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Background

I just encountered the topic-comment structure in Chinese, as I am learning multiple languages (cross-linguistics, for a fantasy language book-writing project). The examples in that link are all relatively simple:

熊猫我以前见过。
Xióngmāo wǒ yǐqián jiàn guò.
I’ve seen a panda before.
Literally, “Panda, I before have seen.”

The last line, the thing before the comma is usually one or two words in English, most complex example was "paper napkin":

餐巾纸有没有?
Cānjīnzhǐ yǒu méiyǒu?
Do you have a paper napkin?
Literally, “Paper napkin, (you) have or not?”

How is this pattern typically used in the following cases:

1. Long adjectives in the topic

  • I am eating an extremely rich and tasty cookie.
  • Lit. Extremely rich and tasty cookie, I am eating. (Something like that?)

2. Long sentences with logic

  • A long time ago before the devastating flood, we used to go out and eat delicious homemade meals at the animal-filled farm.
  • What is the topic here? How do you apply to a sentence like this?

3. Multiple topics at once?

  • The storm threw tons of fish onto the boat, which we ate.
  • Is "fish" the topic or "storm" or "boat"?
  • We ran a mile at the olympics in under 5 minutes while everyone was cheering.
  • Is "ran a mile" the topic, or cheering? Can you choose what the topic is and change it depending on emphasis?

4. What if you have multiple topics?

  • We quickly ran a mile after school and then slowly walked until we encountered the forest.
  • ran a mile is probably the first topic, and walked the second topic?

Summary

Basically, how do you apply the topic-comment pattern in more complex situations such as these?

Note: please write the literal gloss in English, and ideally include the pinyin, if you opt into also writing in Chinese script. It is very helpful to have the literal English gloss as a new Chinese learner, I can't read the straight Chinese script fully yet. Having the 4 lines like the examples above is really helpful.

2 Answers 2

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Such topic-comment (主题与评论) constructions are very common in Chinese, but it is important to understand what can be construed as a topic in Mandarin.

One of the key features to note is that the topic is generally definite. In English, this could be a subject pronoun, but could equally be a noun clause starting with "this/that" or even "the". As explained in Schachter & Rutherford (1979):

Topic is always ‘given,’ has already been raised to consciousness, so to speak, while comment represents ‘new’ information, or what is said about the topic. It follows then that before something becomes a topic it has to be introduced, or raised to consciousness. An introduced referent that is to become a topic is therefore itself ‘new’ and, by the conventions of discourse in topic-prominent languages, will appear in the comment.

Thus, many topics are "raised" with 有 yǒu, to turn an indefinite noun into a whole clause "there exists a ", where that clause acts as the topic.

Bearing this in mind, if we look at the cases here:

1*. Long adjectives

I am eating an extremely rich, tasty cookie.

The topic appears to be the subject "I" here, as the object is indefinite. If we want to have the topic be the cookie with its adjectives, either the cookie has to be definite, which changes the form of the English, and leads to a rather unnatural sentence in Chinese:

I am eating this [particular] extremely rich, tasty cookie.
这个又油腻又好吃的饼干,我在吃。
Zhège yòu yóunì yòu hào chī de bǐnggān, wǒ zài chī.

Or we "raise" the topic with 有:

There is an extremely rich, tasty cookie that I am eating.
?有(一)个又特别油腻又(非常)好吃的饼干,我在吃。
?Yǒu (yī) gè yòu tèbié yóunì yòu (fēicháng) hào chī de bǐnggān, wǒ zài chī.

Of course, it is true that the premise of point 1, that the adjectives have to be there, is faulty. Why can't the adjectives be a comment? Then the 'verbal' comment would be worded in a way to bring the focus on the verb, using 是... 的. Hence:

There is a cookie that's extremely rich and tasty that I am eating.
有(一)个饼干,又特别油腻又(非常)好吃,是我在吃的。
Yǒu (yī) gè bǐnggān, yòu tèbié yóunì yòu (fēicháng) hào chī, shì wǒ zài chī de.

However, it is more likely from the information structure of the English that "I" genuinely is the topic here.

2/3/4. Short stories in "a" sentence

The onus is on the speaker or writer to choose the topic to begin the sentence.

A long time ago before the devastating flood, we used to go out and eat delicious homemade meals at the animal-filled farm.

In English, the scene is set here with the complex time phrase at the beginning. That is fine as a topic in Mandarin:

早在大水灾之前,我们(都)会外出到动物众多的农场,去吃美味的家常饭菜。
Zǎo zài dà shuǐzāi zhīqián, wǒmen (dōu) huì wàichū dào dòngwù zhòngduō de nóngchǎng, qù chī měiwèi de jiācháng fàncài.

But one could perhaps choose to recast the farm as the topic, which would correspond more closely to:

There's the animal-filled farm where, a long time ago before the devastating flood, we used to go out and eat delicious homemade meals.

This would also apply to the cases in 3 and 4 where a native would expect the speaker / writer to decide on what they would like "raise" as the topic.

Additionally, English has a huge propensity of sticking clauses together with 'and'. Pedagogically, this is something that teachers do well to break English-speaking students out of in their Chinese. It is totally legitimate to have one English sentence correspond to two Chinese ones, or one Chinese sentence correspond to four English ones. This will depend on style, information structure, and the general discourse.

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I am not sure why this kind of sentences are called topic comment structure. The examples in the link is like a kind of emphasis sentence. "It is Panda I have seen before.""It is Paper napkin, do you have."

So the noun at the beginning should not be too long. No "Extremely rich and tasty cookie, I am eating.". (Beacause it is too long compared to "I am eating")

"A long time ago before the devastating flood, we used to go out and eat delicious homemade meals at the animal-filled farm." It does not follow the structure because it does even not put the noun at the beginning of the sentence.

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