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I've recently discovered that in Chinese, adjectives can function as verbs. An answer on this site stated that "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs".

This was obviously an interesting discovery for a Chinese learner like me, and I actually never noticed that this sentence lacks a verb, yet it's one of the first that we learn:

我很好。

or another simple sentence like:

他很高。

But both sentences show like the "verb function" is served by "很" and not "好" or "高". As far as I can tell, "很" is an adverb not an adjective. Same with this one. "Not" is an adverb, not an adjective. Yet we have the same phenomenon:

他不高。

So am I missing something here? Am I being too strict about that "adjectives" or am I misjudging something?

By the way, I'll take advantage of this question to ask: are really all adjectives able to be stative verbs or are there exceptions?

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Is a colour e.g. 绿色的, an adjective, able to be expressed as a verb? –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 13 '12 at 9:38
    
@xiaohouzi79 Is it an actual question or are you trying to tell me something? –  Alenanno Jan 13 '12 at 10:36
    
When it comes to describing the English language I'm not very clever. Not sure if the colour thing meets the adj. but not a verb? –  xiaohouzi79 Jan 13 '12 at 11:44
    
@xiaohouzi79 That also depend on how do you define an "adjective". In Chinese, as there is no word separator nor conjugation, it it very hard to define what is a word and what the part of speech is. "绿色的" can be treated as formed with a noun (绿色) and 的, and not a word by itself. –  fefe Jan 13 '12 at 12:24
    
I don't really understand the question. If 高 is being used as a stative verb, doesn't it make sense that 很 ought to be an adverb? –  Jon Jan 13 '12 at 16:21

5 Answers 5

The OP the the "verb function" is carried by "很". This is not true. "很" is an adverb. "很好" can be treated as a adjective together (or as an adjective phrase). Also, "我好" "他高" are both good Chinese sentences. However, you will seldom hear such short sentences so these do sound a weird. But there is one that is used everyday, "你好".

As to whether all adjectives are able to be stative verbs, I though it was wrong at first. But when I checked a list of adjectives of Chinese (sorry I cannot share it), and tried to contradict it, I found that it is somehow true.

I tried to form sentences with those adjectives, and found nearly all of them can be used in that way, though sometimes we should add "很" or "不" to make it more natural. However, like I said, "很" and "不" are adverbs. They will form an adjective phrase with the adjective following them. Adverbs do not act as a "verb" by themselves.

Besides "很" "不", "特别" "非常" and some other adverbs can also serve this function. The adverb and the adjective together formed the predictive, functioning as a verb.


This is a guess: There may be some phonological reason for the need of adverbs. Sentence built up with only a subjective and an adjective seems to be unbalanced sometimes, so something should be added in between. When it is not a verb, adverb would be a good choice.


Also, in Chinese, the adjectives are still called adjectives, not verbs, in this kind of sentences.

However, I believe every grammatical rule would have an exception. Finding some exceptions would not be surprising.

EDIT

The Chinese simple sentence structure can be put in two parts, the subjective and the predictive. The predictive part is the "verb" part. However, it can be formed by a verb with (or without) an objective, or by an adjective (with or without an adverb before it), or maybe in some other ways.

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I've heard those forms, but I also heard that the other version I posted were the ones usually adopted. Anyway, your answer doesn't really address my question; if you need some clarification about it, let me know. –  Alenanno Jan 13 '12 at 10:38
    
Your are right. I'll edit the answer. –  fefe Jan 13 '12 at 11:37

I'm having trouble understanding the question. Rather than saying that "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs", I'm wondering whether the more normal formulation might not be "in Chinese, adjectives are classed as a type of verb". There are many ways in which adjectives like 高 and 好 are the same as verbs. Like verbs, they can occur in the forms 高了,高着呢,高不了, etc. They can occur predicatively and attributively (in which case they resemble relative clauses). However, they must be regarded as intransitive verbs as they normally don't take objects.

I don't think Chinese is the first language for which it has been claimed that adjectives belong with verbs.

I'd like to expand my answer by quoting here from Pulleybank's Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar:

Verbal Predicates
...
1. Classes of Verbs
Adjectives, e.g., shān gāo 山高 'the mountain is high,' form the first major subdivision that needs to be distinguished among naturally predicating words in Chinese. Though, as words that form predicates without the addition of a particle, they belong with verbs rather than nouns, they differ from verbs proper in their syntactical behaviour in a number of ways. They are sometimes called 'stative verbs' but there are objections to this, since transitive verbs such as zhī 知 'know' also denote a state rather than an action. A possible alternative would be 'quality verb,' but as a class they correspond closely in meaning to adjectives in other languages and we shall continue to use this traditional term.
...
2. Adjectives
Adjectives must be classed as verbs in Classical, as well as Modern Chinese, since they form predicates without a copula or final 也, are negated by , and take the aspect markers 矣 and wèi 未. Nevertheless, as their behaviour with 可 shows, they differ from intransitive verbs in their syntax and have certain resemblances to nouns.

