July 19th, 2010
A few weeks ago a colleague asked me about the 把 construction. Her teacher and her textbook had explained enough for her to know how to use it, but the big question was “WHY?”. Under what circumstances and for what reasons does one use 把 to place the direct object before the verb? Unfortunately, the most I’d ever been told about this particular construction was that sometimes it just sounds better. My grammar book had nothing to add. We checked with another colleague with significant Chinese study experience, and he had nothing to offer, either, beyond that it was somewhat similar to the passive.
Of course, it’s not passive, definitely active, but in terms of pure structure, the simple placement of the components of the sentence, it does bear some similarities.
And then today I cracked open my HSK Advanced textbook, and what did I see?
一、“把”字句 1, the “ba” sentence
Something that originally didn’t exist, after some action is produced. When expressing this meaning, do not use the “ba” sentence.
The wrong example it gives is “她把女孩生了”, which is wrong because the daughter wasn’t there at first, but was produced by her giving birth. It should be “她生了一个女孩”
The object following “ba” should be definite, or both interlocutors should already know it.
And here the wrong example is “你把一本小说看一看”, which is wrong because which novel is not specified. “你把这本小说看一看” is correct, because we have one specific novel which both interlocutors know.
The verb following “ba” must be an action, while verbs expressing relationship or mentality, such as to be, to have, to be like, to belong to, to know, to like, etc, can not be used in a “ba” sentence.
And here the wrong example is “他把这件事知道了”, which is wrong because to know is not an action. This should be “他知道了这件事”.
Because the “ba” sentence expresses that something has, through some action, been changed, influenced, or produced some result, the verb after the “ba” generally does not exist alone in the sentence. Usually it carries after it an element expressing “change”, “influence” or “result”, or at least needs a “le” or an additional verb after it.
Am I running into linguistic vocab that my dictionaries don’t know in that last clause? In any case, for “usually”, I think we should read “always”, as the book insists that a verb left hanging alone at the end of the sentence is wrong. Here is it’s wrong example: “他把杯子打”. Wrong because the verb is left hanging there with nothing to tell us the result of his having hit the cup. This time we get two right examples: “他把杯子打了” and “他把杯子打碎了”. The simple addition of “了” in the first right example indicates that something has changed, and the second right example tells that his hand moved, struck the cup, and the cup broke – plenty of changing things there.
Auxilliary verbs and negatives must be placed before the “ba”, and can’t be placed before the verb after the “ba”.
And here we get two wrong and two right examples, one each for auxilliary verbs and negatives. Starting with the auxilliary verbs, our wrong example is “我把感冒药应该吃了”, which should be “我应该把感冒药吃了”, as the auxilliary verb “should” needs to sit in front of the “ba”. And for negatives, our wrong example is “我把作业没做完”, which should be “我没把作业做完”, as the negative “没” – “haven’t”, needs to sit in front of the “ba”.
So there you go. It doesn’t solve the great “So why do we bother with this extra complication to Chinese grammar?” question, still leaving us with my old teacher’s “Because sometimes it just sounds better” as the best answer I have yet come across. But this is the most I have ever seen written on the subject, and it does give a lot more information about the circumstances under which one can or cannot use the “ba” structure. And on where to put your auxilliary verbs and negatives. And don’t forget to leave your verb hanging all lonely at the end of the sentence – it needs at least a 了, if not something a little more detailed, to indicate a change in state. Oh, and make sure the direct object is something specific or that both interlocutors already know about.
Is it bad of me to want to add a “给” in front of many of those main verbs? It’s a desire that’s especially strong with “我应该把感冒药吃了” for some bizarre reason.
This post is written especially for Claire, but also for anybody else struggling with the vagaries of the evil 把 in particular, and Chinese grammar in general.
Update: I almost forgot: The textbook this comes from is 《HSK（高等）速成强化教程》An Intensive Course of HSK (Advanced), edited by 刘超英，龙清涛，金舒牛 and 蔡云凌, Beijing Language and Culture University Press, 2002.