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Beginner's question here.

If I understood correctly, all descriptive words in Mandarin can work both as an adjective and a "descriptive verb", which would be equivalent to the construction "to be + adjective" in English. If used as an adjective (i.e. accompanying the subject or object) the descriptive word must be followed by the 的 particle.

However, it seems that, in a simple affirmative sentence, the "descriptive verb" cannot be used directly after a personal pronoun, or as a standalone sentence with implied subject. Even though such construction is possible in questions or negative statements.

Here's a recap of what I (think I) know so far:

漂亮的女 - A beautiful woman

她漂亮吗? - Is she beautiful?

她不漂亮。- She is not beautiful.

她很漂亮。- She is beautiful. / She is very beautiful.

If I got it right, in the last example 很 does not mean necessarily "very". It can be as much a "filler word", that's to say, just a grammatical requirement for the affirmative sentence translated as "pronoun + be + adjective" in English. Is that so?

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  • In here "她很漂亮。She is very beautiful" is the correct translation.
    – r13
    Apr 23 at 22:07
  • 2
    她很漂亮。 She is beautiful. | 她非常漂亮。She is very beautiful. | (一个)漂亮的女人 A beautiful woman | noun + 很 + adj: meaning something is adj in English It is wrong to say 她是漂亮. Normally you say 她很漂亮. Rarely you can say 她是漂亮的. the sentence is grammarly correct but not sounds natural since 她是漂亮的 looks like a translation from an English textbook.
    – Bosai
    Apr 24 at 0:46
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Tl;dr: Your observation is mostly true. However, you should not say that without the sentence must become ungrammatical (there are meticulous examples that disprove this). Also I am against calling a filler; it is still an adverb of degree. It is only the default of Chinese to use adverbs of degree on gradable adjectives when required.

  1. Zhu (1980) performed an authoritative analysis of Chinese adjectives. I shall use his terminologies in my following explanation.

  2. It is possible to dichotomise Chinese adjectives based on their behaviour. Type I adjectives are 'simple' (can be monosyllabic or disyllabic). Type II adjectives are 'complex': they can be reduplications of type I adjectives, some other disyllabic adjectives, and adjectival phrases (that includes adjectives preceded by an adverb, as well as adjectival groups).

    Type I Type II
    (Monosyllabic) 小、好、紅 (Reduplicated type I monosyllabic) 小小兒、糊裡糊塗
    (Type I disyllabic) 乾淨、糊塗 (Type II disyllabic) 通紅、冰涼
    / (Adjective preceded by an adverb of degree) 非常大、挺好、很紅
    / (Adjectival group) 又高又大

    As a side note, Zhu notes the difference between type I and II disyllabic adjectives as follows: whenever possible, type I reduplicates in the form of AABB, but type II in the form of ABAB. There is also a semantical 'focus' within type II disyllabic adjectives (usually the second syllable), therefore allowing BAA reduplication (e.g., 紅通通, 涼冰冰).

  3. Zhu then compared the behaviour of type I and II adjectives (your interest being type II, specifically, adjectives preceded by an adverb of degree) as the predicate (謂語) of a sentence. Let us consider sentences without the copula () first. Compare

    a. (Type I) 價錢便宜,東西也不錯。 The price is low. The thing itself is not bad too.

    b. (Type II) 價錢很便宜。 The price is low.

    Both sentences are grammatical and idiomatic. In 2a., there is comparison or contrast with another grammatical subject. There is also the nuance of constancy/generality or staticity ("事物的恆久的、靜止的屬性"). But in 2b., there need not be any comparison or contrast, and that there is the potential for the described state to change ("含有一種潛在的可變性"). That is why the following is true:

    Q: 你好嗎? (Are you well, in general?)

    A: 我很好。 (Yes, but being well is my current state and is liable to change)

  4. In sentences containing the copula, compare the following (This paper is white):

    a. (Type I) 這張紙是白的。

    b. (Type II) 這張紙是很白的。

    Again both are grammatical and idiomatic, but the intended message can differ. In 3a., the adjectival predicate serves a differentiating purpose (區別意義): this paper belongs to the 'white' category, but not to any other colour. In 3b., the adjectival predicate serves an evaluative purpose (估價意義): this paper is being white; such is the current state of the paper.

    While some adjectives are 'neutral' (e.g. in the above pair of examples; also ), others are exclusive to type I OR type II constructions.

    Adjectives that are absolute (i.e. not gradable), such as (true), (false), (right), (wrong) cannot be used in type II forms (很真, 假假的), let alone in a sentence:

    c. (Type I) 這個消息是真的。

    d. (Type II) *這個消息是很真的。

    Adjectives such as (many/much) and (few/little), however, cannot be used in type I forms:

    e. (Type I) *這種人多。/*這種人是多的。

    f. (Type II) 這種人很多。/這種人是很多的。

    Certain adjectives (e.g., far, dense, excellent) also do not behave well in type I forms because they do not provide a sound basis for differentiation / categorisation. They tend to describe a perishable, abstract state:

    g. *他的身體棒。/*他的身體是棒的。

    h. 他的身體很棒。/他的身體是很棒的。

  5. The conclusion is that while your observation is valid, and that sentences like 2b. (價錢很便宜。) appear rather frequently, that does not imply without sentences immediately become ungrammatical. Conversely, not all adjectives (e.g. non-gradable ones) can be preceded by .

Reference: 朱德熙(1980)《現代漢語語法研究》。北京:商務,頁26–31。

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  • I found that some of your examples are over using the structure of something 是 adj 的. 他的身體是很棒的。is not a native speaking format. 他的身体非常棒。can clearly express "very"
    – Bosai
    Apr 24 at 3:29
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    很 means very in many situations; but for Chinese learner in early stage, knowing 很 mean is (+ adj) and 非常 means very are enough.
    – Bosai
    Apr 24 at 3:31
  • @Bosai I followed duly examples provided in Zhu (1980), which I discovered is an authoritative source for many research on Chinese adjectives that followed Zhu. (I agree Zhu overused the emphatic 是...的, so I included the same sentence without 是...的 already. Both, however, prove his point). // The asker's knowledge of 很 meaning very is apparent; my answer therefore only serves to refute his sweeping statement that without 很 the adjectival predicate becomes ungrammatical.
    – L Parker
    Apr 24 at 3:45
  • @L Parker I agree with Bosai. I never like sentences such as 她是漂亮的 or 他的身體是很棒的, etc.
    – joehua
    Apr 24 at 4:14
  • @joehua I agree. Concision is good practice. It is for this reason that I have already rid the sentences of 是...的 prior to Bosai's comment! (So I don't understand why we are at odds here.) The only reason I kept the sentences with 是...的 after the backslash is because Zhu (1980) wrote them as so. Moreover, there are contexts where 她是漂亮的 is justifiable (emphasis, for instance). It is also important to keep in mind stylistic preference does not mean grammaticality.
    – L Parker
    Apr 24 at 4:31

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