Nominal property concepts and substance possession in Mandarin Chinese


This paper investigates two puzzles regarding property concept (PC) lexemes (Dixon in Where have all the adjectives gone? And other essays in semantics and syntax. Mouton, The Hague, 1982) in Mandarin: why degree modifiers such as hen ‘very’ are compatible with gradable adjectives such as gao ‘tall’ as well as PC nominals such as zhihui ‘wisdom’, but not with concrete mass nouns such as shui ‘water’ in simple declarative clauses, and why degree modifiers are obligatory to block comparative interpretation in sentences with gradable adjectives and possessive PC nominal phrases. I demonstrate the data of PC nominals in possessive constructions with positive and comparative interpretations. Following Francez and Koontz-Garboden (Semantics and morphosyntactic variation: qualities and the grammar of property concepts. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2017), I argue that PC nominals and other mass nouns in Mandarin are semantically distinct in such a way that the latter lack inherent measures. Furthermore, I argue that gradable adjectives and possessive PC nominal phrases are model-theoretically equivalent. Moreover, I propose that degree modifiers such as hen are compulsory to block comparative interpretations in PC sentences because possessive PC phrases are Adjective Phrases and require an overt degree modifier or a covert comparative operator to satisfy the T[+ V] constraint in Mandarin proposed by Grano (Nat Lang Linguist Theory 30:513–565, 2012).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    Glossing abbreviations in Mandarin data: 1SING = first person singular; 3SING = third person singular; BA = markers of BA-construction; COP = copula; DE in (67)–(69) = possessive marker; DE elsewhere = adverbial modifier marker; DEM = demonstrative; DOU = focus marker; FIN = finite; LE = perfective marker or sentence-final particle; NEG = negation; PAR = particle; POSS = possessive morpheme; Q = question marker; SUB = subordinate.

  2. 2.

    Data from Wolof presented in Baglini (2015) and Basaá presented in Hanink et al. (2019) demonstrate a parallel pattern with the Mandarin data here. We will discuss this in detail in later sections.

  3. 3.

    This observation contrasts with Li’s (2017) claim that possessive PC sentences with or without hen denote positive interpretations. I will present corpus evidence in Sect. 3.2 below to support my claim.

  4. 4.

    Grano (2012) proposes an opposite view arguing that hen is not an overt lexicalization of POS; rather, covert POS is not available in Mandarin and hen is a type and category shifter that is needed to approximate positive semantics. This paper follows Grano’s approach, which will be discussed in Sects. 2.4 and 4.2.

  5. 5.

    Kennedy and Levin (2008) argue that change-of-state verbs derived from gradable adjectives have a comparative component in which one individual at two different time points is compared with respect to some dimension; for instance, the sentence ‘The flower got red’ compares the redness of the flower previously and currently. However, Liu points out that this sentence does not allow a bare comparative interpretation; that is, the intended meaning ‘The flower got redder’ is not possible. Hence the predicate hong ‘red’ indicates a positive and categorical meaning. See footnote 8 for more discussion.

  6. 6.

    Mandarin does have a morpheme geng that can be glossed as ‘more’ or ‘even more’, but it is never obligatory.

  7. 7.

    Note that the post-adjectival measure phrase is obligatory in the transitive comparative. Also, the distribution of the transitive comparative is rather limited. Only adjectives that involve numerically-quantifiable scales such as gao ‘tall’ or da ‘old’ can be used in this construction; other gradable adjectives, such as congming ‘smart’, are not allowed in this construction

    (i) *Zhangsan congming Lisi ji fen.
    Zhangsan smart Lisi some degree
    Intended: ‘Zhangsan is a few degrees smarter than Lisi.’
  8. 8.

    As discussed in footnote 5, scholars have divided opinions about the interpretations of gradable adjectives in the change-of-state comparative. Grano (2012) argues that sentences such as (25) involves comparative interpretations following Kennedy and Levin’s (2008) analysis. Also, le here is analyzed as a perfective or change-of-state marker, rather than a sentence-final marker as analyzed in Liu (2010). In this particular example, the sentence with the degree expression liang cun ‘two inches’ does not indicate an exclusively categorical meaning; in other words, Zhangsan may still be short at the time of utterance. Without the degree expression, the categorical interpretation is still not exclusive. The difference in interpretation between (20) and (25) may be caused by the difference between color adjectives and other gradable adjectives. We will not go into more detail for now.

