Studies of grammar in prose

An uncommon construction in Chinese legal language

23 January 2016

The following unusual grammatical construction, virtually ignored by conventional grammars, came to my attention when I was translating a Chinese real-estate sales contract recently. It's exemplified in the underlined portion of the following sentence:

In this construction, the underlined clause concludes with the particle de, which here has a meaning and usage generally corresponding to 'when' or 'if' in English.

de isn't conventionally treated as a conjunction in Chinese and two possible sources of this usage can be surmised:

Abbreviation of 的话

Under the 的话 de huà interpretation, the sentence above can be understood as a more refined way of saying:

A more common way of expressing a condition without using colloquial 的话 de huà is to use , 如果 rúguǒ, or ruò, all meaning 'if' and placed at the start of the clause:

如果 rúguǒ and 的话 de huà can also be used together, e.g.:

Interestingly, there is one example in the sales contract where 'if' is found paired with ...的 This example also features an additional embedded phrase of causation ('due to causes on the vendor's part'):

In this sentence, either 'if' or ...的 could be left out without affecting the meaning. This example does suggest that the ...的 construction is an abbreviation of 的话 de huà.

Nominalisation plus topicalisation

The other explanation involves nominalisation of the underlined clause, which then serves as the topic of the sentence.

Nominalisation is a grammatical process whereby a verb, a verb phrase, a sentence, or a portion of a sentence including the verb, is made to function as a noun phrase (Li and Thompson). In Chinese, this involves placing the particle de after the constituent in question. In this case, the constituent is the following complete sentence:

"Nouns" that result from adding de to an adjective, verb, or sentence show varying degrees of specificity in terms of what is being referred to. For example, in the following exchange, the understood referent is clearly "a cat":

In the following sentence, the referent is less clearly differentiated and can be understood generally as "a thing" (东西 dōngxi):

Our example sentence refers to an even more abstract entity; it can be understood as referring to an overall situation (情况 qíngkuàng 'situation', 事宜 shìyì 'matter', etc.). There's no set way of rendering this kind of nominalisation in English; it can best be understood as 'a situation where'.

Topicalisation: Topic is an important feature of Chinese, to the extent that it is described as a 'topic-prominent language'. The topic of a sentence -- what the sentence is about -- is the element that occurs at the start of the sentence. The rest of the sentence is understood as a 'comment' on the topic.

The topic-comment nature of Chinese overshadows the more familiar subject-predicate of Western grammar. The topic of the sentence may be the subject of the verb, or it may be the object, direct object, or other element of the sentence. A sentence like this (from Wiedenhof):

does not automatically fall into a subject-verb construction of the type that is normal in English, i.e., 'The slave sells [it]'. It could also mean '[We/they etc.] will sell the slaves' ('slave' as object) and '[We/they etc.] are selling to the slaves' ('slave' as indirect object).

This phenomenon is treated differently by different grammarians. Li and Thompson distinguish between the concept of TOPIC and categories like SUBJECT or OBJECT. An element can be the TOPIC of a sentence without being the SUBJECT. In the sentence above, 奴隶 núlì 'slave' is the TOPIC of the sentence, but could be either the SUBJECT or OBJECT of the verb mài 'to sell'.

On the other hand, Wiedenhof follows Y.R. Chao in treating 奴隶 núlì 'slave' in all cases as the SUBJECT of the sentence. In this treatment, TOPIC and SUBJECT are one and the same thing. The SUBJECT-cum-TOPIC may have different interpretations (e.g., agent, patient, etc.), but these are semantic categories, not grammatical ones.

In English, the concept of topic can be expressed using a paraphrase like 'as for'. The two sentences above become 'As for slaves, selling takes place'. In both sentences 奴隶 núlì is the SUBJECT, and the difference in meaning is simply a difference in reading.

Applied to our example sentence, the two possible analyses are as follows:

As we've noted elsewhere, it's common in Chinese to use an active verb without an explicit subject. In such cases the subject is understood. For example, the main verb in the above sentence is 处理 chǔlǐ 'deal with' in the active voice, with no subject specified. In English, a verb like this without a subject will be generally found in the passive, i.e., 'be dealt with'. Accordingly, this sentence is better rendered in English with the passive:

One characteristic of the topic in Chinese is that it is either definite (referring to something the speaker already knows about) or generic (belonging to a class of entities in general). For instance:

The topic can't refer to something indefinite, as in 'I have seen a dog'.

In the case of a conditional ('if the purchaser does not pay according to the time stipulated in the supplementary agreement'), the definite interpretation is possible from the context, which specifically indicates the possibility of the purchaser failing to pay.

Other examples

There were a total of 15 instances of this constructions in the housing sale contracts I translated. Some examples follow.

1. This is a relatively simple, straightforward example.

2. A more complex example is the following, where a second conditional clause.

The main clause of the sentence is 应当作为本合同的附件 yīngdāng zuòwéi běn hétóng de fùjiàn 'shall be an attachment to this contract', where the understood subject, 委托出售、购买房屋的相关文件 wěituō chūshòu, gòumǎi fángwū de xiāngguān wénjiàn 'related documents to authorise sales [and] purchase', is omitted.

3. In this example, it's not a simple sentence that is nominalised, but a compound sentence with at least two verbs (italicised below):

4. The following example contains a similar structure, but yīn 'because' is added to emphasise that it was the action of the delinquent party that resulted in loss for the other party. In English, 'because' is superfluous and is better omitted. Note that yīn 'because' is contained inside the construction.


Jeroen Wiedenhof

John Benjamins Publishing Company



ISBN: 978 90272 1228 3

MANDARIN CHINESE: A Functional Reference Grammar

Charles N. Li and Sandra A. Thompson

University of California Press

Berkeley / Los Angeles / London


ISBN: 978 0 520 06610 6