I've recently discovered that in Chinese, adjectives can function as verbs. An answer on this site stated that "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs".

This was obviously an interesting discovery for a Chinese learner like me, and I actually never noticed that this sentence lacks a verb, yet it's one of the first that we learn:


or another simple sentence like:


But both sentences show like the "verb function" is served by "很" and not "好" or "高". As far as I can tell, "很" is an adverb not an adjective. Same with this one. "Not" is an adverb, not an adjective. Yet we have the same phenomenon:


So am I missing something here? Am I being too strict about that "adjectives" or am I misjudging something?

By the way, I'll take advantage of this question to ask: are really all adjectives able to be stative verbs or are there exceptions?

  • 1
    Is a colour e.g. 绿色的, an adjective, able to be expressed as a verb?
    – going
    Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 9:38
  • 1
    @xiaohouzi79 That also depend on how do you define an "adjective". In Chinese, as there is no word separator nor conjugation, it it very hard to define what is a word and what the part of speech is. "绿色的" can be treated as formed with a noun (绿色) and 的, and not a word by itself.
    – fefe
    Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 12:24
  • 1
    Chinese seems to be a lot more flexible regarding part-of-speech distinctions than English. For example, 科学 is clearly a noun, but you can say that a certain idea is 不科学.
    – Alex D
    Commented Feb 1, 2012 at 23:41
  • 1
    @AlexD, so 科学 is both a noun and an adverb. But English has zero-derivation all over the place as well. "I invite you", "I send you an invite". "I run", "I go for a run". Examples are endless.
    – dainichi
    Commented May 1, 2014 at 5:09
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    @AlexD, good point. I think you might very well be right that it's more common in Mandarin, but English has "ad-hoc" zero-derivation as well, e.g. "Hey dude!" "Don't dude me!"
    – dainichi
    Commented May 7, 2014 at 7:56

7 Answers 7


As a native speaker, I have noticed such a phenomenon for many years, but I have never thought of the logic or reasons behind it. Perhaps we should not (or even could not) go too far on this topic.

This topic is academic, I believe. You would find many papers on this topic when you search on the internet (I use the key word: "汉语 形容词 谓语"). After reading some papers and thinking of how I would say in different cases, I think we'd better say "some adjectives could be used as the predicate in Chinese" and there are some fixed patterns where an adjective is used in this case. I would like to elaborate on this topic from several points.

  • 1. Types of the Adjective
    As Claw pointed out, there are two types of adjectives in Chinese (though, in academic world, there are some disputes on this. Someone holds that the adjectives (the term used now) in Chinese should be classified into two different parts of speech): "attributive" and "predicative". The difference between the two types is: "Can this adjective be modified with 很 (very)?"
  • 2. Patterns for Attributive Adjectives
    You could use the construction "[subject]是[attributive adj]的". In English, the verb "be (是 in Chinese)" is indispensable and it's called "Link Verb". In this case, the use of the adjective is similar with that in English.
  • 3. Patterns for Predicative Adjectives
    The problem becomes a little complicated now. I can come up with some patterns.

  • 1. degree adverb (很,非常,十分,有些,有点,不) + adj.
    This is the pattern your examples use. In this case, I agree that the meaning of "很" weakens a lot. It seems that "很" works like a "marker". Of course, you may use "非常" or "十分" to express "very" if you really want to.

    In general, it sounds very wierd "我好" ("你好" is another story, since it has been a usage or one interjection word, I think), "他高" in Chinese, but I think in some cases they are acceptable.

  • a. In a question and in the reply to that question.

    Q: 他帅吗? Is he handsome?
    A: 他帅。He is handsome

    b. Used in two clauses to express parallel, comparsion or condition.

    他胖,我不胖。 He is fat, (while) I am not fat.
    你高兴,我就高兴。 (If) you are happy, I am happy.
    这篇小说精彩,那篇也精彩。 This novel is excellent and that one is excellent too.

    c. 又+adj+又+adj,既+adj+且+adj
    Such patterns is used to connect two parallel words.

    这个苹果又大又圆。 This apple is big and round.
    敌人既凶残且愚蠢。 THe enemies are cruel and stupid.

  • 2. Main subject (abbr: MS) + Subject's Property or Part (abbr: SP) + adj
    This pattern is used to decribe the property of something.
    Note: English translations in the parentheses are more formal, I think.

    他形容*憔悴。 His appearance is emaciated. (He looks emaciated)

    Here, MS=他,SP=形容 and 憔悴 is the adj.
    *形容 is a noun here, which means "the appearance of, the look of [a man]". Dont' be confused with "形容 (to describe)" as in "形容词 (adjective)".