Here Pulleybank is referring to the fact that intransitive verbs and transitive verbs in an active sense use kěyǐ 可以 'possible', e.g., wáng kěyǐ shā rén 王可以殺人 'the king can kill a man', whereas adjectives, like nouns, require the copula verb wéi 為, e.g., kěyǐ wéi měi hū 可以為美乎 'can be (or remain) beautiful'.

Incidentally, Pulleybank is not talking about adjectives being used as verbs here. He is talking about adjectives as verbs.

While Classical Chinese is a rather different language from modern Chinese, and Pulleybank is not a theoretical linguist, I think the passage quoted above is a good illustration of the point. As to whether this applies to all adjectives, I think Claw has pointed out a couple of interesting examples.

As for the function of 很, it is not a copula, as others have pointed out. To call it an 'adverb' isn't necessarily very informative since 'adverb' as a part of speech is a bit of a grab bag. (Incidentally, Chinese grammarians apparently class 今天 'today' as a noun, even where it is clearly functioning as a 'sentence adverb'.)

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My question was rather whether this affects only adjectives and if so, why 很 that is an adverb works like that too... :) –  Alenanno Jan 13 '12 at 11:42

I was the one who originally made the statement "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs". While I thought this was generally true, I took a look in Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington to verify. The book indicates that adjectives can generally be used in both attributive and predicative senses (i.e., adjective-like or verb-like), but there are a class of adjectives that are attributive only:

They differentiate rather than describe, and most of them therefore have extremely restricted collocations. Monosyllabic adjectives in this category are relatively infrequent: [The book then gives a few examples, such as 正 zhèng and 负 in 正数/负数 zhèngshù/fùshù positive/negative numbers, and 公 gōng and 母 for male/female.]

Disyllabic attributive-only adjectives usually convey a formal tone, and they are more likely to have an internal lexical structure. [Examples such as 现代 xiàndài 'modern' and 大型 dàxíng 'large' are given.]

The book also describes predicative-only adjectives, which it says "are generally more colloquial in tone, and are mostly monosyllabic", and gives examples such as 累 lèi 'tired' and 对 dùi 'correct'. However, it then says the following:

However, there is no absolute divide between the two types of adjective which cannot be crossed. Though the result may sometimes sound a little forced, a predicative-only adjective can be made to function attributively by placing it in a 'degree adverb + 的 de' frame (e.g. 很差的学校 hěn chā de xuéxiào 'a badly governed school'). Likewise, an attributive-only adjective can be made to function predicatively by setting it in a '是 shì + 的 de' format (e.g. 这项工程是大型的 zhèi xiàng gōngchéng shì dàxíng de 'This is an enormous project').


On a slightly different topic, fefe's answer brought up the question of why adverbs like 很 hěn are sometimes needed when an adjective is used predicatively. The book also explains:

The presence of these degree adverbs and complements removes any implication of contrast that is latent in an unmarked predicative adjective.

If somebody says:

这本字典好。 zhèi běn zìdiǎn hǎo. This dictionary is good.

the speaker must be understood to be implying that some other dictionary is not as good as this one. In fact the degree verb 很 hěn 'very', unless it is emphasised, does not really mean 'very', and its integration into adjectival predicative is more often than not to counteract an implication of contrast.

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Claw, you give very good answers based in linguistics. One problem here is defining our terms. The OP is working from an a priori assumption that the distinction between verbs and adjectives is a given, presumably because it's found in Latin and Western grammar in general. Linguists, on the other hand, might try to argue that there is no fundamental distinction between adjectives and verbs in Chinese. I don't know which (if either) is correct, but the different starting points seem to be confusing the discussion somewhat. –  Bathrobe Jan 13 '12 at 23:36
    
+1 for being the only answer so far to mention why an adverb like 很 is necessary in such cases. In general, 很 does not mean "very" unless it is stressed. –  Jon Jan 14 '12 at 2:53

As a native speaker, I have noticed such a phenomenon for many years, but I have never thought of the logic or reasons behind it. Perhaps we should not (or even could not) go too far on this topic.

This topic is academic, I believe. You would find many papers on this topic when you search on the internet(I use the key word: "汉语 形容词 谓语"). After reading some papers and thinking of how I would say in different cases, I think we'd better say"some adjectives could be used as the predicate in Chinese" and there are some fixed patterns where an adjective is used in this case. I would like to elaborate on this topic from several points.

  • 1. Types of the Adjective
    As Claw pointed out, there are two types of adjectives in Chinese(though, in academic world, there are some disputes on this.Someone holds that the adjectives(the term used now) in Chinese should be classified into two different parts of speech): "attributive" and "predicative". The difference between the two types is:"Can this adjective be modified with 很(very)?"
  • 2. Patterns for Attributive Adjectives
    You could use the construction "[subject]是[attributive adj]的". In English, the verb "be(是 in Chinese)" is indispensable and it's called "Link Verb". In this case, the use of the adjective is similar with that in English.
  • 3. Patterns for Predicative Adjectives
    The problem becomes a little complicated now. I can come up with some patterns.

