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I've taken up reading "Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar" that was printed back in 1981. The book has been a good read so far but I've noticed several instances where the language of that time seems to contrast with modern usage. For instance, the author at one point claimed that 您 was old-fashioned and "falling out of style" (back in 1981) and yet I'm more than familiar with the word today.

I bring this up because the author introduced the concept of definiteness and indefiniteness being determined by the position of the verb in a sentence. The example they gave was 人来了 vs 来了人了 where the first sentence implies "the (previously stated) person(s) have come" while the second implies "some (unknown) person(s) have come".

Another example was 我在买书了 vs 我把书买了 where the first implies "I am buying a (nonspecific) book" while the other implies "I bought the (previously talked about) book".

This is easy enough to remember and put into practice, the issue is that for as long as I've been learning Chinese I have never seen this function being used, or at the very least it has gone right over my head. Many beginner learning resources even go so far as to claim that definiteness/indefiniteness isn't even a concept in Chinese. Is this function still relevant in Modern usage?

  • I never heard of "definiteness/indefiniteness" concept before, but judging from the examples you gave, it's pretty useful to second language learners. My take is that it's not important whether a concept is widely accepted or not. If a rule works for you, why not go for it? Our goal is to be idiomatic. If you could apply the language well, what rules you have followed are not that important. You can even create your own rules. – dan Sep 13 '20 at 13:12
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    Yes, this is a very useful concept that I was taught in grad school seven years ago or so, and has stood up to quite a lot of testing/teaching on my part since then. Which book did you learn it from? – Olle Linge Sep 13 '20 at 13:24
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    @OlleLinge Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar – 小奥利奥 Sep 13 '20 at 14:13
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In my (long) studies I've never come across a formal definition of "definiteness/indefiniteness" specifically used to describe a grammar rule of Mandarin.

However the phenomenon you are talking about happens in many languages, and can be explained as stressing a certain element of a sentence by means of syntax (i.e. word order).

By rearranging the order of the words, of course within the boundaries of grammar, you can achieve this effect of giving more prominence to some element instead of another.

This happens in other languages as well. For example Spanish is a pro-drop language, so when you do specify a pronoun you are putting extra stress on it:

me llamo Pedro (= my name is Pedro)

yo me llamo Pedro (emphasis on "me", it's me who's called Pedro, and not somebody else)

In these cases, further implications may exist, otherwise there would be no need to stress a normally unstressed element, right?.

At this point you should also consider that some syntactical constructions, which are widely used in Mandarin, have the specific purpose to stress some element of the sentence. Some of them are:

Topic-comment

According to some linguistics theories, in the topic-comment structure the comment (or rheme) is the focus of the sentence. The term "focus" is technical and means the new, non-derivable information that is said about something (the topic). Hence it follows that the topic is known, derivable information. So when you topicalize something, you imply that it is known, and that's why it can take the definite article in English:

人来了 (topic = 人 = known information; comment = 来了 = new information)

"the (previously stated) person(s) have come"

The other example 来了人了 doesn't topicalize 人, so it doesn't imply that 人 is known: "some person(s) have come".

Constructions with 把

It's easy to make sense of your given example if you consider that 书 in 买书 has a non-specific meaning. This frequently happens in Chinese with separable verbs, where the objects contribute meaning to the verb instead of representing an actual target of the action. E.g. 我想吃饭 I want to eat food. Those are some times called virtual or ostensive objects.

So in 我在买书了 the object 书 is non-specific, and in English you can use the plural "I'm buying books".

Objects that can be extracted with 把 need to meet certain requirements:

The direct object of a bǎ construction [...] is usually definite, meaning that it is specific and unique (as in phrases beginning with the equivalent of this, that, these, or those).

So the sentence 我把书买了 implies that 书 is known and definite, therefore it translates as in your example "I bought the (previously talked about) book".


In conclusion:

Is verbal position used to indicate definiteness in modern Mandarin?

No, not verbal position. It's the position of the element whose definiteness/indefiniteness shifts following different syntactical constructions.

  • In the book I'm reading the author did cover the topic-comment structure, and they also explained that the topic must always be known (definite) information. The section following the introduction of the topic-comment structure is titled "Word Order" and begins with the claim about verbs that I outlined above. I think my confusion lies in the fact that the Author didn't attribute this function to the topic-comment structure but instead asserted that it was a property of verbal position. So in other words, its position at the start is more important than its position before the verb – 小奥利奥 Sep 13 '20 at 14:26
  • You used 吃饭 to demonstrate virtual objects, but I always took 吃饭 to just mean "eat a meal" – 小奥利奥 Sep 13 '20 at 14:28
  • @小奥利奥 1. yes the position at the beginning in topic-comment structure (i.e. the topic) is what determines definite-indefinite-ness 2. 吃饭 means "to eat", 吃一顿饭 is better for "to eat a meal" – blackgreen Sep 13 '20 at 14:53
  • but 吃饭 is intransitive isn't it? So I don't see why it can't be "eat a meal", it's not like you can say 我想吃饭苹果 – 小奥利奥 Sep 13 '20 at 15:01
  • @小奥利奥 well, it can be "eat a meal" if you want to be liberal in your translation, and/or you want to illustrate the generic usage of 饭. But a sentence like: 我饿了,我想去吃饭 is simply not translated as "I'm hungry, I wanna go eat a meal". In Chinese it's still a virtual object regardless. – blackgreen Sep 13 '20 at 15:06

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