Are Mandarin adjectives just a type of verb?

In Mandarin, adjectives behave like verbs in some respects. As a result, some analysts suggest that adjectives are just a subset of verbs in Mandarin. This post summarises evidence that adjectives are in fact separate from verbs. The evidence comes from Chinese Syntax, by C-T James Huang, Y-H Audrey Li and Yafei Li (2009).

The post summarises:

  • placing and marking the object of an adjective
  • reduplication
  • using adjectives as predicates
  • analysing why adjectives differ from verbs and nouns

Placing and marking the object of an adjective

In Mandarin, the object of a verb appears to the right of the verb and is not marked by a preposition (see example 1). In contrast, the object of an adjective appears to the left of the adjective and that object is marked by the preposition dui (see example 2).

(1) tamingbaizhe-gedaoli
Example 1. Meaning: he understands this reason
CL stands for a ‘classifier’
(2) taduizhe-gedaolihenmingbai
Example 2. Meaning: he is very clear about this reason
P stands for a preposition.

In requiring the preposition dui before their object, Mandarin adjectives resemble nouns. The object of a Mandarin noun requires that same preposition (example 3). In contrast, the object of a verb does not require that preposition (example 4).

(3) Zhangshanduiyi-bu xiaoshuode fanyi
ZhangshanPone-CL novelDE translation
Example 3. Meaning: Zhangshan’s translation of one novel
DE marks the following noun as modified by what precedes DE.
(4) Zhangshanfanyi-leyi-bu xiaoshuo
Zhangshantranslate-LEone-CL novel
Example 4. Meaning: Zhangshan translated one novel
LE marks the verb as perfective.


More evidence that adjectives behave differently from verbs comes from constructions involving reduplication of two-syllable words. I will use the labels A and B for the two syllables of such a word. For a verb AB, its reduplicated form has the structure ABAB (example 5). For an adjective, the reduplicated structure is AABB (example 6).

(5) tayinggaimingbaimingbaizhe-gedaoli
Example 5. Meaning: he should get to know the reason
(6) taduizhe-gedaolimingmingbaibai
Example 6. Meaning: he is rather clear about this reason

Huang, Li and Li do make one caveat about reduplication. The reduplicated form of some verbs does have the structure AABB. In example 7, the object must appear before the verb (not after it), though it still appears without the preposition dui. They suggest that the reduplicated AABB form fengfengbubu in example 7 is a verb, not an adjective.

(7) tabana-jian yishangfengfengbubu,chuan-lehenduo nian
wear-LEmany year
Example 7. He kept sewing and patching that coat and wore it for many years
BA marks the ‘ba construction’.

Using adjectives as predicates

Mandarin adjectives resemble verbs in being able to form predicates directly with a copula (a linking verb with little meaning), like the English copula be. Example 8 illustrates this. In contrast, to form a predicate, Mandarin nouns need a copula. Example 9 shows that the noun yingxiong cannot form a predicate by itself, it needs the copula shi. Similarly, the English noun hero needs a form of the copula (be, in this case the form is).

(8)     tahenyingyong
Example 8 he is very heroic
(9)     tashiyingxiong
Example 9 he is a hero

Analysing why adjectives differ from verbs and nouns

As the above summary shows, Mandarin adjectives resemble:

  • verbs in some ways: they can form a predicate without the copula shi
  • nouns in other ways: their object does not follow them but precedes them, and is marked with the meaningless preposition dui.

Huang, Li and Li suggest that the best way to explain this behaviour is with a combination of the features nominal [N] and verbal [V]. They analyse Mandarin:

  • nouns as [+N, -V]
  • verbs as [-N, +V]
  • prepositions as [-N, -V]
  • adjectives as [+N, +V]. Being marked as both [+N and +V], adjectives behave in some ways like nouns and in other ways like verbs.

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