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I came across the following sentence:

怪不得法文他说得那么好。 Which translates as "No wonder that he speaks French so well". So far so good.

However, this word order is intriguing to me.

"He speaks French" would be just "他说法文", or "他会说法文", meaning literally "He can speak French".

However, in the first sentence, we have an expression of degree introduced by the 得 particle. "他说得那么好", "He speaks so/that well" is familiar to me, but here there's no direct object. Just the verb and an adverbial expression describing the verb.

So, does the usage of an adverbial expression (the 得- construction) require the direct object to be placed elsewhere, before the subject? "他说法文", but "法文他说得那么好"?

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  • The sentence shall be phrased as "怪不得他的法文说得那么好". Does it make sense now?
    – r13
    Apr 27 at 23:13
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  1. There are multiple ways of saying 'No wonder he speaks French that well.' (arranged by descending order of my subjective feeling of idiomaticity):

    i. 怪不得 [他] [說] [法文] [說得 那麼 好]。

    ii. 怪不得 [他] [法文] [說得 那麼 好]。

    iii. 怪不得 [法文] [他] [說得 那麼 好]。

  2. Treat 說得那麼好 as an adverbial phrase.

  3. We know for a fact that

    • Chinese, when required, follows the SVO structure;
    • To use the 得-construction one has to suffix it to a verb; and
    • Chinese is also a topic-prominent language. (Topic is a separate concept from subjectivity/objectivity; it is the theme or focus of the sentence and can be either the subject or the object.)
  4. In i., the SVO structure is easily seen in 他說法文. 說得那麼好 supplements how well he speaks French. In fact, the (S)VO+V得C (C for complement) construction is not a 'modern' entity; it is traceable to the Song dynasty. The advantage of this construction is that it does not disturb (S)VO, so much so they can be separable (the following is a Song text by Zhu Xi):

    看文字,卻是索居獨處好,用工夫方精專,看得透徹,未須便與朋友商量。(《語類·卷 104》)

    Reading (words) is best done alone; only by being alone can one be focused and read with such thoroughness, so much so there is no need to discuss it with friends.

  5. In ii., the topic (topicality reflects theme) is the subject (subjectivity defined via the verb ). A semantically accurate translation would be 'As for him, no wonder he speaks French that well.'

  6. In iii., the topic now becomes the object 法文 (objectivity defined via the verb ). A semantically accurate translation would be 'Regarding French, no wonder he speaks (it) that well.'

  7. In ii. and iii., the 得 construction is directly attached to the verb. That is fine because it is at the end of the sentence and is not impairing anything. Compared to, say, *怪不得 他 說得那麼好 法文, which is clearly ungrammatical.

  8. I considered i. as being the most idiomatic because there is no specific emphasis in it, unlike ii. or iii.

Reference

趙林曉、楊榮祥、吳福祥(2016)《近代漢語“VOV 得 C”重動句的類別、來源及歷時演變》。中國語文,4,415–511。

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  • There I got to know a new construction (your example iii). So, no matter the word order, the object never occurs after an adverbial expression. However, the main verb must be repeated twice if we want to place the object directly after the verb! In such cases, the adverbial expression is kept unchanged at the end, while the preceding object follows a simple verb. "He speaks French, speaks so well", literally. I think I'll go with example ii for myself.
    – swrutra
    Apr 28 at 10:50
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    My advice is when in doubt, always use the pattern in i.
    – L Parker
    Apr 28 at 11:09
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So, does the usage of an adverbial expression (the 得- construction) require the direct object to be placed elsewhere, before the subject? "他说法文说得那么好", but "法文他说得那么好"?

They are two different topics in a [(topic) + (comment)] sentence.

[他说法文 (topic)] + [说得那么好 (comment)]

说得那么好 is the comment on the topic 他说法文

On the topic of 'he speaks French', the comment is 'speaks very well'

~

[法文 (topic)] + 他说得那么好 (comment)]

他得说那么好 is the comment on the topic 法文

On the topic of 'French', the comment is 'he speaks very well'

~

[subject + V + 得 + adjective] doesn't always require an object

Example: 他跑得很快

When there is an object, the object can be placed before the subject as a topic.

Example: 中文 他學得很快

When an object is placed after the subject and verb, it becomes a [SVO] sentence (e.g. 他學中文) and the sentence can be the topic.

Example: 他學中文 學得很快

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  • So, in short, there are a few alternative word orders, but the object is never placed last in a sentence with an adverbial expression... if I got it right.
    – swrutra
    Apr 28 at 10:39
  • Yes, 他學很快中文 is ungrammatical; 他學中文很快 is ok.
    – Tang Ho
    Apr 28 at 11:55
  • "他學中文很快"? That means that 得 is not needed at all! At least with a direct object. What about "他學很快" without object?
    – swrutra
    Apr 29 at 10:14
  • 他學很快 needs an object because it is an SVO sentence, e.g. [他(S)] + [學(V)] + [object] + [很快(adv)]
    – Tang Ho
    Apr 29 at 10:23
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    中文他學得很快 / 他學中文很快 / 他學中文學得很快
    – Tang Ho
    Apr 29 at 17:00

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