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Compare the following sentences:

  1. 妈妈昨天喝茶,今天喝咖啡。
  2. 妈妈不喝茶,她喝咖啡。

Sentence (1) seems quite straightforward: the pronoun is omitted because it is clear who is being talked about and there is no need to specify. If we were to use the pronoun, ie,

妈妈昨天喝茶,她今天喝咖啡。

my sense is that we would either be making a very clunky sentence or we would be adding an element of vague causality, almost conditionality: "if mom drank tea yesterday, she'll probably drink coffee today", almost as if we were saying an abbreviated form of:

妈妈昨天喝茶(的话),她今天(就)喝咖啡。

As for sentence (2), the opposite feels true to me: without the pronoun it feels like a list of two true facts, perhaps related but with no comment as to the nature of their relationship:

妈妈不喝茶,她喝咖啡。

If I take out the pronoun though, it all of a sudden feels as though it were an abbreviated form of a conditional sentence:

妈妈不喝茶,喝咖啡。

feels to me like

妈妈不喝茶(的话,就)喝咖啡。


Question 1, what do you think of my above analysis?

Question 2, if my above analysis is accurate, it is actually a quite interesting situation: in sentence (1) we achieve a neutral listing of facts by omitting the pronoun, while in sentence (2), we achieve a similarly neutral listing of facts by including the pronoun. What's more, it seems that the inverse sentences would produce a similar effect: pronoun inclusion in (1) and pronoun omission in (2) both appear to imply a vaguely conditional relationship between the two clauses. How do we explain this situation?

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  • Answering your queries won't answer the question in the title, which is a much more open question about general pronoun dropping. Suggest changing it to something along the lines of "Does omitting pronouns change the relationship between sentences?" or "Does pronoun omission imply subordination?" or some such.
    – Sanchuan
    Nov 30, 2022 at 18:00
  • Sorry, I haven't seen "licenses" being used in a sentence like this. Did you mean "permits" or "allows"?
    – Andrew T.
    Dec 1, 2022 at 9:40
  • Thank you -- good point! Title has been edited.
    – Buddy L
    Dec 2, 2022 at 13:07
  • Awesome. If you could add tags like "conjunction", "serialized-verbs", "syntax" and "grammar", that might also help future posters/readers refer to this question more easily. Thanks.
    – Sanchuan
    Dec 3, 2022 at 13:05

3 Answers 3

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These sentences may be logically compatible with a conditional, causal or any other subordinative reading, but only by contextual inference.

When a sentence leaves out something that is grammatically okay to leave out, it's said to be vague about it. When a sentence is vague about something, it's said to be compatible with any instance of that something. For example, the average Chinese sentence is vague about tense and, as such, will be compatible with any tense. In other words, a tense-less sentence is not being ambiguous about a specific underlying tense that's supposedly been dropped - it's simply vague about it.

In your examples, the absence of a logical connector (such as 如果, 因为, 所以, 就, etc) means that your sentences are vague about the logical connection within them. Again, that means that your sentences may well be compatible with a causal or conditional reading (given the right context), but they do not on their own mean it.

Without context, the most faithful reading of them in English is one that simply uses the connector [and/but]

妈妈昨天喝茶,今天喝咖啡。

Mom had tea yesterday and/but is having coffee today.

妈妈不喝茶,喝咖啡。

Mom isn't having tea and/but is having coffee.

What about pronouns? The sentences above do leave the subject of the second clause implicit. But this time, they're not being vague about it: the subject is heavily implied to be 她 and no other.

This means that when you make the subject explicit again, you're adding contrastive emphasis to something that's implicitly there already. Adding a pronoun for emphasis may mark the two clauses further apart, but it does nothing to cancel out the vagueness of their logical connection.

A possible way to translate the sense of contrast here might be simply to use a stronger adversative, something like [(but) instead]:

妈妈昨天喝茶,她今天喝咖啡。

Mom had tea yesterday but is having coffee today instead.

妈妈不喝茶,她喝咖啡

Mom isn't having tea but is having coffee instead.

Please note that, in all four translations here, each sentence is left as a pair of coordinated clauses. Yes, they may well be logically compatible with a subordinative reading (in a conditional or causal context), but that's not what they actually say. And although adding/omitting the pronoun may mark a more important caesura between their two component clauses, this alone will not change the nature of their logical connection from one of coordination to one of subordination, unless you do add 就 or another such word.

Addendum (in reply to comments):

The reason why the sentence with 不, but not the one with 昨天, feels conditional by default is unlikely to be due to the aspect of the verb in the predicate (eg habitual vs progressive, etc). But, yes, you are right to notice a slight difference. It's just that the different nuance you feel in the sentence with 不 is not one of condition; it's one of disjunction. And disjunction, unlike condition, is still consistent with coordination. What makes the logic of that sentence disjunctive is the mere presence of the word 不, which is usually enough to set one clause in pseudo-conditional opposition to another, whether with 就 (eg 不是咖啡就是茶 = it's either coffee or tea) or without (爱信不信 = believe it or not).

