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Chinese Grammar: Lesson: Degree complements (B1)

[This is the final part of our series on Chinese complements: degree complements]

As Lupishu, you are becoming particularly adept at talking about your actions clearly and precisely in Chinese. You really are a clever dragon! Don’t you love how complements allow you to be a lot more varied and expressive in what you say, simply by combining words you already know together? I sure do love how complements add plenty of new ways to express myself.

And so, to complete your Complement toolbox, there’s one more type of complement I want to tell you about: the degree complement, aka 程度 补语 (chéngdù bǔyǔ) in Mandarin Chinese. That way, you’ll be able to understand the praise you get in Chinese as Lupishu, and praise others on how well they’ve executed something. You’ll also be able to talk about how poorly something was done. So, without any further ado, onward to seeing how to express the degree of something!

Why / When to use degree complements

You’ve no doubt already learned to use adverbs such as and 非常 to qualify what you’re saying. Degree complements work like adverbs but bring a lot more variety and preciseness to your expressions. They give an indication of the degree to which the action happens, hence the name and add descriptive information to the action. As you can imagine, the scope of what you can say with degree complements is pretty wide:

  • They can help you express how a verb happened, for example to say how much or how well something is verbing. There will often be a time word in the sentence, before or after the subject, to indicate the action has already taken place.
  • They can also help you say to what extent an adjective is true, such as when you’d want to ask someone how scaly Lupishu is: is he a little scaly or is he tremendously scaly (Lupishu doesn’t have any, btw)?
  • You also use degree complements to describe customary actions, i.e. how someone usually does something: to say Yocha’s usually mumbling instinctively through his whiskers, you can use a degree complement.

The Degree Complement Pattern

Most degree complements, just like potential complements, use in their structure. In some cases, isn’t used, as with 极了, , which are used to express extreme emotion.

The basic structure is:

Structure

Verb / Adjective + particle + degree complement

Degree complements are usually composed of an adverb and an adjective together (see all the new combinations you can now make?). There are also fixed patterns, used idiomatically. Here are some of the most common degree complements:

Adverb + Adjective = Degree complement
十分 十分
非常 非常
特别 精彩 特别 精彩

Verbs with degree complements

Verbs with degree complements have different relationships in a sentence depending on whether the verb is a double, happily married verb, an action verb or a single verb. The presence or not of an Object also has an impact on the sentence.

Simple sentence with no objects

  • With double verbs such as 工作 or 学习 (one’s actually a verb and the other a verb compound), and action verbs, degree complements follow the same pattern as with adjectives:

V ++ degree complement

Action verb:

She worked very well.

Double verb:
学习非常
He studies extremely well.

Examples:

长得非常
I look so beautiful.

图画
The picture was painted ugly (in an ugly manner).

展览 特别 精彩
This exhibition was wonderfully organised.

Verbs with Degree Complements and Objects

Let’s focus on what happens when a single verb meets both a degree complement and an object in an sentence. The single verb is definitely not allowed to be followed by both the degree complement and the object. The single verb has two strategies:

  • Either he puts the Object in front of him, and sandwiches himself between the Object and the degree complement:

    英语 十分
    He speaks English so terribly.

  • Or the verb duplicates, one for each.

    英语 十分
    He speaks English so terribly.

  • The same thing also happens to verbs that are already compounding an Object, such as 走路 or ** 睡觉 ** - remember our lesson on separable verbs --: the verb must duplicate to add a degree complement to the sentence.

走路
She walks very slowly.

唱歌 不好
He doesn’t sing well.

Adjectives with degree complements

Basic pattern

In most cases, a sentence with an adjective and a degree complement will follow the basic pattern:

Adjective + + degree complement

Examples

得很
He’s very good.

高兴 起来
He was so happy that he started jumping up and down.

Degree complements with adjectives are often translated with the pattern “so... that” in English.

Fixed expressions

Degree complements can also be formed with fixed, idiomatic expressions. In some cases, isn’t necessary. Let’s look at a few examples:

极了
得很
Adjective + Degree complements
不得了

Examples


The cat is very fat.

这个 姑娘 漂亮 极了
This girl is so pretty.

撑死
I’ m full to death.

今天
Today was unbearably hot.

How to tell potential and degree complements apart

By now, you might be wondering: but if both degree and potential complements use and tend to use the same words after, how do I tell them apart? - in case you weren’t, sorry for bringing that to your attention; but now that I have, why don’t you read this paragraph anyways? A little extra knowledge never hurt anyone.

The bad news? They do kind of look alike. Really quite so, in fact; so it can be hard to know if you’re facing a degree complement or a potential complement if you see a sentence out of context. The good news? Context is your friend. You should be able to tell which sentence is which in context. Plus, you can look for these other clues: * No adverbs in potential complements: degree complements are very often preceded by an adverb (such as ) to distinguish them from potential complements, which have no adverbs.

Potential complement:
汉字 不好
He can write Chinese characters well, but not French.

Degree complement:
汉字
He writes Chinese characters well.

  • Lastly, if you come across a sentence: keep in mind the complement cannot be a potential complement (that would make no sense)

Now that you’ve got a basic grasp of what the degree complement is, let’s go practice and let you see for yourself how it works! Letting you experiment with sentences with degree complements is the best way to recognize patterns and to memorize them.

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