Studies of grammar in prose
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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:

    下落不明 xiàluò bùmíng 'whereabouts unknown'. The meaning of this is transparent and can be interpreted entirely according to modern Chinese grammar.

    众说纷纭 zhòngshuōfēnyún 'divergent views, controversy, different opinions'. This is made up of two parts: 'many say' + 'differs'.

    一无所获 yīwúsuǒhuò 'have gained or found nothing'. This can be interpreted in a similar way to 一无所知 yīwúsuǒzhī 'to know nothing', 一无所能 yīwúsuǒnéng 'to be able to do nothing, be useless', and 一无所有 yīwúsuǒyǒu 'to have nothing'.

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'.

The ability to use chengyu is highly-prized in Chinese. It transforms you from a pedestrian writer into a cultivated essayist. The following is a good site for finding chengyu with translations into English: Standard Mandarin.

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 fǎguó huí dào bǐlìshí

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

    His most recent "appearance" is believed to be [ on the morning of the 14th crossed the border from France back to Belgium ]

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:

    His most recent "appearance" is believed to be when he crossed the border from France back to Belgium on the morning of 14th.

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.

    "The object following the predicate verb 是 may be: a noun, a pronoun, a verb, an adjective, a N-Mw [noun measure-word] phrase, a coordinative phrase, a 的-phrase, a V-O [verb-object] phrase, an S-P [subject predicate] phrase, a complementary phrase, an endocentric phrase, or an appositive phrase."

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

    Subject-Predicate Phrase

    这次的旅行计划是 大家一起走
    zhècì de lǚxíng jìhuà shì dàjiā yīqǐ zǒu
    'The travel plan this time is [ for everyone to go together ]'

    Complementary Phrase

    我们任务是 捆好
    wǒmen de rènwu shi kǔnhǎo
    'Our task is [ to tie up properly ]'

    Endocentric Phrase

    我的意见是 明天走
    wǒ de yìjian shi míngtiān zǒu
    'my opinion is [ to go tomorrow ]'

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.)