  9. 9.

    An example of derived comparative form is the English gradable adjective tall, of which the comparative form is taller. An example of periphrastic comparative form is the Spanish gradable adjective alto ‘high’, of which the comparative form is m´as alto.

  10. 10.

    That is, no quality-denoting word has in its denotation entities that are in the denotation of another quality-denoting word.

  11. 11.

    Francez and Koontz-Garboden (2017) did not adopt the positive operator analysis as discussed in Sect. 2.1. Rather, they implement the interval argument such as I in this case, which is saturated by portions that rank above a contextually determined threshold.

  12. 12.

    In their earlier work, Francez and Koontz-Garboden (2015) proposed a similar denotation for ka

    (i) 〛 = λP λxλD.D z[π(x, z) ∧ P (z)]

    In (i), D is a variable over sets of portions; \(\exists^{D}\) represents restriction of the existential quantifier over portions. This denotation is essentially identical with (34). Both denotations restrict the possible values of the domain to “sets of portions that form a left-bounded interval of a substance” (Francez and Koontz-Garboden 2015, p. 549) except that the latter uses the variable I explicitly to express the left-bounded intervals.

  13. 13.

    Here, Francez (2009) analyzes possessive NPs as generalized quantifiers.

  14. 14.

    This is similar to what Dixon (1982) called human propensity PC lexemes.

  15. 15.

    Li does not provide any detailed explanation on what |z| represents, although we can infer that it might be a function that converts substances/portions to degrees.

  16. 16.

    (61) and (66) demonstrate the same ambiguity as I discussed with gradable adjective cases in Sects. 2.2 and 2.3. For PC nominals, an overt degree expression such as ji fen ‘some extent’ makes the comparative meaning more salient, whereas sentences without overt degree expressions have a stronger categorical flavor.

  17. 17.

    The positive interpretation of this sentence is marginal or unacceptable among some native speakers. There might be dialectal variation or influence from the context.

  18. 18.

    An anonymous reviewer points out that there are more counterexamples apart from those presented above, including jianjie ‘opinion’, yanguang ‘vision’, and wenhua ‘culture’ etc. While I acknowledge that counterexamples exist and speakers may tolerate some PC nominals as bare possessive predicates in simple declarative clauses, it is worth noting that the frequencies of those counterexamples are very low. Also, those nouns are ambiguous between a PC nominal and a countable noun in the same way as shown in (70), and those sentences may have a non-gradable interpretation in the same way as in (71). Hence, those ‘counterexamples’ do not indicate that hen is optional in possessive PC sentences. Future corpus studies with more data as well as acceptability tests might be necessary to further evaluate the status of degree modifiers in this construction.

  19. 19.

    Li (2017) follows Grano’s (2012) analysis on the status of hen in Mandarin; see Sect. 2.4 for more details.

  20. 20.

    As discussed in Sect. 2.5, Baglini (2015) calls predicates such as rafet ‘being pretty’ ‘stative verbs’; she points out that they translate parallel to English predicative adjectives.

  21. 21.

    This denotation of possessive morpheme (78) is essentially similar to the denotation (49) proposed by Li (2017), except that Li argues for a single possessive morpheme for both PC nominals and mass nouns, which is achieved by proposing a sensitive dminimum, whereas the former proposes two possessive morphemes for PC nominals and mass nouns respectively. Also, Li’s (2017) analysis is in line with the first option; the result of her proposal is that both gradable adjectives such as gao ‘tall’ (7) and possessive PC phrases such as you zhihui ‘have wisdom’ (50) share the type 〈d, et〉. I did not adopt Li’s analysis due to other flaws in her proposal, as explained earlier.

  22. 22.

    Hanink et al. (2019) use i to represent left-bounded intervals of a quality, while Francez and Koontz-Garboden (2017) use ι in their notations. I will use ι in my proposed denotation for adjectives, as shown in (81).

