Natural Language & Linguistic Theory

, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 513–565 | Cite as

Mandarin hen and Universal Markedness in gradable adjectives

  • Thomas GranoEmail author


Under some conditions, gradable adjectives in Mandarin must co-occur with overt degree morphology (most neutrally, hen ‘very’) for positive interpretation; otherwise, a comparative interpretation results. This paper argues that this phenomenon is the consequence of two interacting factors: (1) Universally, whereas comparative semantics is provided by a (possibly covert) morpheme in syntax, positive semantics is provided by a type-shifting rule that does not project in syntax, and (2) The T[+V] constraint: in Mandarin, the direct complement to T(ense) must either be (an extended projection of) a verb or a functional morpheme that can in principle combine with (an extended projection of) a verb. Consequently, a superficially bare adjectival complement to T may project a null comparative morpheme in order to satisfy T[+V], but positive semantics is ruled out because it does not affect the AP categorial status of the predicate and hence does not satisfy T[+V]. The semantically bleached degree adverb hen can be used instead to approximate positive semantics in a way that satisfies T[+V]. This proposal makes the right predictions about the conditions under which bare adjectives do receive a positive interpretation, namely, when other functional elements intervene between T and AP, and when T is not projected. An important consequence of the proposal is that despite surface appearances, Mandarin does not counterexemplify the universal generalization that comparatives are the marked member of the positive/comparative opposition; on the contrary, its proper analysis actually depends on the idea that comparative-form adjectives involve extra structure.