    他工作能力强。 His work ability is strong. (He is capable of doing the work)

    Here, MS=他,SP=工作能力 and 强 is the adj.

    我浑身无力。 My all body is feeble (I am feeble all over, from head to foot)

    Here, MS=我, SP=浑身 and 强 is the adj.

  • 3.Subject+Adjective+"了"
    This pattern is used to express that the subject has been "adj" or has become (turned) "adj".

    树叶红了 The leaves has turned red.
    她漂亮了 She has become beautiful (Implies: she was not beautiful in the past but she is beautiful now)

  • 4. Why do we need "很" here?<
    fefe thinks that this is related to the length of syllables, but I don't think so. Because even with a two-character adjective, we still could not use the consctruction "Subject+Adj" to form a sentence (except for the cases I listed above). You won't say "她漂亮", though "漂亮" has two characters. Instead, you would say

    她很漂亮 or 她非常漂亮 (note 非常 has two characters)

    In classic Chinese, ”是" was seldom used as "to be" and an adjective could be used as a verb or predicate directly. I really don't know why "很" or such adverbs are needed, but that just happens in Chinese.

    春风又绿江南岸 from the poem of 《泊船瓜洲》 by 王安石
    绿: [adj]green. Here: to make something green

    亲贤臣,小人,此先汉之所以兴隆也。 from 《出师表》 by 诸葛亮
    远:[adj] remote, far. Here: to keep oneself from, to be far away from

    I just read 《史记·淮阴侯列传》 (the biography of 韩信) and I found some good examples with adjectives in classic Chinese.

    信亦知其意,,竟绝去。 In modern Chinese, I would say,

    韩信也知道她的用意,很生气,最终离开。 Hanxin also understood her intention, so he became angry [at her] and left at last.


    韩信与萧何交谈几次后,萧何[对他的军事才能]感到惊奇 After several talks with Hanxin, Xiaohe got suprised [with Hanxin's military talent]


    [刘邦]看见韩信已死,又高兴又同情。 [Liubang] found Hanxin was dead; [he was] happy and sympathized

  • 6
    • Oh ... A long answer ....
      – fefe
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 8:59
    • I don't think there is anything wrong with "她漂亮". Any way, that part in my answer is only a guess. The water in that field is too deep.
      – fefe
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 9:01
    • @fefe I mean, when I see a beautiful girl, I would not say "她漂亮", more likely, I would say "她很漂亮“ or "她真漂亮”。In this case, will you simply say"她漂亮“? Of course, I agree that "the water is too deep(水太深)". I am not a linguist.
      – Huang
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 9:13
    • I agree. However, unless she is VERY beautiful, we are not likely to say it out :)
      – fefe
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 9:21
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      @fefe Yes! I may say "她长得不错”,"她长得还可以" in that case, to describe things more "precisely". Really, such problems are very hard to answer. That's why my answer is so long, but, even it's so long, I think it fails to cover everything.
      – Huang
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 9:32

    I was the one who originally made the statement "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs". While I thought this was generally true, I took a look in Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar by Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington to verify. The book indicates that adjectives can generally be used in both attributive and predicative senses (i.e., adjective-like or verb-like), but there are a class of adjectives that are attributive only:

    They differentiate rather than describe, and most of them therefore have extremely restricted collocations. Monosyllabic adjectives in this category are relatively infrequent: [The book then gives a few examples, such as 正 zhèng and 负 in 正数/负数 zhèngshù/fùshù positive/negative numbers, and 公 gōng and 母 for male/female.]

    Disyllabic attributive-only adjectives usually convey a formal tone, and they are more likely to have an internal lexical structure. [Examples such as 现代 xiàndài 'modern' and 大型 dàxíng 'large' are given.]

    The book also describes predicative-only adjectives, which it says "are generally more colloquial in tone, and are mostly monosyllabic", and gives examples such as 累 lèi 'tired' and 对 dùi 'correct'. However, it then says the following:

    However, there is no absolute divide between the two types of adjective which cannot be crossed. Though the result may sometimes sound a little forced, a predicative-only adjective can be made to function attributively by placing it in a 'degree adverb + 的 de' frame (e.g. 很差的学校 hěn chā de xuéxiào 'a badly governed school'). Likewise, an attributive-only adjective can be made to function predicatively by setting it in a '是 shì + 的 de' format (e.g. 这项工程是大型的 zhèi xiàng gōngchéng shì dàxíng de 'This is an enormous project').

    On a slightly different topic, fefe's answer brought up the question of why adverbs like 很 hěn are sometimes needed when an adjective is used predicatively. The book also explains:

    The presence of these degree adverbs and complements removes any implication of contrast that is latent in an unmarked predicative adjective.