This also explains why you feel that adding a pronoun in between the two clauses will block the default conditional reading of the sentence. What it does is separate the two clauses further apart, thereby bleaching out the sense of disjunction to the point where you're simply left with two bare statements of fact.

To wrap up my answer: adding or omitting pronouns will not change the relationship between the clauses of those two sentences. In both cases, the logic is one of coordination, albeit conjunctive in one and disjunctive in the other. Adding a pronoun in the middle will simply add more internal contrast between the two clauses. The reason why adding a contrastive pronoun makes the sentence with 不 feel more descriptive is because the sense of contrast will block the sense of disjunction.

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  • Thanks for the great answer. Do you not feel that the case would be slightly different if the context led you to understand the sentence to be a statement of Mom's habits rather than her current activity, along the lines of "Mom doesn't (generally) have tea, she has coffee.", rather than "is having". My instinct is that in this case I would be less likely to omit the second pronoun. If I did, the flow of the sentence leads my ear to a conditional interpretation. I know it doesn't mean conditional, as you've pointed out, but it feels conditional.
    – Buddy L
    Dec 2, 2022 at 13:26
  • When we add the time words, "妈妈昨天喝茶,今天喝咖啡“, I no longer have this feeling. Two possible reasons come to mind: 1) the prosody, or rhythmic flow, is different because we've added the time words, and so I don't feel like there is something missing there that my brain fills in with a conditional interpretation, or 2) this is no longer a statement of her habits but a reporting on her activities. The 2nd option is inline with the reasons for my first comment.
    – Buddy L
    Dec 2, 2022 at 13:29
  • I agree with option 2 and have gone a bit more in depth in an addendum to my answer to explain why.
    – Sanchuan
    Dec 2, 2022 at 18:59
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妈妈昨天喝茶,今天喝咖啡。 = 妈妈昨天喝茶,她今天喝咖啡。 ≠ 妈妈昨天喝茶,所以今天喝咖啡。

妈妈不喝茶,喝咖啡。 = 妈妈不喝茶,她喝咖啡。 ≠ 妈妈如果不喝茶,就喝咖啡。

Here omitting the pronoun 她 will not change the meaning of the sentence. Normally we omit the repeating personal pronouns when the sentence is short and there is only one person involved in the sentence.

For example:

她睁开眼睛,(她)穿好衣服,(她)起床了。

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  • Do you think we are more likely to omit the pronoun in sentence 1 than in sentence 2? If so, why?
    – Buddy L
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:05
  • I usually omit both.
    – user
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:07
  • Do you think I am fully off the mark with 妈妈不喝茶(的话,就)喝咖啡?With a certain cadence, and intonation, I feel like 的话,就 can be omitted. Am I crazy?
    – Buddy L
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:10
  • I would keep 的话,就 in the sentence. Sometimes 的话 can be omitted 我有空就去看他。=我有空的话,就去看他。
    – user
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:20
  • But 我有空就去看他。≠ 我有空去看他。
    – user
    Nov 30, 2022 at 14:25
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What permits us to omit, as we frequently do, anything in language?

The fact that that chunk of language can be understood in its context without the omitted part.

Chinese is world champion in omission in my opinion!

The amount of times I run across single character words which should in fact be 2 character words or even a whole 成语! If you are Chinese, you know from the context exactly what is meant, but poor me, left floundering, until a friend enlightens me!

One day, Mum drinks tea, Dad coffee.
一天, 妈喝茶,爸咖啡。
The next day, Mum drinks coffee, Dad Tea.
第二天,妈喝咖啡,爸茶。
Couldn't they coordinate their imbibing habits?
他们不能协调自己的饮习惯吗?

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  • Quote:- "Chinese is world champion in omission...." I think it is, linguistically, (maybe even culturally), more accurately to say, "the Chinese are world champion in economy....", i.e., "economy of words" The reason, I surmise, is that each character contains or combines two or more elemental meanings and thus each character has multi-interpretive potentials. And together with an inherent lack of prepositions, "shortens" or "economize" the sentence even more. Just look at the popular "Three Character Classic", 三字经, (required learning for all educated kids in China, ancient and modern) Dec 1, 2022 at 2:12
  • Further, every language has it's own linguistic, cultural characteristics, quarks submerged within it, which only people brought up in that language would understand and detect instinctively. Outsiders or early learners would only be confounded or frustrated as every learner from another language would invariably carry his own grammatical baggage along, and subconscious comparisons are inevitable. So, take and learn the language as it is, asking why, why, why, or worse, how come my language has this and that and this language don't have it? Dec 1, 2022 at 2:27

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