I'm learning about Chinese complement of time-measurement (时量补语). It sounds very tough though, and I'm now stuck on some sentences like:

  • 她学汉语要学一年

  • 我看电影只看了十分钟

My textbook doesn't explain a rule applied to the sentences. If a sentence containing 时量补语 takes adverbs like 只 or an auxiliary verb like 要, do they have to be placed right before the last verb of the sentence? That's just my guess so can anyone tell me if I'm wrong or not?

I also would like to know the meanings of the following sentences:

  • 她学汉语要学一年 (I'm not sure if this means 'she is going to learn Chinese for a year' or something else)

  • 我看电影只看了十分钟 (Does this sentence mean 'I just watched TV for ten minutes'?)

  • 她学汉语能学一年 (I've changed the 要 to 能, but I'm not sure if this makes sense. If this is a valid sentence, what's the meaning?)

Thanks in advance.

  • What problems are you having understanding those sentences? It's best if you show your research effort on this site.
    – user5714
    Jan 23, 2016 at 21:20
  • these are examples of complements of duration verb with object with repetition of verb, even "实用现代汉语语法" does not have any examples with adverbs or auxiliary verbs, in any case why would examples 3,4,5 not (as indicated) simply mean the activity 要学,只看了,能学 has the indicated duration. In example 4 at least it would seem the adverb 只 can also be placed in front of the first 看. There is the other version with verb not repeated: 她要学一年汉语,我只看了十分钟电影,in which case the question does not arise, (it would seem following the textbook, auxiliary verbs are best put right before the second occurrence of the v)
    – user6065
    Jan 23, 2016 at 23:01

4 Answers 4


Well, for a native speaker, 她学汉语能学一年, if you put your emphasis on "能", it may imply that it takes too long(a year) to study Chinese. There may be slightly complaint, unsatisfactory, or even despise. So this sentence may be interpreted like this: it takes her a year to study Chinese, that's quite an unbelievable long time. Another example is: 他吃饭能吃三小时.

So it may be very different with the sentence 她学汉语要学一年, and it may be a little offensive.


Firstly, I will note that it's not quite correct that the 时量补语 must be placed before the "last verb" of the sentence. Rather, in those scenarios, the 时量补语 is placed before the last iteration of the verb it applies to in the clause. For instance:


(This year I only went back to my hometown once, because I was too busy.)

Moreover, I don't think it's always necessary to repeat the verb twice.1 For example:


(To prepare for studying at a French university, I studied French for three years.

In fact, in some cases (such as that of my first example), it sounds more natural for the verb to only appear once. However, if you indeed repeat the verb, the 时量补语 must indeed be placed before the second appearance, not the first one.

That done, I will move onto the specific sentences you asked about:


Notice that the 要 is part of 要学一年: this indicates that it's necessary to learn the subject in question for a year. Thus, this sentence does not mean "she is going to learn Chinese for a year", since this English sentence doesn't convey obligation; rather, absent any other context, it means something like "she will have to learn Chinese for a year."


This means "I only watched the television for ten minutes."2 This works because 只 (only) is attached to 看了十分钟.


Judging from dictionary examples of usage of 能 (e.g. 我能照顾好自己), it is fine to use 能 alone. This phrasing sounds odd to me---I would instead write something like 她能学一年汉语---but I am inclined to assume that this is merely a result of my own preferences.

  1. I am a native Cantonese speaker and have a very intuitive understanding of Chinese grammar in general. It's possible that I am missing something, or that my vocabulary isn't completely standard. I have tried to double-check the key uncertainties I had.

  2. I am not sure what sense of "just" you are using. If you mean that I finished watching the television for ten minutes just now, your translation isn't correct. If you are using "just" in the sense of "only", your translation is fine.

  • 1
    I'm not a native, but I think it should be 我学了三年法文 in your example. Jan 27, 2016 at 12:39
  • @EnricoBrasil : I wasn't entirely sure but asked a native speaker friend who is more fluent to check: the impression I got is that it's fine. It's possible there's some variation in grammar by region or the such.
    – user5714
    Jan 27, 2016 at 14:05

The key grammatical point in all 3 sentences is: the verb used in the first half of each example statement is REPEATED in the second half. 她学汉语要学一年 with the use of 要, we can infer that the above is a nonpast statement (ie not a past reference). Without any context, it is difficult to know what it means. Perhaps the speaker intended to say 她要学汉语的话,得学一年 (If she wants to learn Chinese, she will have to learn it for 1 year). 我看电影只看了十分钟 This statement has past reference because of the use of 了. If it is about a specific movie, it means "I watched this/that/the movie for only 10 minutes". If it is about the activity of watching movie, it means "I watched a movie for only 10 minutes". 她学汉语能学一年 This is not idiomatic to me. May be the following was intended: 她学汉语只能学一年。(She can only afford to spend 1 year learning Chinese) Learners whose native language does not require this kind of verb repetition are likely to say for example 我看这部电影只有十分钟。 Thank you for reading my comments.


The 时量补语 rule is:

S + (V) + O + V + 时量补语

The first verb isn't that important, and it's most likely to disappear from the sentence. So the verb that takes the adverbs and modal verbs 只,没, 要 etc. should be placed after the second verb (the important one).

The 时量补语 expresses for how much time the action is done, which is different from the time adverb that expresses when the action happened. Compare:

我学汉语学了一年。 I studied Mandarin for one year. (duration)
去年学了汉语。 I studied Mandarin last year. (when)

I hope this helps. Cheers.

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