I find very puzzling that some words lose its parts in the sentence. For instance,抽烟 loses the 烟 below:


Originally I smoked, now I do not smoke.

In western languages it would be incorrect to say "I smoked but now I do not smo" but in Chinese I found many examples like this.

  1. Is there a grammar name for this phenomenon? (so I can google more info)
  2. Any rules or explation why it happen?

2 Answers 2


Originally I smoked, [but] now I don't smoke.

抽烟 is an example of a separable verb (离合词), which combines two words: the first word is a verb 抽 and the second word 烟 is its object (hence they're also called "verb-object phrases"). Here, 抽 doesn't necessarily need to take an object, and can be omitted.

Thus it's more analogous to saying:

Originally I smoked (抽) tobacco (烟), but now I don't smoke (抽).

Sometimes separable verbs are easily understood, e.g. in 吃饭 = "to eat a meal", 吃 is "to eat" and 饭 refers to the meal, or in 打篮球 = "to play basketball", where it's clear that 打 is the verb and 篮球 is its object. However, in some cases, the object in a separable verb is somewhat abstract (like in 游泳).

For 抽烟, the object 烟 is tangible: it's the thing that is being smoked (likely tobacco).

[In English, there are comparable phrases, like "I ran a run" or "I danced a dance". (Or even: Waiting for a king to apologize, one can wait a rather long wait.)]

Textbooks often list separable verb vocabulary, such as 游泳 and 跑步, as if they were single words (and identify them as separable verbs in some way, such as writing: yóu//yǒng). Sometimes they are better thought of as two separate words (verb + noun) with a strong collocation (i.e., they often go together). So 抽 is a verb, 烟 is not a verb (it's a noun), and a textbook probably lists 抽烟 as a single word for simplicity (since 抽 and 烟 both have other meanings).

  • 1
    Brilliant answer Becky👍 Now I also understand why some words were split by "//" in the dictionary 🙏
    – User981636
    Oct 7, 2022 at 12:36
  • It's also known as VO (verb-object) in some grammar books.
    – monalisa
    Oct 7, 2022 at 19:10

Those things everyone calls "words" in Chinese aren't "words" the way "words" are "words" in Indo-European languages -- not because they're not, but simply because they're formed and used differently.

Of course, from an academic point of view, those combinations of hanzi are lexical units and therefore behave like the grammatical unit called "word" in linguistics.

But word morphology in Chinese is different to the one you're used to, because most words are formed by putting together (variably) free morphemes in a way that's more similar to what we would otherwise call "phrases". Think phrasal verbs or close collocations in English, like "put down" or "play tennis" etc. Much like in Chinese, phrases of this kind, especially those containing verbs, can be split or truncated as needed:

Put down the book for me please. Put it down, I said!


I used to play tennis, but I don't play any more"

In both languages, dictionaries and grammar books will correctly present some of these phrasal compounds as words if they can behave like a unit (like "put down" or "抽烟“). But some of these compound phrases don't have to behave like a unit, especially when their full form has been introduced already and now you simply need to qualify/modify the concept further.

In Chinese, there's just a lot more of these types of separable phrasal compounds that can (but don't have to) be used as words: not just things like "put down", but also verb+noun combinations like "play tennis".

抽(smoke/draw in)+烟(cigarette or similar) is one of them.

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