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I just learned about the preposition 被 bèi to express passive voice. If we have a S-V-O sentence, we can reexpress it using the 被 structure as O-被-(S)-V. This introduces a passive voice into the sentence and shifts the emphasis from the "doer" of the action to the "one" affected by the action.

However, I also know we can use the topic-comment structure of Chinese language to rewrite the sentence as O-S-V. This also brings some emphasis into the object and I believed it has also a passive voice flavor.

What is the difference in usage between the 被 structure and a topic-comment structure with the object in the topic position?


An example might help:

S-V-O: 男孩吃了热狗 (The boy ate the hot dog).

O-被-(S)-V: 热狗被男孩吃了 (The hot dog was eaten by the boy).

O-S-V: 热狗男孩吃了 (Literally: The hot dog—the boy ate).

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  • 1
    热狗男孩吃了 seems problematic. Do you know of any other topic-comment examples that has noun phase + pronoun + verb? In other words, I am not sure if I can think of situations where a whole dependent clause is the "comment" without 被/把 etc. That makes the two unrelated. Plus I question the usefulness of considering topic-comment as a standalone structure.
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 22:50
  • This is getting too personal and argumentative. Comments mostly exist to improve questions and answers.
    – Becky 李蓓
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:40
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    @blackgreen: Let's not argue over anything but the question. If you can entertain my invitation. 热狗男孩吃了 is not a grammatical sentence that is consistently prioritized against. It is instead not spoken/written. Even 男孩吃了热狗 would be grammatical but would be funny. Noun + noun + verb with a verb that usually takes a subject and object is not grammatical in Chinese.
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:48
  • @Argyll yes, I agree about this, the given examples are a bit borderline. Earlier this week we had a thread with a probably better one: what about 证件他带了 and 证件被他带了
    – blackgreen
    Aug 21 '20 at 7:30
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    "热狗男孩吃了" is bit stilted because 男孩 is general and you need a specific person there such as 他 or 小明. E. g. 热狗小明吃了,可乐我喝了。
    – dan
    Aug 21 '20 at 11:44
3

Let's answer the question by showcasing topic-comment, by defining 被 usage and then see if there is any overlap.

Re: topic-comment

Let's open with examples for topic-comment.


  1. 作业(我)做完了。 Done homework.

  2. (你)饭吃完了吗? Finishing eating (dinner)?

  3. 违法的事情(你)不要做。 Do not do illegal things.

  4. 这个信件,老板吩咐我亲手转交给你。 Boss instructed me to hand you this envelop in person.


The interesting thing about these sentences is that order reversal is possible for all four and the alternate ordering is probably just as likely in real life. See below.


  1. (我)做完作业了。

  2. (你)吃完饭了吗?

  3. (你)不要做违法的事情。

  4. 老板吩咐我亲手转交这个信件给你。


In the alternate ordering, the sentences may put more emphasis on the earlier agent or action or descriptive quality in the sentence. (In example 4, the 2nd ordering highlights 亲手. Other examples are more obvious.) Nevertheless, re-ordered or not, they describe identical actions and are grammatical either way. Also, more alternative ordering may be possible.

Thus, one may find it efficient to identify topic and comment in these sentences and take advantage of the pattern that topic can either precede or follow comment. One may even define special topic-comment structure by this exact quality of having at least 2 possible grammatical ordering.

So, the examples above -- via virtue of allowing order reversal -- are indeed topic-comment.

That said, I really don't see an easy way to differentiate topic-comment sentences vs non topic-comment sentences. That calls into question whether topic-comment structure is truly universal. In any case, if your sentence contains a linking verb like 是. Order reversal probably cannot be done. Semantically, there is always topic and always comment. But you don't always have topic-comment structure.


Examples:

这辆车他的。 This car is his.

平面三角形内角和180度。Planar triangles' inner angles' sum is 180 degrees.

(Literal translation to show the Chinese structure.)


The reality does get more complicated than what is shown here. Not least because the linking verb may be omitted.

Definition of 被 structure

In the linking verb examples, you cannot use 被. So those are out of the picture.

In the topic-comment examples --- at least in my examples where the topic are noun phrase, you can always try inserting 被。A bunch of funny sentences are going to form. I want to use those strangeness to explore what 被 does.

  1. 作业被(我)做完了。

  2. 饭被(你)吃完了吗?

