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Chinese Grammar

I am studying many sources for Chinese grammar. I understand that literally these two sentences mean slightly different things. Are there any implications or reasoning for using one versus the other? The literal translations seem equivalent from an English language context (are they interchangeable or am I missing some refinement)?

Subject + Adverb of manner + Verb + Adverb of place

tā jìng jìng de tǎng zài cǎo di shǎng

他静静地躺在草地上。

tā zài cǎo di shǎng jìng jìng de tǎng

他在草地上静静地躺。

(Source)

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A: 他静静地躺在草地上。

This is a valid sentence grammatically. The sentence structure is: Subject + Adverb of manner + Verb Phrase.

Please note: 躺在草地上 is a whole piece in terms of sentence structure. Yes, it contains two parts: verb and location complement 在草地上, but these 2 parts are at the 2nd level, different from or 静静地 as they are at the 1st level. That is why we can't say 他在草地上静静地躺, because it is not a fully finished sentence (except in poems though, you know poems have full of unfinished sentences).

I said 躺在草地上 is a whole piece, also because itself strongly demands a location complement. We can replace with other verbs which strongly demand location complement as well, like 在草地上 or 在草地上. But if we replace it with verbs that don't strongly demand location complement, that makes it sounds awkward or foreign, like 在草地上, 在草地上, or 在草地上.

B: 他在草地上静静地躺。

As mentioned in section A, 他在草地上静静地躺 is not a finished sentence. It sounds very foreign. Instead we should say 他在草地上静静地躺 . The reason I think is that Mandarin language employs a lot 2-syllable words to convey the sense of completeness. So using alone as verb in a sentence just gives people a strong sense of incompleteness. This is somewhat similar to the concept of Resolution in western tonal music theory, which means the move of a note or chord from dissonance (an unstable sound) to a consonance (a more final or stable sounding one). So we use 躺着 to make it complete.

C: 他在草地上静静地躺着。

This is a valid sentence grammatically. The sentence structure is: Subject + Adverb of place + Adverb of manner + Verb.

Note here I use the term adverb of place instead of location complement. The difference is that adverb of place is loosely related to the Verb, not a part of the Verb itself, while location complement is part of the Verb, whose function is to complete the Verb.

Be careful with this type of sentences: Subject + Adverb of place + Verb as they may not be able to converted to Subject + [Verb + location complement]. For example: 他在草地上看书 is good, but it really sounds awkward if you say 他看书在草地上.

Focus

Sentence A 他静静地躺在草地上 focuses on the action of 躺在草地上 as it is a whole piece, while sentence C 他在草地上静静地躺着 focuses on the action of 躺着 where the location of 草地 is not part of it.

P.S. Complements (Result / Potential / Direction / Degree / State / Quantity / Location / Time) are a very important feature of Chinese language grammar (See more details here Chinese Language Grammar - Complement), and whether you can use complements correctly determines your level of your Chinese language.

P.P.S English is a Subject + Verb language, while Chinese doesn't have clearly defined Verb in sentences. Actually Chinese is a Topic + Comment language, like 他的个子1米8. 他的个子 is topic, and 1米8 is comment. Another example: 他宽额头,高鼻梁,高颧骨,大眼睛。 is topic, and 宽额头,高鼻梁,高颧骨,大眼睛 are all comments.

  • Thank you for the comprehensive answer. I will continue to review it. Could you please advise what you mean by level 1, level 2, etc. I've seen it mentioned in several places but in different contexts - for example here – Tommie C. May 30 '14 at 20:16
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    @ Tommie C. Level 1 is for the main structure, like Subject + Verb Phrase. Level 2 is for the substructure, so in level 1 structure, Verb Phrase can be decomposed further into Verb + Complement, which is on the second level in terms of analyzing sentence structure in different layers. – 孤影萍踪 May 30 '14 at 20:26
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Strictly, they are not all the same. The second one sounds some more poetic in Chinese. But in daily life, you will say the first one to express the meaning,"he lies on the grass quietly", the second one may make you seems sort of strange.

  • +1 Thanks for the reply. I would like to know more about why the second one seems strange. I am trying to understand why some grammatically correct phrases sound awkward, while others do not. – Tommie C. May 30 '14 at 20:56
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I would say both sentences mean the same thing, which in English is "he lies on the grass quietly." However, the slight difference is the emphasis. Since we only need to abide by the S + V + O structure rules in Chinese sentences, so an adverb can literally be anywhere in the sentence.

In Chinese, the earlier you put a word in the sentence order, the more emphasis you want to give to it. For example, a time indicator or time adverb would be put in the very beginning of a sentence because there is no conjugation in Chinese verbs and therefore indicating the time tense should better be emphasized.

So in the following sentences,

他静静地躺在草地上。 focus more on "quietly" but not annoyingly, not anxiously ...etc

他在草地上静静地躺。 focus more on "on the grass" but not on the bed, not on the beach...ect

他躺在草地上, 静静地。focus more on the action "lying", but not sitting, not riding ...etc

  • +1 Thanks for the help understanding that what is said first implies emphasis. – Tommie C. May 30 '14 at 20:54

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