Chinese Grammar: Lesson: Separable verbs
Little Dragon, here's a question for you. When you see a two-character word, you take it at face value and assume it's a single block, right? In a lot of cases, you are right to leave the two characters that make up the word together: they have no business being apart. But did you know that some word blocks are different and can be split into two in a sentence? These words are called separable verbs, a name which describes verbs that can be separated into two parts.
The Chinese sure like to use them when talking, so it's an important thing to know. Want to see how separable verbs can be split into two? Let's show you!
What are separable verbs?
Separable verbs can either be used as a single verb or as two separate words, one being the verb, the other becoming the Object. You may have heard of them before under the names “verb-object compounds” or “obligatory objects” or another barbaric sounding name. The Chinese name is 离合词 (líhécí), which literally means “separable words”; hence the name “separable verb” in English.
Most separable verbs have a Verb + Object structure:
Verb + Object (noun)
吃饭, to eat a meal, is a common example of a separable verb. 吃 is actually the verb and 饭 the object attached to the verb.
Did you eat? (This is also a common way of greeting people and checking they’re well).
And when it separates:
Here, 吃饭 translates as two words in English, so it is easy to see how this word is actually a verb + object unit. Other separable verbs might be a little more confusing at first because we don’t translate them as two words in English. It is therefore not as easy to imagine these verbs are actually "verb and object" units in Chinese. Such separable verbs are 睡觉, to sleep, or 游泳 to swim and there are many more. For instance, if you take 睡觉, 睡 is the verb and 觉 is the object.
见面, to meet, is also a very common separable verb. It can be used as a single verb, like so:
or split into two:
游泳 to swim:
He swam yesterday (literally "He yesterday swam a swim").
In most separable verbs’ cases, the verb part can often be used on its own as well. The object part, however, cannot, nor can it be used as a verb. For instance, you can say:
But you can’t use 觉 on its own as a verb to mean to sleep.
Let’s look at more examples to get a better feel of what separable verbs are.
今晚 你 可以睡个 好觉了。(睡觉)
You can have a good sleep tonight.
愿意 和 我跳支舞吗？(跳舞)
Do you want to dance with me?
He is already married.
那个 男 演员离过 三次婚。(离婚)
This male actor has already divorced three times.
Why do you separate separable verbs?
Now that you know what a separable verb is, you might be wondering: why do separable verbs separate?
Some grammar words, such as 了, 着, or 过 have rules separable verbs must follow if they want to be accepted in a sentence with them. It's like a secret club.
See, these grammar words love the verb. They’re not big fans of the verb’s object, though, and want to drive them apart. So, they created a rule: they’ll only go in the sentence with a separable verb if they can go in right after the verb. The Object is relegated to after the grammar word.
If the separable verbs were to force their way through in a single block, they’d be unwelcome and make the sentence incorrect.
No other choice, with 了, 着, and 过, separate the verb and the Object we must do.
The structure therefore becomes:
Let’s see how that works with 下雪 (to snow):
Measure words also made the same requests and won: they, too, go right after the verb and before the verb’s Object.
他 昨天 游 过 三次 泳。
He swam three times yesterday.
我吃了 两 顿饭。
I have eaten two meals. (顿 dùn: measure word for 饭)
What separable verbs don’t like
Separable verbs are a tight unit. Their relationship is well defined and there are a few things they don’t tolerate:
A. Being followed by an Object
A separable verb unit is already composed of a verb and an Object, so as you can imagine, the Object that’s tight with the verb doesn’t take too kindly to seeing ANOTHER Object after it. The Verb already has an Object, firmly thinks the Object. So make the verb’s object happy, will ya? No Object with a separable verb.
Here are two examples:
我 明天 见 面 他。
The Verb’s Object throws a fit: You cannot have two objects with a separable verb (no Verb + Object 1 + Object 2)
with 帮忙 (to help):
你 能 帮 个 忙 我 吗？
Ø Incorrect! You can't use "Verb + Measure word + Object 1 + Object 2". If you do, the Verb’s Object,忙, is jealous and plots to kill the second object 我.
你 能 帮 我 个 忙吗？ Could you please do me a favor?
✓ Correct! The Verb’s Object is over the moon.
The lesson: For sane and safe sentences, always pay attention to the fact a separable verb cannot take an(other) object. It already contains an Object.
B. Seeing the wrong part being reduplicated
Separable verbs are fine with reduplicating verbs to show how brief the action was or to relax the tone. But they won’t let you do it any which ways.
If you remember, the verb and the Object’s relationship is a little unbalanced. The verb can go out on its own, but the Object cannot do the same as a verb. The same goes here. The result? Only the verb can be duplicated.
Who are we to butt in, right? That’s how it is:
When reduplicating, only the Verb can be reduplicated. So don’t go upsetting their balance by duplicating the Object.
Here are a few examples to demonstrate:
Walk a little, swim a little.
他 的 生日 聚会 就是吃 吃饭, 喝 喝酒, 聊 聊天, 唱 唱歌.
There'll be drinking, chatting, singing and eating at his birthday party.
How to know if a verb is separable or not
Separable verbs aren’t hard to understand, but my years of experience have shown me it will take you some time to get used to them, to be able to recognize them when you come across them and to remember to use them naturally. Don't worry, I'll help and you'll get there.
One question that often arises is: Are all verbs with two characters separable verbs? Afraid not. Some verbs are simply double verbs (technically you call that a verb with a verb compound) such as 工作 or 知道 or 告诉. Both characters constitute the whole meaning of the verb and therefore cannot be separated. These verbs can also take multiple objects: 我 要 告诉 他 这 件 事.
There isn’t really a good way to tell which verb is separable and which one’s not, but it comes with practice. It may be tempting to look for a list of separable verbs and memorize them, but there are over 1000 separable verbs in Chinese, and that’s a lot to absorb.
So, here’s my super secret technique to get a feel for separable verbs in Chinese:
- Practice using the most common ones with me
- Expose yourself to Chinese: hearing how others use a verb will help you tell if it’s separable or not. Exposure to Chinese will help you naturally collect a list of separable verbs over time.
- Keep practicing and exposing yourself to Chinese: one day, you’ll realize you no longer have to think anymore whether you should separate a verb or not.
Do that and you’ll be well on your way to mastering separable verbs in Mandarin Chinese.
So what do you say little dragon? Let’s get started with step 1!
Don't hesitate to report a feedback if you have internet!
You are disconnected!
Please check your internet connection and retry.
For separable verbs that don’t have a natural verb + object equivalent in English, feel free to imagine them in English with an object. Now that you know that 睡觉 is a separable verb in Chinese, imagine it to mean “to sleep a sleep” if it makes it simpler for you to remember to separate it when needed. Just keep in mind that some verbs are not separable verbs.