    If somebody says:

    这本字典好。 zhèi běn zìdiǎn hǎo. This dictionary is good.

    the speaker must be understood to be implying that some other dictionary is not as good as this one. In fact the degree verb 很 hěn 'very', unless it is emphasised, does not really mean 'very', and its integration into adjectival predicative is more often than not to counteract an implication of contrast.

    • Claw, you give very good answers based in linguistics. One problem here is defining our terms. The OP is working from an a priori assumption that the distinction between verbs and adjectives is a given, presumably because it's found in Latin and Western grammar in general. Linguists, on the other hand, might try to argue that there is no fundamental distinction between adjectives and verbs in Chinese. I don't know which (if either) is correct, but the different starting points seem to be confusing the discussion somewhat.
      – Bathrobe
      Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 23:36
    • +1 for being the only answer so far to mention why an adverb like 很 is necessary in such cases. In general, 很 does not mean "very" unless it is stressed.
      – Alf
      Commented Jan 14, 2012 at 2:53

    The OP the the "verb function" is carried by "很". This is not true. "很" is an adverb. "很好" can be treated as a adjective together (or as an adjective phrase). Also, "我好" "他高" are both good Chinese sentences. However, you will seldom hear such short sentences so these do sound a weird. But there is one that is used everyday, "你好".

    As to whether all adjectives are able to be stative verbs, I though it was wrong at first. But when I checked a list of adjectives of Chinese (sorry I cannot share it), and tried to contradict it, I found that it is somehow true.

    I tried to form sentences with those adjectives, and found nearly all of them can be used in that way, though sometimes we should add "很" or "不" to make it more natural. However, like I said, "很" and "不" are adverbs. They will form an adjective phrase with the adjective following them. Adverbs do not act as a "verb" by themselves.

    Besides "很" "不", "特别" "非常" and some other adverbs can also serve this function. The adverb and the adjective together formed the predictive, functioning as a verb.

    This is a guess: There may be some phonological reason for the need of adverbs. Sentence built up with only a subjective and an adjective seems to be unbalanced sometimes, so something should be added in between. When it is not a verb, adverb would be a good choice.

    Also, in Chinese, the adjectives are still called adjectives, not verbs, in this kind of sentences.

    However, I believe every grammatical rule would have an exception. Finding some exceptions would not be surprising.


    The Chinese simple sentence structure can be put in two parts, the subjective and the predictive. The predictive part is the "verb" part. However, it can be formed by a verb with (or without) an objective, or by an adjective (with or without an adverb before it), or maybe in some other ways.

    • I've heard those forms, but I also heard that the other version I posted were the ones usually adopted. Anyway, your answer doesn't really address my question; if you need some clarification about it, let me know.
      – Alenanno
      Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 10:38
    • Your are right. I'll edit the answer.
      – fefe
      Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 11:37

    Technically speaking, Chinese sentences are NOT constructed in the way of

    • Subject + Verb (+ Object)

    Actually Chinese sentences are constructed in the way of

    • Topic + Comment

    Case 1) In most cases the Comment part describes some actions, where verbs are used and objectives may appear.

    Examples: Topic and Comment are before and after the pipe (|).

    他|明天到。 我|去图书馆借几本书。 他|跑得快,跳得高。

    Case 2) In some cases the Comment part describes feelings/status/existence, where verbs are used and objectives may appear.

    他|是学生。 我|喜欢听音乐。 我|爱你。 我|有点头疼。 公园里|有很多人。 汽车站|在前面。

    Case 3) In other cases the Comment part just provides description or additional info to the Topic, where verbs may not be used.

    他|高个子,大眼睛,长头发。 他|人很好,很热心。 他|理想远大。



    上海的夏天 ,|我听说每天下雨,也很潮湿。

    In this case the sentences may sound weird to English native speakers, as there may not be verbs used in the Comment part. However it can be better understood if you think of Comment in this type of Chinese sentences as something similar to appositive in English.


    The insect, a large cockroach with hairy legs, is crawling across the kitchen table

    In some English sentences, there are also part (i.e. nominative absolute) that provides additional info, similar to the Comment part in Chinese sentences.


    A robber burst into the room, knife in hand.

    He lay there, his teeth set, his hand clenched, his eyes looking straight up.

    He stood there, with his hand raised.

    Conclusion Basically, in Chinese anything can go in the Comment part, as long as it sounds ok and conveys clear meaning.


