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There are two sentences:

  1. 他杀了一个人,可是没有杀死。
  2. 他杀了那个人,可是没有杀死。

Some people say that sentence 1 is ungrammatical (better say -- illogical), while sentence 2 is OK.

Why is it so? Why 那 makes such a big difference?

P.S. the examples are taken from :

Aspect, tense and mood : Context dependency and the marker LE in Mandarin Chinese Ljungqvist, Marita

p.s.s One guy told me that it is 一个人 conflicts with 可是没有杀死. That is, "one man" means that the killed person is unknown to the utterer but 可是没有杀死 says that the speaker somehow knows much more than the 一个人 phrasing suggests.

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  • Doesn't the source you mention offer an explanation? Naturally, the question of the grammaticality of the sentences is hard to answer and might need some kind of quantitative answer. One person saying "it sounds weird to me" doesn't really cut it. You can find native speakers who disagree on much more basic examples. :) As a side note, Marita supervised by BA thesis in Chinese ten years ago, but I haven't read the source in question. – Olle Linge Feb 16 at 20:09
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    @OlleLinge The source uses the sentences to illustrate the use of "了". The author states simply that sentence 2 is not problematic, without any elaboration. – monalisa Feb 17 at 17:31
  • @OlleLinge Please, take a look at koshiyomi answer lower. He has stated that the second sentence 2. 他吃了那个苹果,但是没有吃完 is alright. While 1. 他吃了一个苹果,但是没有吃完 is wrong. Can you explain why? – coobit Feb 17 at 18:17
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    This is not my area of expertise, so I think other people might be better at answering the question. I did check your original sentences with a native speaker teacher I trust a lot for grammaticality judgements and she thinks both the original sentences are wrong. I also checked the two sentences with 吃 here and she agrees that (2) is okay. If forced to give an explanation, I would say it's related to the fact that (1) has quantity specified ("one apple" rather than "an apple") and (2) does not. It could also be related to what type of reference it is (特指, 泛指, etc.). – Olle Linge Feb 17 at 18:36
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    I just added a comment under koshiyomi's answer regarding the "apple" sentence. Take a look and see if that makes sense. – monalisa Feb 17 at 19:08
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I don't think 那 makes any difference between the two sentences. If I think of it more orally both sentences are ok. But I don't think native speaker would say something like that because 杀了 and 杀死 are both subjective. you might either say 他(试图)(tried)杀一个人,可是没有杀死 or 他杀了一个人,可是(那个人)没有死(the person didn't die).

But I think this is a little bit off the point since the article is mainly talking about 了 and 那.

那's usage will be something like

他吃了一个苹果,但是没有吃完(wrong)

他吃了那个苹果,但是没有吃完(right)

that is because 吃 can be halfway done while 杀 is more of a state where after that you assume the guy is dead.

when you say 他吃了那个苹果,但是没有吃完, the hidden part of the sentence might be 他吃了(几口)那个苹果,但是没有吃完

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  • Sorry, can you elaborate on WHY 他吃了那个苹果,但是没有吃完 is right and the other one is not. It's very interesting. – coobit Feb 17 at 13:42
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    @coobit Sentence 2 他吃了那个苹果,但是没有吃完 is okay because 吃 is not an all-or-none kind of action. You can eat some or all of the object. In other words, 吃了 can also mean "tasted“ or "had a bite". This sentence can mean "he tasted that apple, but did not finish eating it." Sentence1, however, quantifies what he has eaten. He has eaten one apple. So that does not leave any other reading of the verb 吃. Killing is not the same. The object of the verb 杀 is dead. If he's not dead, "杀了" makes no sense. – monalisa Feb 17 at 18:51
  • Again, this is semantics, not syntax. – monalisa Feb 17 at 18:57
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    @monalisa In other words, it depends on the degree to which the main verb propositionally entails a meaning of fulfillment, propositional meaning which may vary under the influence of some of the main verb's dependents, such as its objects (e.g. 一個/那個蘋果), and its affixes (e.g. the actualizer 了 which conveys somehow the meaning of accomplishment). All of these belong to a continuum, which can explain inconsistent judgments among the native speakers. – starckman Feb 18 at 11:14
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    @coobit 他吃了个苹果 is the same as 他吃了一个苹果. *他吃了个苹果,但是没有吃完 is contradictory. – monalisa Feb 18 at 19:21
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I'm a native Chinese user and I can tell you [very definitively] based on my understanding of my first language that these two sentences are equally illogical (unless one interprets "killed" as "attemped to kill"), but neither of them are grammatically incorrect.

They are both illogical because, "杀了" means "killed" in the context of these two statements. So e.g. the first sentence means, translated very literally (so literally that it would sound unnatural in English), "He killed a person, but (he/she) did not kill (him/her) to death.", where the words in the brackets are words that are omitted in the Chinese sentence. You should see how (obviously) self-contradictory this sentence is in English - from my perspective the Chinese statement is just as self-contradictory as the English translation of it I gave. Similarly, the second sentence means "He killed that person, but (he/she) did not kill (him/her) to death."

The difference of these two sentences (of "那" and "一") is completely irrelevant to the determination of whether they are grammatical and whether they are logical.

Edit:

As correctly pointed out in koshiyomi's answer, if the verb "杀" is replaced with some other verb, e.g. "吃" for the two sentencces, then there is a quite subtle difference between the two sentences, because:

  1. It is perfectly natural to say a person ate something but didn't finish eating, whereas it is unnatural to say that a person killed someone but didn't kill him/her to death.
  2. "吃了一个苹果" means "ate one apple" where "一" usually (but not always) suggests that one whole apple was eaten, but "那" in "吃了那个苹果" simply specifies which apple was eaten, with less suggestion that the whole apple had been eaten. Both sentences can be commonly understood as suggesting that the whole apple was eaten though (in cases where it has not been clarified whether the whole apple was eaten or not).

