January 15, 2023

Grammatical particle 把 in Chinese and word order

According to Wikipedia, 42% of world languages follow the subject-verb-object (SVO) order, and 45% follow the SOV order. In a Facebook group, someone said that Chinese is SVO in general, but changes to SOV if the object is a prepositional object. Two examples are given

(1) 我把手机忘了 ("I forgot the cell phone"; very literally "I 把 the cell phone forgot")
(2) 一本书从桌子掉下来 ("a book falls from the table")

I agree that sentence (1) follows the SOV order, as 把 shifts the object 手机 to before the verb 忘. But 把 is not a prepositon. It is a grammatical particle, which has no meaning whatsoever, unlike a preposition. A grammatical particle, e.g. 把 in Chinese and to (as in to do) in English, only serves certain grammatical purposes and if omitted would render the sentence ungrammatical unless other adjustments are made.

On the other hand, sentence (2) is not SOV, because 从桌子 ("from the table") cannot be the object acted upon by the verb 掉 ("fall"). Instead, it is an adverbial clause. In fact, it is wrong to consider any prepositional object (which may be better called prepositional phrase) an object in a sentence. Contrast that with a noun phrase (NP), which bahaves like a noun and can be the subject or object in a sentence, because the last element of a NP is its "head"; "a big boat" still refers to a boat. But in a prepositional object, neither the preposition nor the noun following it can serve as the "head". Omitting either one would make the sentence ungrammatical and meaningless.

Chinese particle 把 moves the object of a sentence to the position before the verb, but no such construct exists in English. This explains why foreigners learning Chinese say 我拿书过来 ("I bring the book over") more than 我把书拿过来.


Contact me by email or form
To my English for Chinese Page