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This Facebook post says:

The object behind “把” should be a specific person or thing. Example: “我把那本书买来了” cannot say “我把一本书买来了”.

Judging from context "behind" here should be "after". But even after this correction, I'm skeptical. I'm pretty sure these sentences I made up are all correct (please tell me if I'm wrong):

  • 妈妈把一本书放在桌子上。
  • 我把一个苹果切成了四块。
  • 我们把三辆汽车洗得干干净净。
  • 她把一颗星命名为“李蓓星”。

While I disagree with the given explanation, my 语感 nevertheless agrees that 我把一本书买来了 is somehow wrong. But why?

Question: Why is 我把一本书买来了 wrong?

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  • really a difficult question, 我把一本书买来了 is correct too, 我買來了一本書 is better Jul 18, 2022 at 11:23
  • diff "book" with "apple"! they are different. the point is why they are different. ---- too many reasons. like people who are in pursuit of truth or knowledge think highly of books and think certain books are much more valuable than others, so they diff certain books with the others. that's why they say "I bring the book" rather than "I bring a book" with "the book" implies certain book they've been talked about. and of cause, it's entirely possible that a person who has almost seen no book before to say that "I got a book" rather than "I got the book". you can say them all, and them are all r
    – Aaron Q
    Jul 19, 2022 at 7:18
  • Quite apart from definiteness, there’s also a requirement that the object of 把 must somehow be subsantially affected by the verb. The first three of your examples quite clearly do that: putting something on the table affects it (position), so does washing clean (state/appearance), and chopping into pieces most definitely does. The last one feels borderline to me (and therefore also less natural) – does naming a star really affect it? And the example in the book feels definitely wrong: buying something doesn’t affect it substantially. Even definite 我把那本书买来了 feels clumsy to me. Jul 19, 2022 at 7:53

8 Answers 8

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My 语感 tends to agree with yours here. Grammatically, I would explain this in terms of degrees or types of definiteness. (What the fb post likely meant by 'specific', ie what is usually marked in English by THE.)

If our intuition isn't completely wide of the mark here, the numeral after the object of 把 is admissible because the presence of a final complement after the predicate confirms that the object of 把 is still meant in a definite sense.

Can a noun modified by 一 remain definite? (That is, can it be conceivably thought of as markable by THE, in English?) Arguably yes, if it's of the partitive type. In that case, the numeral does not mean "a" but "one (of THE few/many under consideration)".

For instance, I understand your first example sentence to mean not that your mother has randomly produced an apple out of the blue to put on the table, but rather that your mother has put one of the apples on the table. The focus is that ONE specific apple (of a larger bunch, whether concrete or abstract) ended up being put on the table; it's not that what's been put on the table is AN apple (as opposed to A book or something else). So 把一个苹果 is still a degree more definite than, say, 桌子上放着一个苹果 (where 一个苹果 would instead demand 'AN' in English translation, a marker of maximum indefiniteness).

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  • * "THE", in my answer, standing for any one of: the/ this/ that/ those/ these (which are equivalent to the definite use of 这个/那个 in the counterexample offered in the original fb post).
    – Sanchuan
    Jul 18, 2022 at 12:30
  • Glad to see native speakers' responses seem to corroborate my "definite but partitive" theory of why this construction is grammatical. All examples can be understood to mean "one (of THE abstract set of Xs available to the predicate)". Following your examples, that would be: one book (of all the books that the subject of the sentence would/could buy), one apple (of all the apples that the subject would/could move), and so forth.
    – Sanchuan
    Jul 19, 2022 at 13:49
  • With regards to the disposability criterion, I would argue that's part of the semantics of 把 and is also partly inherent in its definiteness. At any rate it would not, on its own, explain why in certain contexts 把那 is grammatical and 把一 isn't.
    – Sanchuan
    Jul 19, 2022 at 13:54
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I am a native Chinese and found this question really interesting. I am not a language expert but feel that the 把 will slightly emphasize the words after it. So 我把一本书买来了 emphasizes 一本书 but it didn't tell what the book is. Here is no articles (a/the) in Chinese. So it is completely correct to say 我把那本书买来了 to mean "I bought the book" and 我买了一本书 to mean "I bought a book/I bought one book". But 我把一本书买来了 will sound like "I bought the one book". Feel like you are using both "a" and "the" for one thing.

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from my answer to this post

把 is a disposive marker. It marks the object that's to be disposed of.

When an object is marked, it is a specific object by default, to make the object unspecific, you need to add an unspecific classifier ('a' or 'an') before it

The objects in the sentences below are all specific, therefore, needed to add 'the' before them in English translation

妈妈把(那)书放在桌子上。 - the book, not a book

我把(那)苹果切成了四块。 - the apple, not an apple

我们把(那)汽车洗得干干净净。- the car, not a car

她把(那)星命名为“李蓓星” - the star, not a star

To make the object unspecific:

妈妈把一本书放在桌子上。 - an unspecific book

我把一个苹果切成了四块。- an unspecific apple

我们把三辆汽车洗得干干净净。 - three unspecific car

她把一颗星命名为“李蓓星” - an unspecific star

Why is 我把一本书买来了 wrong?