N.B. That the sentences are illogical does not mean that they cannot be used to good effect - e.g. often contradictory sentences are utilized in literature to achieve certain effects. For example, in literature you might have something like "He killed that person. But no, he did not die." where the first sentence describes something that is not true but merely apparently true. I remember that this kind of contradictory decriptions were used quite often in the Japanese visual novel Fate/Stay Night.

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    @Mou某♦ I would add however that [that the sentences are illogical does not mean that they cannot be used to good effect] - e.g. often contradictory sentences are utilized in literature to achieve certain effects. For example, in literature you might have something like "He killed that person. But no, he did not die." where the first sentence describes something that is not true but merely apparently true. I remember that this kind of contradictory decriptions were used quite often in the Japanese visual novel Fate/Stay Night. – user53754683 Feb 17 at 23:37
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    What if the sentence was something like "他殺一個人殺了三天也沒有殺死". Would you still perceive it as contradictory? – Curiosity Feb 18 at 22:47
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    Some thoughts on your new sentence: 1. 殺了三天 is adverbial on the first 殺 (in 殺一個人) 2. In a way, 了 is there to highlight the temporal extent of the killing (three days) 3. How is that different from 他殺那個人殺了三天也沒有殺死, you say? With 一個人, it seems whoever happens to be his victim does not matter; the sentence only reflects how bad (or sadistic) he is as a killer. With 那個人, the focus now seems to have shifted to the one being killed (as in how resilient to being killed they are). Both are sensical as there is sufficient information now (the object of 沒有殺死 is clear); 也 somehow played a connective role. – L Parker Feb 20 at 9:11
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    Some argue 殺 carries with it the indispensable element of ‘death’, which I agree. I also am convinced 殺了他 does sound like he is killed and is dead (for reasons beyond my explanation, as of now). But as evidenced by your new sentence, at most there is intended death (with the suitable act to realise it, of course) in 殺, not necessarily factual death. Normally intended death progresses to factual death quickly, which resolves all linguistic and logical issues; however, their discrepancy is widened by your preset 三天, which makes realising and differentiating the two kinds of deaths easier. – L Parker Feb 20 at 9:54
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    There is also the curious one about "half-dead", ”半死” – Wayne Cheah Feb 21 at 4:25
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Wouldn't that apply to English too?

  1. *He tried to kill a person, but didn't kill off a person.

  2. He tried to kill that person, but didn’t kill off the person.

可是没有杀死 has the hidden object 一个人 and 那个人 respectively.

However, 可是没有杀死一个人 is not ungrammatical, only semantically nonsensical, because 'who was killed (but not killed to death)' was not made sufficiently clear due to the lack of indication by 那. That is to say, without proper indication, we only know from the latter half of the sentence that someone nearly died, but who specifically that person was and why knowing the fact that s/he didn’t die matters are not made clear.

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  • Sorry, I don't see how english variant of 2nd sentence makes it grammatical. I'm not a native English speaker, but both of them stated in English seem ungrammatical to me.I mean that you either kill someone or not, there cannot be any ambiguity since killing is not revocable act. – coobit Feb 16 at 16:40
  • Ah my fault. Shouldn’t have put the bracket in the sentences. Was thinking in Chinese. – L Parker Feb 16 at 16:41
  • Wait a second... What makes you think that we are talking about "trying to kill" and not "actually killing"? You are cheating... :) – coobit Feb 16 at 16:46
  • That is an attempt in contrasting 殺 and 殺死. Of course both sentences are translated the same in these regards and it is in my opinion a fair comparison. – L Parker Feb 16 at 16:48
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    No, it is not possible (to me). – L Parker Feb 17 at 13:52
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Sentence 1. 他杀了一个人,可是没有杀死。

他 "he" - Subject

杀了 "killed" - Verb + result

一个人 "one person (someone)" - Object

可是 "but" - Conjunction

没有 "did not" - Negative element

杀死 "kill (till that person died)" - Verb + result

You can parse the sentence as above, and it is a grammatical sentence. What is wrong is the meaning, or the contradictory logic of the two parts. The equivalent English sentence "He killed a person, but he didn't kill (that person)" is also grammatical but non-sensical.

Sentence 2. 他杀了那个人,可是没有杀死。

他 "he" - Subject

杀了 "killed" - Verb + result

那个人 "that person" - Object

可是 "but" - Conjunction

没有 "did not" - Negative element

杀死 "kill (till that person died)" - Verb + result

It's basically the same problem. Grammatical but non-sensical because the two parts contradict each other. The only difference between the two sentences is the object 一个人 vs. 那个人. 一个人 is non-specific, someone. 那个人 is a specific person.

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  • There is a difference between the two. The 2nd one is logical to a chinese person, while the 1st is not really. Well, according to the book that is. – coobit Feb 16 at 18:25
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    "The 2nd one is logical to a Chinese person". - I beg to differ. This sentence is not logical to this Chinese speaker. If you killed a person, you killed a person. It makes no difference if that is an unspecified someone or a specific person. You cannot "kill" and "not kill" the same person. – monalisa Feb 16 at 18:35
  • Well, that is why I ask. They both seemed the same illogical to me, but I've given a link to a research paper where this exmaple is raised and I tend to trust those things. – coobit Feb 16 at 18:40
  • @coobit I did take a look at the research paper (the part that uses this sentence, not the whole paper). And I still cannot agree that sentence 2 is unproblematic. Perhaps it is one of those things that even native speakers cannot agree on? – monalisa Feb 17 at 5:23
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    "If you killed a person, you killed a person" Yea, you cannot be half pregnant? – Wayne Cheah Feb 17 at 5:47

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