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Location: I've learned that some verbs use zai after the verb eg. 住。 我住在北京 and that most verbs take 在 before the verb eg. 我在花园吃饭. My first question is - how can you tell which verbs take zai before the verb and those which take zai after the verb?

Then with duration, the use of zai appears to go back to how it is used with most other verbs: eg. 我在北京住了三年 Therefore, why has this word order changed?

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I'll address your last statement first since it is the quickest. when 在 comes directly before the verb it is known as the durative aspect marker (durative as in "duration"). In this case its function is identical to the role of "-ing" in English, it shows that the action is undergoing and has yet to be completed.

As for the other use case; when 在 isn't functioning as the durative aspect marker its function is that of a coverb (see my description of a coverb here), the direct English equivalent in this case would be "in" or "at". When used in this way 在 must be followed by a noun, the combination of 在 + the noun forms an adverbial phrase (for instance, 在北京 from your first example). Whether this adverbial phrase is placed before the verb or after the verb is dependent on what type of verb it is.

One type of verb is a "displacement" verb, meaning a verb that results in something being displaced. 跳 (to jump) is an example of this, the action of jumping results in you being displaced. In the case of displacement verbs, the adverbial phrase containing 在 can come before or after the verb. The caveat is that placing it before the verb means that is the location prior to being displaced while placing it after the verb means that is the location after being displaced. Take for example, "我跳在桌子上" and "我在桌子上跳". The first implies that you jumped onto the surface of the table while the latter implies that you were on the surface of the table prior to jumping.

Another type of verb is a "stative" verb, a verb that describes a state. This includes 坐 (to sit), 睡觉 (to sleep), and also 住 (to live) from your example. These are all verbs (action words) by definition but ironically aren't done actively. You do not actively sit, or actively live. You do it passively, with no effort or thought on your part. In cases such as these the adverbial phrase containing 在 can come before or after the verb without altering the sentence in any meaningful way. Where you chose to sit your bum and where you are as a result of sitting down are one in the same, no meaningful difference.

I can't think of a name for the rest of the verbs, but in all other cases the adverbial phrase containing 在 should come before the verb. Such is true for 学 (to learn), 教 (to teach), 吃 (to eat), etc. You can only say where you were when you began doing these actions, you cannot say where you are as a result of doing the action, so always place the locative phrase before.

One thing of note is that verbs such as 去 (to go), 飞 (to fly), etc. all belong to the last category. You might be duped into believing that they belong to the first (the displacement verbs), but that category is reserved for movement within your immediate area. You can jump to a position relative to your self, be shoved to a position relative to yourself, etc. and these are all acceptable uses of 在, but when you are talking about flying to a distant place or other such actions you cannot use 在 for connecting the destination with the verb, you must use 到 (to) instead

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Most of the time, location precede the verb in a sentence, but when a verb is applying to a location, you can put the verb before the location

Example:

在紙上寫了三個字

寫了三個字在紙上

紙上 is the location the verb 寫了 applies upon

~

在現場留下證據

留下證據在現場

現場 is the location the verb 留下 applies upon

~

我在北京住

我住在北京

北京 is the location the verb 住 applies upon

For a verb that doesn't apply to a location, location precedes the verb

Example: 我在北京教書 cannot be written as 我教書在北京 because 教書(teach) doesn't apply to 北京 (Beijing)-- You teach in Beijing, not teaching Beijing

In any case, 在 always precedes the location

The difference between 我在北京住 and 我住在北京 is the former emphasizes the location 北京 and the latter emphasizes the verb 住

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  • 1
    Not fast enough aye? Soup for you! Sep 18 '20 at 8:10
  • 1
    I was in the middle of typing when your answer appeared
    – Tang Ho
    Sep 18 '20 at 8:12
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Question 1: How can you tell which verbs take zai before the verb and those which take zai after the verb?

That just depends on what you want to say.

你住哪儿?
我住在北京。我在北京住。(both are possible, as Tang Ho pointed out, but there seems to be a preference for the first.)
你还住在上海吗?
不是的,我现在住在北京。
不是的,我已经住在北京三年多。

It is entirely possible to write: 在住:

1. 医学研究表明,那些年过40岁,肥胖,或是 在住 在发达市区的人群往往是糖尿病的高发人群。
   (在住 = living, 在 ... 市区 = in urban districts)
   Those aged over 40, overweight or living in well-off urban areas are at a higher risk of developing diabetes, medical studies have shown. 

I often wonder what determines word order.

Question 2: Why has this word order changed?

The order of phrases can radically affect the meaning expressed, so we can take the phrases in any expression and calculate the number of permutations, rather than combinations, which is N! (N factorial.)

There are 6 (3x2x1) permutations of 3 variables:

Bit of Python: perChars3 = permutations(['我', '住', '在北京'])

Permutation 1 is: ('我', '住', '在北京')
Permutation 2 is: ('我', '在北京', '住')
Permutation 3 is: ('住', '我', '在北京')
Permutation 4 is: ('住', '在北京', '我')
Permutation 5 is: ('在北京', '我', '住')
Permutation 6 is: ('在北京', '住', '我')

With these 3 phrases, it is possible to discern the meaning in any order, although you probably would not write them all.

As we move to 4 phrases, the number of permutations rises to 24 (4x3x2x1):

Bit of Python: perChars4 = permutations(['我', '在北京', '住了', '三年多'])

Permutation 1 is: ('我', '在北京', '住了', '三年多')
Permutation 2 is: ('我', '在北京', '三年多', '住了')
Permutation 3 is: ('我', '住了', '在北京', '三年多')
Permutation 4 is: ('我', '住了', '三年多', '在北京')
Permutation 5 is: ('我', '三年多', '在北京', '住了')
Permutation 6 is: ('我', '三年多', '住了', '在北京')
Permutation 7 is: ('在北京', '我', '住了', '三年多')
Permutation 8 is: ('在北京', '我', '三年多', '住了')
Permutation 9 is: ('在北京', '住了', '我', '三年多')
Permutation 10 is: ('在北京', '住了', '三年多', '我')
Permutation 11 is: ('在北京', '三年多', '我', '住了')
Permutation 12 is: ('在北京', '三年多', '住了', '我')
Permutation 13 is: ('住了', '我', '在北京', '三年多')
Permutation 14 is: ('住了', '我', '三年多', '在北京')
Permutation 15 is: ('住了', '在北京', '我', '三年多')
Permutation 16 is: ('住了', '在北京', '三年多', '我')
Permutation 17 is: ('住了', '三年多', '我', '在北京')
Permutation 18 is: ('住了', '三年多', '在北京', '我')
Permutation 19 is: ('三年多', '我', '在北京', '住了')
Permutation 20 is: ('三年多', '我', '住了', '在北京')
Permutation 21 is: ('三年多', '在北京', '我', '住了')
Permutation 22 is: ('三年多', '在北京', '住了', '我')
Permutation 23 is: ('三年多', '住了', '我', '在北京')
Permutation 24 is: ('三年多', '住了', '在北京', '我')

Some of these permutations seem more acceptable than others.
Which ones would our Chinese friends here accept?
In a language without any case markings, shifting the word order can change the meaning completely: 我打你。你打我。 So, I believe language will kind of self-regulate the possible word orders to preserve the meaning. However, the number of acceptable possible word orders will not always be 1.

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