  3. 违法的事情不要被(你)做。

  4. 我被老板吩咐亲手转交这个信件给你。

If you have good familiarity with Chinese, you instantly recognize example 1)-3) are not sensible. Literally 100% never said. 4) is sensible but it does not have the same order as in topic-leading ordering.

So we have a conclusion: topic-comment reversal is not replicated by 被 related structure.

被 has a structure of its own and usages of its own. It is better considered as a helping word that in usage induces the following phrasal structure:

Noun phrase (optional) + 被 + noun (optional) + verb phrase

and in meaning induces the connotations described by Li and Thompson. (All is well in their example except the word 气 is not used in a real way.)

被 signifies that the normal target of the verb phrase is not. A reflection happens. For example,


被人肉 got doxx'd

被自杀 got suicided (ie. murdered and displayed as seeming suicide)

我被辞职了 I got resigned (ie. I was fired but I totally had agency in the resigning.)


Note that the connotations here are in line with Li and Thompson's analysis.

The more flexible definition above is the more inclusive one. But for educational purpose, let's also do a more particular (limited) definition of 被:

Noun phrase (optional) + 被 + noun (optional) + verb phrase

The leading noun phrase is the target of the verb phrase; the optional noun is only grammatical if it was the subject of the verb phrase otherwise.

If you use all components in "NP + 被 + noun + VP" such as in your example

热狗|被|男孩|吃了

no further order reversal is grammatical. (If you use 被 + VP only, there is nothing to reverse. But you can move this combo around freely and be gnarly with your sentences.) In other words, starting with a 被 sentence, there may not be corresponding topic-comment sentence.

Back to the earlier examples, why are they strange? They follow the same sentence structure as prescribed above and as 热狗被吃了, why are they strange while 热狗被吃了 is not strange? Those 被 examples 1-3 are not just not preferred. Their meaning appears to native-speakers self-contradictory and are never ever spoken.

Well, we really need more examples to tell here. But I have a theory for you to think about.

Without 被, the leading agent in example 1), the subject 作业 is already assumed to be passively performed by the 2nd agent. You can insert 被 in the sense that other sentences following this pattern can make sense. But semantically, this double passiveness is self-contradictory.

The same idea for 饭。 In other words, in Chinese, the words 作业, 饭, 事情 all have implicit passiveness when acted upon. 作业做 always means 作业 is the target of 做 regardless of ordering. (Topic prominence again.) Adding 被 contradicts with the inherent passiveness.

Note: 作业做 by itself is one of those things that cannot make sense with regular present tense. 作业做了 makes sense. 作业做 does not. When that happens, if you literally say 作业做, people give up on the presumed passiveness and try interpreting 作业 as the active agent or check for alternative meaning of 作业. Ofc in this case it still doesn't work.

What is the overlap between topic-comment and 被?

So far, we have not found any.

The only similarity between the two is that topic-comment structure allows for the reversal of topic and comment in a sentence, while 被 re-designates the target of a verb phrase, which in turn means that in order to produce an equivalent sentence, you need to reverse order.

Thus any similarity is coincidental.


Now we need to end with some necessary disclaimers:

One, topic-comment may not be a standalone, universal structure in Chinese. Sometimes order reversal is possible. Sometimes it is not. Sometimes multiple orderings are possible. In your example, 热狗男孩吃了 is potentially dubious by adopting a noun + noun + verb phrase structure for a verb that takes both subject and object. And I made a point about 是 sentences. Every sentence has a topic and comment. So it's difficult to differentiate what is a topic-comment structure vs what is not. I cannot conclude one way or the other whether topic-comment should be truly standalone and what its defining feature is without examining hundreds of more examples than this question. And we don't need to do that to make progress in discussing Chinese. Let's save that for the future and for over time.

Two, I used an "English way" to explain 被. But Englishness is ofc not the point. That is, I used phrasal structure conventions that are conventions in English and are successful in English. Phrasal structure is not a language-specific concept or tool. What I did is nevertheless not the convention in Chinese -- unless by coincidence that I am not aware of. What does that mean? It means just that: not convention; not consensus. But it may be useful and it may through coincidence become consensus when one is found and popularized.

Also curious along the same line, in English "helping word" really means "helping verb". Helping verbs are auxiliaries appear at the same places as verbs and potentially along side them. Is 被 a "helping preposition"?? That would be new.

