Studies of grammar in prose

成语 in sentences, and an interesting example of a 是-sentence

26 November 2015

The following passage is from an article in 京华时报 jīnghuá shíbào (Beijing Times) of 24 November 2015. The article is entitled 布鲁塞尔“封城”三天抓嫌犯 Bùlǔsài'ěr “fēng chéng” sān tiān zhuā xiánfàn 'Brussels cordons off the city for three days and arrests suspects".

Zàitáo de zhèng shì 26 suì de ābodùlēi-sàlāmǔ. Tā zuì hòu yīcì “xiàn shēn” jù xìn shì 14 rì chén chuānguò biānjìng cóng fàguó huí dào bǐlìshí, zhīhòu xiàluò bùmíng. Yǒuguān tā de xíngzōng, zhòngshuōfēnyún. Duō rén céng bàogào chēng kàn dào tā, dàn jǐngfāng què yīwúsuǒhuò.

The person on the run was 26-year-old Abdul - Salam. His most recent "appearance" is believed to be the morning of the 14th crossing the border from France back to Belgium, since which he has been missing. There are divergent views about his whereabouts. Many people have reported seeing him, but the police have turned up nothing.

Two interesting things about this paragraph.

1. Use of 成语 in place of predicates/ clauses
2. Interesting use of 是-sentence construction

1. The use of classical-style phrases as predicates/clauses

I've called these "classical-style phrases" because they are based on classical expressions and grammar. They are also called 成语 chéngyǔ and are often known in English as 'proverbs', although I have also heard them described as 'clichés'.

There are three classical-style phrases in this passage:

What is interesting is the way that they occupy the place of complete ordinary clauses in Chinese prose. They are essentially small blocks of lexicalised language that are internally often interpretable according to the rules of classical grammar and function as 'clause-equivalents'.

2. The interesting grammatical use of a 是-sentence

This looks wrong from an English perspective:

他最后一次“现身”据信是 [ 14日晨穿过边境从法国回到比利时 ]
Tā zuì hòu yīcì “xiàn shēn” jù xìn shì [ 14 rì chén chuānguò biānjìng cóng fàguó huí dào bǐlìshí ]

Translated into English, this is (showing clause structure):

The problem is the way that his most recent "appearance" (他最后一次“现身”) is "equated" to the entire clause (embedded sentence) "on 14th (he) crossed the border from France back to Belgium" (14日晨穿过边境从法国回到比利时).

In English, this requires a "when", that is:

This appears to be a special case of a kind of construction described in A Practical Chinese Grammar for Foreigners by Li Dejin and Cheng Meizhen (Sinolingua 1988) as a 是-sentence, specifically a 是-sentence with an object.

Li and Cheng give the following examples that largely fit the sentence above:

The sentence from the news article is interesting in demonstrating the range of structures that the 是-sentence can be used in.

(For more on similar uses of the 是-sentence, see posts on Content of a memory in Chinese and Content of news in Chinese.)