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I am learning Chinese and I have a question about separable verbs. I understand that separable verbs are verbs that can be split by an object or a complement, such as 看书 (read a book) or 看见 (see). However, I am confused by the sentences where the first verb is repeated, such as 他游泳游得很快,跑步跑得很慢。(He swims very fast, but runs very slowly.) What is the function and meaning of this repetition? Is it a way of emphasizing the action or the result? How do I know when to use it and when not to use it? Thank you for your help.

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  • I added the grammar tag and removed the separate verbs tag
    – PdotWang
    Commented Dec 6, 2023 at 15:32

3 Answers 3

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得很快. (He swims very fast.) What is the function of the repetition of the verb ""?

There are different analyses of this sentence. One is to treat it as a combination of two sentences.

"他泳." + "他得很快." = "他得很快."

Note that "他游泳得很快." is not a common practice, because people always put the verb "游" and the adjective phrase "得很快" together. You cannot insert an objective noun "泳" in between.

Also note that "他游得很快泳." is not a common practice either, because people do not put an object noun "泳" after an adjective phrase "得很快".

But saying "他游泳很快." is OK. You do not use "得".

The other way to analyze this sentence is to treat the first portion "游泳", which is a VO structure, as a clause, a preposition phrase, or a participle phrase (-ing, -ed).

"他游泳游得很快." = "在游泳的时候,他游得很快." = "游泳,他游得很快." (He goes fast in swiming.) = (He swims fast in swiming.)

Note that, in the sentence "游泳,他游得很快.", "游泳" is a "scope" or "topic" phrase, which is an adverbitive phrase. In this structure, it is not necessary to repeat the verb twice. For example,

"数学,她学得很好." = "她数学学得很好." = "她学数学学得很好."

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First, so-called "separable verbs" are not verbs (it's a misleading name), but rather verb-object pairs with a strong affinity for occurring together (i.e., collocations). E.g. in 跑步 the verb is 跑 and the object is 步---two separate words, the first being the verb. This means that in a separable verb, the verb already has an object, which has consequences for its grammar.

My interpretation is that when we repeat the verb of a separable verb, the first separable verb specifies the scope, much like a topic-comment sentence. In separable verbs, we can replace the object with other objects which would result in different scopes, such as:

他虽然跑步跑得很快,但是跑马拉松跑得很慢。
While he runs quickly, he runs marathons slowly.

In the above example, within distinct contexts he runs both fast and slow. In sentences such as

他游泳游得很快,跑步跑得很慢。

the context is general: he generally swims fast, and generally runs slow. But sometimes we want to express a non-general context: maybe he's fast at butterfly, but slow at freestyle.

In English, we can write:

He writes hanzi. 他写汉字。
He writes well. 他写得很好。
He writes hanzi well. 他写汉字得很好。

All three sentences are grammatical in English, but if we directly translate the third sentence into Chinese, the result is considered a grammar error; I call this error an overloaded verb. In Chinese, using verb repetition is one possible way of avoiding this grammar error.

More specifically, we use this repetition when we want to use a verb-object pair (such as a separable verb) with a complement, i.e., a verb (e.g. 写) with an object (e.g. 汉字), and a complement (e.g. 得很好).

So what do we do? We begin

他写汉字……
He writes hanzi...

but then we realize "oh wait, if I add a complement 得很好 directly after 写汉字, it'll be a grammar error, but no worries I'll just repeat the verb, so we don't have an overloaded verb...":

他写汉字写得很好。
He writes hanzi well.

And we have avoided the grammar error.

In practice, however, it sounds clunky to repeat the verb, so it's often avoided. So instead of

他学习中文学习得很努力。

we might use a variant without the repetition:

他努力地学习中文。
他中文学得很努力。

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"他游泳"得很快,"跑步"得很慢。

"他游泳" and "(他)跑步" are phrases used to emphasize the subjects - his ability in swimming and running. The main verbs are "游" and "跑" respectively.

  • Regarding swimming, he swims/is very fast, on running, he runs/is very slow.

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