  • 1. degree adverb(很,非常,十分,有些,有点,不) + adj.
    This is the pattern your examples use.In this case, I agree that the meaning of "很" weakens a lot. It seems that "很“ works like a "marker". Of course, you may use "非常" or "十分" to express "very" if you really want to.

    In general, it sounds very wierd "我好"("你好" is another story, since it has been a usage or one interjection word, I think),"他高" in Chinese, but I think in some cases they are acceptable.

  • a. In a question and in the reply to that question.

    Q: 他帅吗? Is he handsome?
    A: 他帅。He is handsome

    b. Used in two clauses to express parallel, comparsion or condition.

    他胖,我不胖。 He is fat, (while) I am not fat.
    你高兴,我就高兴。 (If) you are happy, I am happy.
    这篇小说精彩,那篇也精彩。 This novel is excellent and that one is excellent too.

    c.又+adj+又+adj,既+adj+且+adj
    Such patterns is used to connect two parallel words.

    这个苹果又大又圆。This apple is big and round.
    敌人既凶残且愚蠢。 THe enemies are cruel and stupid.

  • 2. Main subject(abbr: MS)+Subject's Property or Part(abbr: SP) + adj
    This pattern is used to decribe the property of something.
    Note: English translations in the parentheses are more formal, I think.

    他形容*憔悴。 His appearance is emaciated.(He looks emaciated)

    Here, MS=他,SP=形容 and 憔悴 is the adj.
    *形容 is a noun here, which means "the appearance of, the look of [a man]". Dont' be confused with ”形容(to describe)“ as in "形容词(adjective)".

    他工作能力强。 His work ability is strong.(He is capable of doing the work)

    Here, MS=他,SP=工作能力 and 强 is the adj.

    我浑身无力。 My all body is feeble(I am feeble all over,from head to foot)

    Here, MS=我,SP=浑身 and 强 is the adj.

  • 3.Subject+Adjective+"了"
    This pattern is used to express that the subject has been "adj" or has become(turned) "adj".

    树叶红了 The leaves has turned red.
    她漂亮了 She has become beautiful(Implies: she was not beautiful in the past but she is beautiful now)

  • 4. Why do we need "很" here?<
    fefe thinks that this is related to the length of syllables, but I don't think so. Because even with a two-character adjective, we still could not use the consctruction "Subject+Adj" to form a sentence(except for the cases I listed above). You won't say ”她漂亮“,though "漂亮" has two characters.Instead, you would say

    她很漂亮 or 她非常漂亮(note 非常 has two characters)

    In classic Chinese, ”是" was seldom used as "to be" and an adjective could be used as a verb or predicate directly.I really don't know why "很" or such adverbs are needed, but that just happens in Chinese.

    春风又绿江南岸 from the poem of 《泊船瓜洲》 by 王安石
    绿: [adj]green. Here: to make something green

    亲贤臣,小人,此先汉之所以兴隆也。 from 《出师表》 by 诸葛亮
    远:[adj] remote, far. Here:to keep oneself from, to be far away from

    I just read 《史记·淮阴侯列传》(the biography of 韩信) and I found some good examples with adjectives in classic Chinese.

    信亦知其意,,竟绝去。 In modern Chinese, I would say,

    韩信也知道她的用意,很生气,最终离开。 Hanxin also understood her intention, so he became angry[at her] and left at last.

    信数(shù)与萧何语,何奇之。

    韩信与萧何交谈几次后,萧何[对他的军事才能]感到惊奇 After several talks with Hanxin, Xiaohe got suprised [with Hanxin's military talent]

    见信死,且之。

    [刘邦]看见韩信已死,又高兴又同情。 [Liubang] found Hanxin was dead; [he was] happy and sympathized

  • share|improve this answer
        
    Oh ... A long answer .... –  fefe Jan 14 '12 at 8:59
        
    I don't think there is anything wrong with "她漂亮". Any way, that part in my answer is only a guess. The water in that field is too deep. –  fefe Jan 14 '12 at 9:01
        
    @fefe I mean, when I see a beautiful girl, I would not say "她漂亮", more likely, I would say "她很漂亮“ or "她真漂亮”。In this case, will you simply say"她漂亮“? Of course, I agree that "the water is too deep(水太深)". I am not a linguist. –  Huang Jan 14 '12 at 9:13
        
    I agree. However, unless she is VERY beautiful, we are not likely to say it out :) –  fefe Jan 14 '12 at 9:21
    1  
    @fefe Yes! I may say "她长得不错”,"她长得还可以" in that case, to describe things more "precisely". Really, such problems are very hard to answer. That's why my answer is so long, but, even it's so long, I think it fails to cover everything. –  Huang Jan 14 '12 at 9:32

    She is (very) beautiful. ==> 她 (很)漂亮。 ==> 她(很)漂亮。

    So adjectives as verbs?

    No, simply because "是" (am/is/are/was/were) is intentionally removed. Besides, there is nothing to do with adverb like "很/十分/特别" etc.

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