    Answer of OP by citation of Yip and Rimmington Comprehensive Grammar clarifies alot the 很-case. Here is description of taken from the Wenlin Chinese software, describing the grammatical category "Stative Verb=Jìngtài Dòngcí=静态动词" (s.v.):

    "These entries are frequently translated into English as adjectives, even though they actually behave in Chinese as verbs. That is, the sense of ‘to be’ is already incorporated into these verbs, e.g., Zhèige hěn hǎo 这个很好 ‘This is quite good’. In fact, it is simply ungrammatical to place the verb shì 是, ‘to be’, directly in front of a stative verb. Because stative verbs are actually verbs, they are directly negated by bù 不, e.g., bù hǎo 不好 ‘not good’, and can be further modified by adverbs of degree such as hěn 很 ‘quite’, fēicháng 非常 ‘extremely’ and shífēn 十分 ‘very; utterly’. One common function of stative verbs is that they may serve as adverbs to other actions, e.g., mànmàn 慢慢 in mànmàn chī 慢慢吃 ‘take your time (eating)’ and rènzhēn de xiě 认真地写 ‘write carefully’."

    Note, however, that the term stative verb/静态动词 may also refer to a class of "normal" verbs (not adjectives) which have an existential flavour:

    "静态动词表示一种静止状态包括“存在”和“拥有”的动词,如be,have, own, belong, exist, hold(容纳)等;表示度量的动词,如cost, weigh, measure等;表示五官感觉的动词,如see, hear, taste, smell, feel等;以及 表示心理状态的动词,如 believe, think, know, remember, forget, understand, love, like ,hate, detest(讨厌)等。"

    (source: http://baike.baidu.com/view/1114719.htm)


    adjectives just belong to the class of stative verbs also stated here, p. 8: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/281004772_Universal_syntax_and_Mandarin_Chinese


    I'm having trouble understanding the question. Rather than saying that "all adjectives in Chinese can function as verbs", I'm wondering whether the more normal formulation might not be "in Chinese, adjectives are classed as a type of verb". There are many ways in which adjectives like 高 and 好 are the same as verbs. Like verbs, they can occur in the forms 高了,高着呢,高不了, etc. They can occur predicatively and attributively (in which case they resemble relative clauses). However, they must be regarded as intransitive verbs as they normally don't take objects.

    I don't think Chinese is the first language for which it has been claimed that adjectives belong with verbs.

    I'd like to expand my answer by quoting here from Edwin G. Pulleyblank's Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar:

    Verbal Predicates
    1. Classes of Verbs
    Adjectives, e.g., shān gāo 山高 'the mountain is high,' form the first major subdivision that needs to be distinguished among naturally predicating words in Chinese. Though, as words that form predicates without the addition of a particle, they belong with verbs rather than nouns, they differ from verbs proper in their syntactical behaviour in a number of ways. They are sometimes called 'stative verbs' but there are objections to this, since transitive verbs such as zhī 知 'know' also denote a state rather than an action. A possible alternative would be 'quality verb,' but as a class they correspond closely in meaning to adjectives in other languages and we shall continue to use this traditional term.
    2. Adjectives
    Adjectives must be classed as verbs in Classical, as well as Modern Chinese, since they form predicates without a copula or final 也, are negated by , and take the aspect markers 矣 and wèi 未. Nevertheless, as their behaviour with 可 shows, they differ from intransitive verbs in their syntax and have certain resemblances to nouns.

    Here Pulleyblank is referring to the fact that intransitive verbs and transitive verbs in an active sense use kěyǐ 可以 'possible', e.g., wáng kěyǐ shā rén 王可以殺人 'the king can kill a man', whereas adjectives, like nouns, require the copula verb wéi 為, e.g., kěyǐ wéi měi hū 可以為美乎 'can be (or remain) beautiful'.

    Incidentally, Pulleyblank is not talking about adjectives being used as verbs here. He is talking about adjectives as verbs.

    While Classical Chinese is a rather different language from modern Chinese, and Pulleyblank is not a theoretical linguist, I think the passage quoted above is a good illustration of the point. As to whether this applies to all adjectives, I think Claw has pointed out a couple of interesting examples.

    As for the function of 很, it is not a copula, as others have pointed out. To call it an 'adverb' isn't necessarily very informative since 'adverb' as a part of speech is a bit of a grab bag. (Incidentally, Chinese grammarians apparently class 今天 'today' as a noun, even where it is clearly functioning as a 'sentence adverb'.)

    • My question was rather whether this affects only adjectives and if so, why 很 that is an adverb works like that too... :)
      – Alenanno
      Commented Jan 13, 2012 at 11:42

    She is (very) beautiful. ==> 她 (很)漂亮。 ==> 她(很)漂亮。

    So adjectives as verbs?

    No, simply because "是" (am/is/are/was/were) is intentionally removed. Besides, there is nothing to do with adverb like "很/十分/特别" etc.

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