我把(那本)书买了 = 我买了(那本)书 (specific object)

我把一本书买来了 = 我买来了(一本)书 (unspecific object)

When we see 把 in front of an object, the first impression is that "the object is specific" (那本)书.

using an unspecific classifier 一本 to make the object unspecific just seems forced

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把 is used to engage the action's receiver. The engagement would make more sense when the object is specific. E.g. 他把我的书弄坏了。

If you say 他把一本书弄坏了,we might think why that's important and perhaps he just ruined a book which we don't really care about. Whilst 他把我的书弄坏了 clearly states he ruined my book(he is guilty or should be responsible for it) So, to make what you say more meaningful, we better be specific about what exact thing that an action has been inflicted upon.

By the same token, 我把一本书买来了 isn't that meaningful. People may ask why we need to put an additional emphasis on a general book and who cares you bought a general book. But if you say 我把书买来了, it tells that you have done the task(buying books no matter/not caring about how many books you have bought).

Note: there's major difference between English and Chinese. Chinese doesn't have to have number word preceding a noun and we only add them when it's necessary. Well, in English, we are forced by grammar itself to add an a/an/the.

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I think this is the problem of when and whether a sentence requires a "quantifier" for clarity. If lacking necessity, it becomes "畫蛇添足,多此一舉".

Let's examine these sentences:

  • "妈妈把一本书放在桌子上,..." Standalone, this is an incomplete sentence. There must exist an event prior to, or after, the mother's action to necessitate the quantifier "一本". In contrast - "妈妈把书放在桌子上." is a complete sentence by itself.

  • "我把一个苹果切成了四块。" The quantifier "一个" is necessary as the sentence is to convey/emphasize the idea/concept (as in the teaching of math operation) - "from one to four thru cutting", in which the presence of "one" is necessary for clarity.

  • "我们把三辆汽车洗得干干净净。" or "我们把三辆汽车(都)洗干净了。" The quantifier tells there are exactly 3 cars, not 2, not 4, so the quantifier is necessary for clarity.

  • "她把一颗星(星)命名为“李蓓星”。" The quantifier "一颗" is necessary to clarify the action was taken over a/one star, as "星" or "星星" can be plural. The sentence can be made more clear - "她把其中的一颗星命名为“李蓓星”。"

Now, let's go to the sentences mentioned in the opening:

  • “我把本书买来了” - "那本书" = "那一本书", similar to the English "that book" means specifically "that one book", the number of books is clear with or without the quantifier "one".

  • “我把一本书买来了” has "語病" if you have purchased only "one" book, the quantifier is "unnecessary", as “我把书买来了” is clear on the number, and the sentence is cleaner/preferred. However, a quantifier is necessary if you have purchased multiple books, for that you shall say “我把那些书买来了”, or more specific - “我把三本书买来了” or "我把三本书都买来了”.

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Not wrong, just context dependent, like everything.

Tang Ho gave 4 examples of 把一本书X. You can find many more.

”我今天把这本书买来了。“

is not something you would just suddenly, out of the blue, say. Everything has a context. At the same time you say this, you would be showing the book in question. Otherwise the statement is a bit weird.

Equally, in the correct context, 我把一本书买来了。is not wrong.

Imagine you and I are avid collectors of rare books. We have found a first edition of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in mint condition, for example. We have been negotiating with the seller for quite a while.

In that case, if I come home and tell you: "我今天把一本书买来了。" you will smile and say:

真的吗?你最终买了那个书了吗?

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有句话叫“先问是不是,再问为什么。”

It is NOT wrong. It is only weired for certain contexts.

Consider the following senario:

I have a book that I wanted for a long time, and finally today I went out and bought it. Friend A who doesn't know the existence of the book asks me what I did just now:

“你干什么去了?”Where have you been?

“我把一本书买来了。”I bought that book I wanted and you don't know.

“什么书?”What book?

“张三写的《法外狂徒》.”Introduce the book.

In this senario, if I said “我把那本书买来了”, it would be very strange, because friend A doesn't know what book I was talking about. And “我买了一本书。” lacks the feeling that that book I bought is the one I wanted for a long time. So “我把一本书买来了。” is somehow the best sentence in this senario.

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You cannot use 无定宾语 (indefinite object) and 光杆动词 (bare verb) as the predicate the same time in 把-sentence.

Case of 无定宾语: 看热闹的人把一条街都塞满了。

Case of 光杆动词: 那一天同志们把话拉,在一起议论你沙妈妈,七嘴八舌不停口,一个个伸出拇指把你夸。(京剧《沙江浜》)

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