Lastly, I believe the discussion above showcases the need for neutral examples. We use examples to support our theories. We also need examples to discover theories; and to validate theories. We need to support as well as validate. That's important. For that, we need lots of examples.

So if you have more examples that can showcase points included or not yet included in the discussion above. Please comment below.

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  • I agree mostly what you put here, except for this example: 我被辞职了. In 我辞职了: 我(S) 辞(V) 职(O). So 我被辞职了 is not correct. However 我被辞了 is correct. Think about this flow: 老板辞了我->我被老板辞了->我被辞了. Have fun. haha
    – dan
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:25
  • @dan: 我被辞职了 is a funny way to infer being fired without saying being fired. Of course, I know 我被辞. But in that, 辞 is not to resign but to fire. My intention was precisely to showcase the flexible and standalone meaning of 被 and the standalone nature of the "helping proposition" structure. It's always good to compare structures. But it's more productive to study 被 for its own sake.
    – Argyll
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:32
  • Colloquially, you can put 你被辞职了(being funny as you said), but 被自杀 can not pass in any case. E. g. we don't say 他被自杀了 although it's correct to say 他被他自己杀死了。
    – dan
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:41
  • @dan:被自杀 means murdered in a funny way. I put some explanatory notes to make sure no one thinks those are 'standard' usage. But then again, 被 being used to strictly turn a sentence into passive form is by far not the only way it is used. It's not exactly right to say it is standard for that reason. In those Li and Thompson examples, you don't exactly have the corresponding active form either. 被 to induce passive form is good for learners just like passive form in English is. But it's not the defining feature of 被 alone. That's why I want to show the other possibilities.
    – Argyll
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:44
  • I suggest you replace 被自杀 and 我被辞职了 with other examples such as 被杀, 被辞 if you want to make a serious formal statement. Those phrases are jarring for native speakers.
    – dan
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:54
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Practically, no difference, because both structures produce the topicalisation of the object (i.e. becoming the focus of the sentence), both semantically and syntactically.

The way they achieve it is slightly different, but the final outcome — that the object is being given prominence —, is essentially the same.

Though grammatically, the object becomes the subject in the passive voice, and not in the topic-comment.

In the topic-comment structure, the object is topicalised by definition — when it happens to be the topic, of course —, and it's still the grammatical object.

热狗 (still object),男孩吃了 (subject + verb)

In the passive voice, the object is topicalised while also de-topicalising the agent, and it becomes the grammatical subject; while the former subject becomes, unsurprisingly, the agent.

热狗 (now subject) 被男孩子吃了 (agent adverbial + verb)

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  • The examples do not appear interchangeable. Even with comma, the proper sentence is still 热狗 ,被男孩吃了。ie. not dropping 被 in the comment. 被-S-V implies noun + verb, ie. a full sentence. Do you know of well formed examples of topic-comment with comment being a full sentence/clause without helper words like 被/把/给?
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 22:48
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When the object/topic is a noun, and the verb in the comment directly applys to it, I agree with blackgreen's answer.

But the topics in [topic + comment] sentences very often are verb phrases

Example:

topic: 吃热狗

comment 1: 不可沒有茄汁和芥醬

comment 2: 我最高紀錄是一天六條

~

topic: 跟他交朋友

comment 1: 祇有笨蛋才會做

comment 2: 是誰的好主意?

If the topic is a noun and the verb in the comment applies to it, then we can treat the topic the same as we treating a passive voice object

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  • 吃热狗 + 我可以一天吃三餐 doesn't appear correct -- not in the same sentence. A correct version would be 热狗 + 我可以一天吃三餐 or better, 热狗 + 我一天三餐都可以吃 (due to 餐 not being the usual counter for 热狗) You won't even feel compelled to add comma in my examples. In these examples, 被 actually doesn't work -- at least not semantically.
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:02
  • As well, what's the utility in considering 跟他做朋友 + 是我的希望 as topic + comment? We have a proper noun phrase + verb phrase situation in an overt way and you cannot reverse them. 祇有笨蛋才會做 is the more interesting case where the target of the action can be said both before and after.
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:14
  • 吃热狗,調味料主要是茄汁和芥醬 when spoken without comma is 吃热狗的調味料主要是茄汁和芥醬. The verb for 吃热狗 is 是. Here too, what is the utility in using topic-comment when we have a NP + VP sentence whose order you cannot reverse?
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:16
  • So I'd first trim out the non topic comment structures (and here I am giving latitude to the theory.) And then, ya, these examples show 被 and topic-comment reversal are not related. Correction to earlier: you can convert them to 被 sentences; they just dont mean the same. Hence, again, unrelated.
    – Argyll
    Aug 20 '20 at 23:18
  • @Argyll How about the edited examples now?
    – Tang Ho
    Aug 21 '20 at 1:58
2

I found the answer in Charles N. Li, Sandra A. Thompson, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. I will reproduce the main ideas, but for further details please refer to chapter 16.