Mandarin Chinese Gradable adjectives Degree modification Universal markedness 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Abney, Steven. 1987. The English noun phrase in its sentential aspect. Ph.D. Dissertation, MIT, Cambridge. Google Scholar
  2. Abusch, Dorit. 2010. Presupposition triggering from alternatives. Journal of Semantics 27: 37–80. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aoun, Joseph, and Yen-Hui Audrey Li. 2003. Essays on the representational and derivational nature of grammar: The diversity of wh-constructions. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  4. Bartsch, Renate, and Theo Vennemann. 1973. Semantic structures: A study in the relation between syntax and semantics. Frankfurt: Athaenum. Google Scholar
  5. Beck, Sigrid, Toshiko Oda, and Koji Sugisaki. 2004. Parametric variation in the semantics of comparison: Japanese vs. English. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 13: 289–344. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Benmamoun, Elabbas. 2000. The feature structure of functional categories. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  7. Bennett, M. 1977. A response to Karttunen. Linguistics and Philosophy 1: 279–300. Google Scholar
  8. Bobaljik, Jonathan David. 2002. A-chains at the PF-interface: Copies and ‘covert’ movement. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 20: 197–267. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bobaljik, Jonathan David. 2007. On comparative suppletion. Manuscript, University of Connecticut, Storrs. Google Scholar
  10. Bogal-Allbritten, Elizabeth. 2008. Gradability and degree constructions in Navajo. BA thesis, Swarthmore College, Swarthmore. Google Scholar
  11. Chao, Y. R. 1968. A grammar of spoken Chinese. Berkeley: University of California Press. Google Scholar
  12. Cheng, Lisa L. S., and Rint Sybesma. 1999. Bare and not-so-bare nouns and the structure of NP. Linguistic Inquiry 30: 509–542. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen. 1997. On the typology of wh-questions. New York: Garland. Google Scholar
  14. Chierchia, Gennaro. 1984. Topics in the syntax and semantics of infinitives and gerunds. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Google Scholar
  15. Chierchia, Gennaro. 1998. Reference to kinds across languages. Natural Language Semantics 6: 339–405. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cinque, Guglielmo. 1999. Adverbs and functional heads: A cross-linguistic perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  17. Corver, Norbert. 1990. The syntax of left branch extractions. Ph.D. Dissertation, Tilburg University, Tilburg. Google Scholar
  18. Corver, Norbert. 1997. Much-support as a last resort. Linguistic Inquiry 28: 119–164. Google Scholar
  19. Cresswell, Max J. 1976. The semantics of degree. In Montague grammar, ed. Barbara Partee, 261–292. New York: Academic Press. Google Scholar
  20. Doherty, Cathal. 1996. Clausal structure and the modern Irish copula. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 14: 1–46. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Erlewine, Michael. 2007. A new syntax-semantics for the Mandarin bi comparative. M.A. Thesis, University of Chicago, Chicago. Google Scholar
  22. Ernst, Thomas. 1994. Functional categories and the Chinese Infl. Linguistics 32: 191–212. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gasde, Horst-Dieter, and Waltraud Paul. 1996. Functional categories, topic prominence, and complex sentences in Mandarin Chinese. Linguistics 34: 263–294. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Grimshaw, Jane. 2005. Words and structure. Stanford: CSLI Publications. Google Scholar
  25. Gu, Yang. 2008. Shitai, shizhi lilun yu hanyu shijian canzhao [Studies of tense, aspect and Chinese time reference]. In Dangdai yuyanxue lilun he hanyu yanjiu [Contemporary linguistic theories and related studies of Chinese], eds. Shen Yang and Feng Shengli, 97–119. Beijing: Commerce Press. Google Scholar
  26. Guerzoni, Elena. 2004. Even-NPIs in yes/no questions. Natural Language Semantics 12: 319–343. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Higginbotham, James. 1993. Interrogatives. In The view from building 20, eds. Kenneth Hale and Samuel Keyser, 195–227. Cambridge: MIT Press. Google Scholar
  28. Huang, C. T. James. 1991. Modularity and Chinese A-not-A questions. In Interdisciplinary approaches to language, eds. Carol Georgopolous and Robert Ishihara, 305–322. Dordrecht: Kluwer. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Huang, C. T. James, Y. H. Audrey Li, and Yafei Li. 2009. The syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Google Scholar
  30. Huang, Shi-Zhe. 2006. Property theory, adjectives, and modification in Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 15: 343–369. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Huang, Shi-Zhe, and Yanhui Li. 2008. A study of the syntax-semantics of adjectives. Paper presented at the 16th Annual Conference of the International Association of Chinese Linguistics, Peking University, China. Google Scholar
  32. Kamp, Hans. 1975. Two theories of adjectives. In Formal semantics of natural language, ed. Edward Keenan, 123–155. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kennedy, Christopher. 1999. Projecting the adjective: The syntax and semantics of gradability and comparison. New York: Garland. Google Scholar
  34. Kennedy, Christopher. 2007. Vagueness and grammar: the semantics of relative and absolute gradable adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 30: 1–45. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kennedy, Christopher. 2009. Modes of comparison. In Proceedings of CLS 43, eds. Malcolm Elliott, James Kirby, Osamu Sawada, Eleni Staraki, and Suwon Yoon, 141–165. Google Scholar
  36. Kennedy, Christopher. 2011. Vagueness and comparison. In Vagueness and language use, eds. Paul Egré and Nathan Klinedinst, 73–97. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. Google Scholar
