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In my textbook I found this sentence:

常常看着一个人面熟却叫不出名字来。

  1. If 面熟 is an adjective, why is it used after 人 (to indicate a "familiar-looking person")?
  2. Can 一个人面熟 be rewritten to 一个面熟人 without modifying the sentence's original meaning?
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3 Answers

up vote 7 down vote accepted

This is a classic example of a topic-comment construction that is prevalent in Chinese. In this case, 面熟 is not serving as an adjective to the noun, but rather as a comment on the topic.

  • 常常看着一个人 ("often seeing a person") is the topic
  • 面熟却叫不出名字来 ("[he's] familiar, yet [I] can't come up with [his] name") is the comment.

All adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs (Chinese adjectives are sometimes called stative verbs for this reason); as such, they can function as a predicate by themselves. Because Chinese is a pro-drop language, predicates can serve as their own clauses in a comment.

To answer your second question, you can't put 面熟 before the noun in this case without restructuring the sentence. 却 is used to connect two clauses together. If you make 面熟 into an adjective, it's no longer a clause, so the usage of 却 will no longer make sense.

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+1 for mentioning topic-comment construction, which is really the ur-structure for most Chinese sentences. –  Jon Jan 13 '12 at 3:03
    
"All adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs" — Really? That's something interesting to know... +1 for that :D –  Alenanno Jan 13 '12 at 8:59
    
I'm in two minds about the topic-comment analysis. The Wikipedia article gives only nominal topics, which can be seen as a result of 'topicalisation'. This seems rather different. Can the concept of topic be extended to an entire sentence (常常看着一个人)? (In English, this kind of meaning could be expressed colloquially as: 'You often see someone where you can remember the face but not the name'.) While the Chinese could be written 常常看着一个人,面熟却叫不出名字来, this obscures the fact that 人面熟 does form a natural unit in Chinese, precisely in the topic-comment construction that you mention. –  Bathrobe Jan 13 '12 at 23:12
    
In fact, I find this sentence quite interesting because it embodies one aspect of Chinese that I've noticed but find hard to pin down, i.e., sentences that contain what might be called 'hybrid structures'. They make perfect sense but it's not clear how to analyse them cleanly. In this case, it's the overlapping of a simple concatenation of sentences (e.g., 常常看着一个人,他认识你,你不认识他) and the topic-comment structure (人面熟却叫不出名字来). Please don't ask me for other examples because I can't give you any, but this kind of phenomenon seems somehow very familiar in Chinese. –  Bathrobe Jan 14 '12 at 0:22
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If you look at 面熟 and it's meaning 面 = appeared / appearance 熟 = familiar

The sentence in English reads more like this: "I saw a person who appeared familiar (to me)"

In Chinese this seems a bit strange, but this is a common construct. See this example:

我看到一个人胡子长长的

Maybe this reads better with a comma:

我看到一个人, 胡子长长的

Which you will notice if you search Google for "一个人面熟" there are quite a few examples of:

... 一个人, 面熟

You can also put the characters in front but you need to use the possessive 的 as in:

看到好面熟的一个人

Which a good counter example in English to the sentence I provided above is more like:

"I saw a very familiar looking person"

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In my opinion, here “面熟" is the complement to the clause "常常看着一个人". That's why it is used after "一个人" though it's really an adjectvie. In English, you would see similiar consctructions:

He makes me angry.
I found her so beautiful.
He is coming here with the final decision in his mind.
I saw a man apparently faimilar to me yesterday, but I could't recall who he is.

For your second question, you could put "面熟“ before "一个人" to modify it, but generally we use "面熟的", or it sounds strange. You could say,

常常看着一个面熟的人却叫不出名字来。

A little reminder:

In Chinese, the elements of sentences include:主语(Subject),谓语(Predicate),宾语(Object),定语(Attributive), 状语(Adverbial) and 补语(Complement). You may want to understand what they are and how to use them first, before you could analyze the sentence structures.

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