The 被 bèi passive has the following usage:

  1. Essentially expresses an adverse situation. For example:

    我的表被偷掉了。

    My watch was stolen.

    你为什么被捕了?

    Why have you been arrested?

    他被人看见了。

    He was seen by people.— Here, 被 implies some adversity: he shouldn't have been seen or didn't want to be seen.

    Furthermore, in the book they explain this usage is changing in Mandarin language:

    It has been observed the number of 被 constructions that do not express adversity is increasing, particularly in the written language of modern China. This increase in the nonadversity usage of 被 is clearly due to to the influence of the Indo-European languages, specially English. Chao [1968] states that "recently, from translating foreing passive verbs, 'by', or some equivalent in the Western language, is mechanically equated to 被 and applied to verb of favorable meanings." [Because of this,] the nonadversity usage of the 被 passive has been extended into people's speech.

  2. Expresses disposal (such as 把): describes an event in which an entity or a person is dealt with, handled, or manipulated in some way. Thus, 被 can not be found with verbs that do not signal disposal, even if they are adverse in meaning. For example, we can not say:

    他被气了。

    He was angered.

    But instead:

    我被他气了。

    I was angered by him.

    Where the person speaking ("I") is being manipulated by another one ("him") to get angry.

On the other hand, typically an English passive sentence does not translate into a 被 sentence in Mandarin (except on the previous cases). Depending on the aim of the sentence, there are more "natural" alternatives:

  • To express something about the direct object of the verb: one simply makes the direct object into a topic. For example:

    那本书已经出版了.

    那本书已经出版了.

    That book has already been published.

  • To focus on the agent of the transitive action verb: the Mandarin counterpart is using the 是...的 construction. For example:

    这本书我妈妈写

    这本书我妈妈写了。

    This novel was written by my mother.

1

In pure Chinese grammar, 被动句 (passive voice sentence)can be classified into two types: 1. 有标记被动句(marked passive sentences); 2. 无标记被动句(unmarked passive sentences).

In 有标记被动句(marked passive sentences), we use the markers such as 被,让,etc to indicate it's the passive voice sentence. E.g. 饭被他吃了。

In 无标记被动句(unmarked passive sentences), we don't have the markers like 被 as the indicator of the passive voice sentence. E.g. 饭吃完了。

Now, the question is how we are going to use S-V-O to interpret the grammar for both types? Let's take 饭被他吃了。 and 饭吃完了。 as an example for each type. In 饭被他吃了, 饭 is Subject, 被他 adverbial, 吃了 predicate. In 饭吃完了, 饭 subject, 吃完了 predicate.

Next, how are these two types of 被动句 reflected in the topic-comment structure?

We still take these two examples: 饭被他吃了。 and 饭吃完了。 In 饭被他吃了, 饭:topic; 被他吃了:comment. In 饭吃完了, 饭:topic; 吃完了:comment.

P.S. Given the fact that 无标记被动句(unmarked passive sentences) is hard for non-native to understand from grammatical standpoint(they often asked why the object is being pulled ahead of the sentence?), the Topic-Comment theory can be very useful for them to understand such sentences because its logic is quite clear and straight forward.

(I also found the topic-comment structure per se is quite universal, it almost can explain every sentence except for imperative sentence.) This might be my assumption and has not been tested universally.

(BTW, I deleted my previous answer.)

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  • According to Li and Thompson, there are only two types of sentences with no topic. The first one is when the topic is understood form the context and omitted. For example, in answers to questions or in an imperative, where we have directly the verb. The second one is when there is no definite noun phrase - called presentative sentences. They only have an indefinite subject that must be placed after the verb. For example: 下雨了 (雨 is the indefinite subject) or 有人在打电话给你 (人 is the indefinite subject of 打电话给你)。
    – Puco4
    Aug 21 '20 at 9:02

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