  37. Kennedy, Christopher, and Beth Levin. 2008. Measure of change: The adjectival core of degree achievements. In Adjectives and adverbs: Syntax, semantics and discourse, eds. Louise McNally and Christopher Kennedy, 156–182. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar
  38. Kennedy, Christopher, and Louise McNally. 2005. Scale structure, degree modification, and the semantics of gradable predicates. Language 81: 345–381. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Klein, Ewan. 1980. A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 4: 1–45. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Kratzer, Angelika. 1986. Conditionals. Chicago Linguistic Society 22(2): 1–15. Google Scholar
  41. Krifka, Manfred. 1995. Common nouns: A contrastive analysis of Chinese and English. In The generic book, eds. Gregory N. Carlson and Francis Jeffry Pelletier, 398–411. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Google Scholar
  42. Laka, Miren Itziar. 1990. Negation in syntax: On the nature of functional categories and projections. Ph.D. Dissertation, MIT, Cambridge. Google Scholar
  43. Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson. 1981. Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley: University of California Press. Google Scholar
  44. Lin, Jimmy. 2004. Even structure and the encoding of arguments: The syntax of the Mandarin and English verb phrase. Ph.D. Dissertation, MIT, Cambridge. Google Scholar
  45. Lin, Jo-Wang. 2003a. Selectional restrictions of tenses and temporal reference of Chinese bare sentences. Lingua 112: 271–302. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lin, Jo-Wang. 2003b. Temporal reference in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 12: 259–311. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Lin, Jo-Wang. 2006. Time in a language without tense: The case of Chinese. Journal of Semantics 23: 1–53. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lin, Jo-Wang. 2009. Chinese comparatives and their implicational parameters. Natural Language Semantics 17: 1–27. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lin, Jo-Wang. 2010. A tenseless analysis of Mandarin Chinese revisited: A response to Sybesma 2007. Linguistic Inquiry 41: 305–329. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Liu, Chen-Sheng Luther. 2007. The weak comparative morpheme in Mandarin Chinese. Concentric: Studies in Linguistics 33: 53–89. Google Scholar
  51. Liu, Chen-Sheng Luther. 2010a. The Chinese geng clausal comparative. Lingua 120: 1579–1606. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Liu, Chen-Sheng Luther. 2010b. The positive morpheme in Chinese and the adjectival structure. Lingua 120: 1010–1056. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Paul, Waltraud. 2005a. Adjective modification in Mandarin Chinese and related issues. Linguistics 43: 757–793. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Paul, Waltraud. 2005b. Low IP area and left periphery in Mandarin Chinese. Recherches Linguistiques de Vincennes 33: 111–133. Google Scholar
  55. Paul, Waltraud, and John Whitman. 2008. Shi … de focus clefts in Mandarin Chinese. The Linguistic Review 25: 413–451. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Ritter, Elizabeth, and Martina Wiltschko. 2009. Varieties of INFL: TENSE, LOCATION and PERSON. In Alternatives to cartography, ed. Jeroen van Cranenbroeck, 153–201. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Schwarzschild, Roger. 2008. The semantics of comparatives and other degree constructions. Language and Linguistics Compass 2: 308–331. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Seuren, Pieter A. M. 1973. The comparative. In Generative grammar in Europe, eds. Ferenc Kiefer and Nicolas Ruwet, 528–564. Dordrecht: Reidel. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Simpson, Andrew, and Zoe Wu. 2002. From D to T—determiner incorporation and the creation of tense. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 11: 169–209. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Sproat, Richard, and Chilin Shih. 1988. Prenominal adjectival ordering in English and Mandarin. In NELS 18, eds. James Blevins and Juli Carter, 465–489. Amherst: GLSA. Google Scholar
  61. Stassen, Leon. 1985. Comparison and universal grammar. Oxford: Basil Blackwell. Google Scholar
  62. Sybesma, Rint. 1997. Why Chinese verb-le is a resultative predicate. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 6: 215–271. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Sybesma, Rint. 1999. The Mandarin VP. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic. Google Scholar
  64. Sybesma, Rint. 2007. Whether we tense-agree overtly or not. Linguistic Inquiry 38: 580–587. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Tang, Sze-Wing. 1998. Parametrization of features in syntax. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of California, Irvine. Google Scholar
  66. Tang, Sze-Wing. 2001. Nominal predication and focus anchoring. In ZAS papers in linguistics 22, eds. Gerhard Jager, Anatoli Strigin, Chris Wilder, and Niina Zhang, 159–172. Berlin: ZAS. Google Scholar
  67. von Stechow, Arnim. 1984. Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3: 1–77. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Xiang, Ming. 2005. Some topics in comparative constructions. Ph.D. Dissertation, Michigan State University. Google Scholar
  69. Yip, Po-Ching, and Don Rimmington. 2004. Chinese: a comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge. Google Scholar
  70. Zhang, Lan. 2007. The two positions of Chinese relative clauses. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of South Carolina, Columbia. Google Scholar
  71. Zhang, Niina. 2008. Existential coda constructions as internally headed relative clause constructions. The Linguistics Journal 3 (3): 8–57. Google Scholar
  72. Zhu, De-Xi. 1980. Xiandai hanyu yufa yanjiu [Studies on syntax of Modern Chinese]. Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan. Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of LinguisticsUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

Personalised recommendations