I've learned some chengyu (idiomatic expression), and I see many are used in different position in the sentence.

For example:

  • adjective -> 那个人看来有点不三不四
  • noun -> 我集市看到人山人海
  • adverb or verb? -> 我开门见山就跟你说 (some other sentence is needed)
  • verb -> 你不要画蛇添足

From syntax point of view, how do you know when the chengyu can be adverb or adjective or some thing else? Is it all idiomatic, so no rule? (The translation in english can give some idea about it, but I think it's not correct to base yourself on the translation. A good translation in the other language maybe is different than dictionary translation to keep a good effect).

Can you also make an example of chengyu that can be used in different role/position?

  • Chinese is "意和" language. In this case, if you focus more on semantics and logics other than grammar rules, it would be easier I guess. Native speakers can use them naturally not because of grammar I think.
    – dan
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 3:48

6 Answers 6


From syntax point of view, how do you know when the chengyu can be adverb or adjective or some thing else?

For starters, even individual words in Mandarin often can't be confined to a single part of speech. Take for instance the word 教. This word can be considered both a verb and a noun (the action "to teach" and the noun "teachings" respectively). We also know that adjectives in many cases can quite liberally function as adverbs, some through the use of 地 and some without.

So if individual words can take the role of several different parts of speech then I think its not farfetched to make the same assumption of 成语. The exact role being employed depends in the context, which seems to be universally true in Mandarin and not just true for 成语.

It might be easier for you to understand if you start treating 成语 as individual words. If words themselves are concepts, why can't 成语 (wich are themselves also concepts) be considered words? The phrase 小题大做 can be thought of as a direct equivalent of the English expression, "make a mountain out of a mole hill". But why limit it to the role of an expression? It could just as easily be defined as a verb, "to treat an issue as though it is larger than it actually is".


And here's the fun part:


小题大做地 here can be interpreted as "fussingly".

To summarize, there is no innate syntax that can be used to determine the part of speech appropriate for a 成语. The only way of knowing is to know the concept carried by that 成语, and the only way of knowing that is to see it in usage.

  • The OP's question is very interesting. I never give a thought on that. 小题大做 isn't usually used the way you put it. It needs a subject denoting 'who' 小题大做. E. g. 你有点小题大做了。It could also be imperative. E. g. 不要小题大做. However, 开门见山 can be used as the way you put it. e.g. 你就开门见山地说吧。Well, 你有点开门见山 sounds plain wrong. I can't explain why. It's all about idiomatic, I guess.
    – dan
    Commented Sep 18, 2020 at 2:54


例: 我們就開門見山的說,別再畫蛇添足了,你就這在車水馬龍的街上,幫忙找個價廉物美的房子。


車水馬龍 - prosperous and bustling [street|city|or...].

熟能生巧 - practice makes perfect.

突飛猛進 - make astounding advances.

一日千里 - similar to 突飛猛進.

刮目相看 - to view someone in a new perspective.


Here is an excerpt from the Wikipedia page for Chengyu:

As such, chéngyǔ are fossilized expressions that use the vocabulary and follow the syntactic rules of Literary Chinese. Consequently, they convey information more compactly than normal vernacular speech or writing. They may contain subject and predicate and act as an independent clause (or even twin two-character independent clauses in parallel), or they may play the role of any part of speech in a sentence, acting syntactically as an adjective, adverb, verb, or noun phrase. In both speech and writing, they serve to succinctly convey a complex or multifaceted situation, scene, or concept, and used fittingly and elegantly, they also mark a speaker or writer's erudition.

You may want to read through the page for a more in-depth look.


Idioms are not all the same. As you've already found out idioms can function in all part of a speech (verb, adj, adv, relative clause, and so on)

In layman's terms, idioms are "common expressions" that can act as many word types and in most case, replacing a whole clause. You don't need to know any idioms to speak fluent Chinese, but you do need to know many idioms to understand a typical Chinese's speech because the modern Chinese is made up of literal, colloquial, classical, and slang elements. Using idioms is a part of the classical element

Can you also make an example of chengyu that can be used in different role/position?

Idioms often be used as relative clauses


知人善任 = 懂得運用人材 (Know how to use talents)

知人善任是作為主管應有的質素 (Know how to use talents, is the quality that a supervisor should have)

懂得運用人材是作為主管應有的質素 (Know how to use talents, is the quality that a supervisor should have)


The function of 成语, or in this case, also 谚语 and 歇后语 is to express your idea "right on the target" economically and vividly. it is the concentration of a usually long story. Don't worry, if you fully understand them, you can use them any way you prefer as not to worry whether correct or not in grammar. People really get you. Be brave, use them as often as you like as 小奥利奥 suggested. People will be amazed that you can express yourself so precisely in Chinese language.


I think translation gives the clue.

那个人看来有点不三不四 -> That person looks like kind of 不三不四 -> adjective

我集市看到人山人海 -> I saw 人山人海 at the event -> noun

我开门见山就跟你说 -> I 开门见山ly say that to you -> adv; I 开门见山 and say that to you -> verb

你不要画蛇添足 -> You don't 画蛇添足 -> verb

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