer to these words by their Chinese name: 形容词.

References and Further Reading

1. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_adjectives
2. Chinese Grammar Wiki, http://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Adjectives
3. Shaum’s Outlines: Chinese Grammar, p. 49-63.
4. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammer, p. 56-58.
5. Practical Grammar Guide for Foreigners, p. 48-57.
6. The Code of Chinese Adjectives and Adverbs, p. 3-74.
7. New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 3, p. 50.
8. New Practical Chinese Reader Textbook 4, p. 103-104, 121-122.
9. Integrated Chinese Textbook 1, p. 50.

“Separable Verbs” – A Misleading and Unnecessary Concept


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.



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
References and Further Reading


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.

Do you like swimming?

He swam for a long time.

He has never been swimming.

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?


I’ve got up.

你吃晚饭了吗?Have you eaten dinner?


I have bought some stuff.

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


He has driven before.

你坐过飞机吗?Have you ever taken a plane?


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.


My friend helped me.

他吃了很多苹果。He ate a lot of apples.


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.

Eat a little more!

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.

Do you want to leave?

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.

I study Chinese everyday.

He studied for two hours.

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.

Turn the TV off.

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.

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.


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”.


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.

Expressing Duration using Time Duration Phrases


The following explains how to describe the duration of an action using Time Duration Phrases . It presupposes students have at least a basic familiarity with the 了 particle and knowledge of various Time Duration Phrases (e.g. 一个小时,两天,很长时间,四十年多).


Three Common Sentence Patterns using Time Duration Phrases
Asking About Duration with 吗,多长时间 and 多久
Key Points to Remember
Grammar Table with Examples
Two Further Sentence Patterns using Time Duration Phrases
Using 已经…了 to Emphasise Duration
References and Further Reading


In English, we usually describe the duration of an action by saying [ for + Time-Duration-Phrase ] at the end of the sentence. We usually use [ “how long” or “how many” + minutes/hours/days etc. ] to ask about the duration of an action.

He ran for 20 minutes.
I study French for two hours every night.
How long have you been living in London?

The Three Most Common Sentence Patterns Expressing Time Duration Phrases

In Chinese, there are three main sentences patterns to remember. Which pattern to use depends on whether the verb is transitive (taking an object) or intransitive (not taking an object).

The two most commonly used patterns are:

Pattern 1: Subject + Verb-Intransitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)

He rested for half an hour.

I have been thinking about it for 4 weeks.

Pattern 2: Subject + Verb-Transitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 的) + Object (+ 了)

I’m going to go running for an hour.

I have lived in Beijing for more than 3 years.

This third pattern is less commonly used, although it is grammatically correct:

Pattern 3: Subject + Verb-Transitive + Object + Verb-Transitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)

He ran for forty minutes.

I have been doing my homework for ages!

Asking About During with 吗,多长时间 and 多久

These first three patterns can be all turned into yes-no questions by using 吗 at the end of sentence.

Do you work eight hours everyday?

Alternatively, by using the question words 多长时间 (“how much time”),多久 (“how long”) and 几+Time-Word (“how many” + minutes/hours/days etc.) in place of the Time Duration Phrase, the sentences can be turned into open-ended questions.

How long do you plan to live in China?

How long has your wife been cooking the meal so far?

Key Points to Remember

1. The 了 particle can be used immediately after the verb to show the past aspect of the verb (i.e. “did”).

2. If 了 is used immediately after the verb and also at the end of the sentence, it indicates the present perfect continuous aspect (i.e. “have been doing”).

3. Modal verbs (such as 应该,必须,要 etc.) should be placed before the first verb of the sentence only.

4. In the second sentence pattern, 的 often can be omitted.

5. If the object is a personal pronoun, it cannot be used in the second sentence. In other words, you can’t say 我等了一个小时的他, but you can say 我等了他等了一个小时.

Grammar Tables with Examples

Pattern 1: Intransitive Verbs: Subject + Verb-Intransitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)
(Note: In this example, the double character 学习 can be shortened to the single character 学 when followed immediately by 了.)

Simple Now Past Aspect Present Perfect Continuous Aspect Imminent Future Aspect
Statement (一般)学习一个小时。I (usually) study for an hour. 我学习了一个小时。I studied for an hour. 我(已经)学习了一个小时了。I have been studying for an hour. 我要学习一个小时。I am going to study for an hour.
Open Question with 多久 (一般)学习多久?How long do you (usually) study for? 你学习了多久?How long did you study for? 你(已经)学习了多久了?
How long have you been studying?
How long are you going to study for?
Open Question with (一般)学习几个小时?How much hours do you usually study? 你学习了几个小时?How many hours did you study? 你(已经)学习了几个小时了?How many hours have you been studying? 你要学习几个小时?How many hours are you going to study for?

Pattern 2: Transitive Verbs: Subject + Verb-Transitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 的) + Object (+ 了)

Simple Now Past Aspect Present Perfect Continuous Aspect Imminent Future Aspect
Statement (每天)看一个小时()电视。I watch TV for an hour (everyday.) 我看了一个小时()电视。I watched TV for an hour. 我(已经)看了一个小时()电视了。I have been watching TV for an hour. 我要看一个小时()电视。I’m going to watch TV for an hour.
Open Question with 多久 (每天)看多久()电视?How long do you watch TV for (everyday)? 你看了多久()电视?How long did you watch TV? 你(已经)看了多久()电视了?How long have you been watching TV? 你要看多久()电视?How long are you going watch TV for?
Open Question with (每天)看几个小时()电视?How many hours of TV do you watch (everyday)? 你看了几个小时()电视?How many hours of TV did you watch? 你(已经)看了几个小时()电视了?How many hours have you been TV? 你要看几个小时()电视?How many hours are you going to watch TV for?

Two Further Sentence Patterns using Time During Phrases

The following two sentence patterns are much less common. I don’t see them very often and they don’t provide any additional meaning to the sentence, so whilst you should be aware of them, it isn’t worth spending a lot of time learning the grammar pattern. The Chinese Grammar Wiki, for instance, does not feature the following phrases.

Pattern 4: Subject + Verb + Object + 有 + Time-Duration-Phrase

This sentence is distinctive from the patterns described above insofar as 有 is used before the time duration phrase.

She has been dating her boyfriend for six months.

Pattern 5: Object + Subject + Verb-Transitive (+了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)

If the verb is transitive, then you could use this pattern as well. It is a variation on the second pattern with the Object used at the start of the sentence. Again, it’s not so common.

He has studied Chinese for more than 10 years.

Using 已经…了 to Emphasise Duration

The construction 已经…了 can be used in all five aforementioned sentence patterns to emphasise the duration of an action. 已经 is mostly translated as “already”, and when expressing a time duration it usually implies the Present Perfect Continuous aspect of the verb (i.e. the Double 了 sentence, or “have been doing” tense in English.)

He has already been working at that company for many years.


The two most commonly used sentences expressing a Time Duration Phrase are:

1. Subject + Verb-Intransitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)
2. Subject + Verb-Transitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 的) + Object (+ 了)

Three less commonly used sentences expressing a Time Duration Phrase are:

3. Subject + Verb-Transitive + Object + Verb-Transitive (+ 了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)
4. Subject + Verb + Object + 有 + Time-Duration-Phrase
5. Object + Subject + Verb-Transitive (+了) + Time-Duration-Phrase (+ 了)

References and Further Reading

1. New Practical Chinese Reader: Textbook 2, p.109.
2. Modern Mandarin Practical Grammar: A Practical Guide, p. 243-245.
3. Chinese Grammar Wiki, http://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Expressing_duration