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I understand that Chinese directional complements are used to indicate direction of an action. I understand that when 来 is used after the verb there is some movement towards the speaker and when 去 is used there is some movement away from the speaker.

However, my question is when is the directional complement used because I see sentences in which it could be said that there is movement to/away from the speaker and yet there is no directional complement.

For instance:

他们要到上海了。(Tomorrow they will arrive at Shanghai.)

When are directional complements used? Please answer generally rather than just answering in the case of the above example.

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  • 他们要到上海了 sounds like "they are on the way to Shanghai". 他们要到上海来了 implies that they have planed to come to Shanghai but perhaps not yet started their trip. – dan May 20 at 7:10
  • Generally speaking, they are not essential. A possible distinction lies in whether the speaker is in Shanghai or not. If yes -> 來, no -> 去. Of course, some verbs match better with one of the complements inherently; e.g. 離去. – L Parker May 20 at 7:14
  • 他们要到上海了。 (They are about to arrive in Shanghai soon.) The speaker is making an estimation of the couple's whereabouts on their trip, here, when will the arrival to occur is the focus, which has nothing to do with directions. – r13 May 21 at 3:41
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Let me put it in this way:

他们要到上海了。
They are about to (要) arrive in Shanghai.

This sentence means "they" are already on their way to Shanghai, instead of meaning they are going to Shanghai or they are planning to go to Shanghai. Moreover, this is just a statement of fact, and it doesn't require/imply any relationship between the speaker and the object ("They" in this sentence). The speaker can be in Shanghai (The speaker is telling his friend that those people "they" are about to arrive here); the speaker can also be somewhere else.

他们要到上海来了。
他们要来上海了。
They are coming to Shanghai.

This means the speaker is in Shanghai.

他们要到上海去了。
他们要去上海了。
They are going to Shanghai.

This implies the speaker is not in Shanghai.

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    was about to leave an answer, but I think your answer explains it well already – wk14 May 23 at 15:05
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When are directional complements used?

You use it when you want to indicate which direction the verb is heading to.

Example:

  • 跳下舞台 - jump down from the stage (you cannot just say 跳舞台)

  • 跳上舞台 - jump upon the stage (you cannot just say 跳舞台)

  • 吸入空氣 - breathe in air (you can omit 入 and say 吸空氣 because 吸 itself is already an inward action)

  • 吐出毒液 - spit out the venom (you can omit 出 and say 吐毒液 because 吐 itself is already an outward action.

他们要到上海了 - no direction is indicated, which mean it can be either of the two possibilities below

他们要到上海去了 - indicates 'out going'

他们要到上海來了 - indicates 'in coming'

Since 去 and 來 in the above examples are not bond to a verb, they are directional particles

Example of 去 and 來 as directional complements:

送去 - send to

送來 - send in

走去 - go to

走來 - come to

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他们要到上海了。(Tomorrow they will arrive at Shanghai.)

(Where did you get "Tomorrow" from? 他们明天到上海。)

他们马上要到上海了。
They will arrive in Shanghai soon.

他们要到上海去。
They wanna go to Shanghai.

When are directional complements used?

When you want to indicate a direction and not a location.

去 tells you they are definitely not in 上海。
马上 tells you they are almost there, at 虹桥火车站, 飞机场 or wherever.

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