  23. 23.

    Following this analysis, hen is actually modifying intervals of a quality rather than degrees; I will still call it a degree modifier in the rest of the manuscript in order to be consistent with the convention in the literature.

  24. 24.

    See Sect. 2.4 for more details. The obligatoriness of hen to block comparative interpretation with possessive PC phrases in simple declaratives will be elaborated in the next section.

  25. 25.

    This assumption is not adopted in more recent frameworks such as Heim and Kratzer (1998).

  26. 26.

    The distinction between adjectives and verbs in Mandarin remains a highly debatable issue. An anonymous reviewer points out that some scholars argue that Mandarin adjectives are stative verbs and should not be treated as a separate category (see Chao 1968; McCawley 1992 among others). However, many scholars have provided empirical evidence that support distinguishing the adjective category as well. Apart from the tests concerning the transitivity of adjectives and the reduplicative morphology (Huang et al. 2009) discussed in this section, another strong piece of evidence is that many adjectives are non-predicative, such as gongtong ‘common’; if they are truly verbs, they should be able to function as predicates (see Paul 2010 among others). My current proposal regards adjectives in Mandarin as a distinct syntactic category.

  27. 27.

    The assumption that ∅whether sits below T may seem to conflict with the general idea that the overt ‘whether’ is located at the Complementizer position. Grano (2012) argues that the covert morpheme ∅whether is a realization of Σ, a term for the locus of sentential negation and affirmation according to Laka (1990). Grano (2012) also points out that there is independent evidence in Mandarin that supports this assumption. For instance, it is possible to form polar questions using reduplicative morphology, as illustrated in (i), in which the predicate gao ‘tall’ is reduplicated with the negative infix bu:

    (i) Zhangsan gao bu gao?
    Zhangsan tall NEG tall
    ‘Is Zhangsan tall or not?’

    Huang et al. (2009) refer to this construction as the A-not-A construction and argue that there is a morpheme intervening between the subject and the predicate, which gives rise to the interrogative interpretation of this construction. Grano (2012) argues that it is reasonable to assume that this morpheme is the realization of the ∅whether morpheme.

  28. 28.

    The status of prenominal adjectival modifiers in Mandarin has attracted some debate among scholars. Paul (2005) argues against the view that all prenominal adjectives are relative clauses by pointing out that some nongradable adjectives in Mandarin must appear in the shide construction when acting as predicates, but not when acting as prenominal modifiers, as illustrated in (ia) and (ib) below; the latter is hence better analyzed as attributive constructions:

    (i) a Zhe-ge panzi sh fang de.
    this-CL plate COP square DE
    ‘This plate is square.’
    b. (*shi) fang (de) panzi
    COP square DE plate
    ‘square plate’ (Grano 2012, p. 544)

    Following Paul (2005), Grano (2012) points out that only relative clauses can occur to the left of the numeral + classifier construction. As shown in the following examples, the adjective fang ‘square’ is allowed to the right of the numeral + classifier complex (iia), but not to the left (iib), whereas the true relative clause xin lai de ‘(who) newly arrived’ is allowed both to the left (iiib) and right (iiia) of the complex:

    (ii) a. yi-ge fang (de) panzi
    one-CL square DE plate
    ‘one square plate’
    b. *fang (de) yi-ge panzi
    square DE one-CL plate
    Intended: ‘one square plate’
    (iii) a liang-ge [xin lai de] laoshi
    two-CL new come DE teacher
    ‘Two teachers who have newly arrived’
    b. [xin lai de] liang-ge laoshi
    new come DE two-CL teacher
    ‘Two teachers who have newly arrived’ (Yip and Rimmington 2004, as cited in Grano 2012, p. 544-545)


  1. Baglini, Rebekah. 2015. Stative predication and semantic ontology: A cross-linguistic study. Ph.D. thesis, University of Chicago.

  2. Bierwisch, M. 1989. The semantics of gradation. In Dimensional adjectives: grammatical structure and comceptual interpretation, ed. M. Bierwisch and E. Lang, 71–261. Berlin: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  3. Chao, Y.Ren. 1968. A grammar of spoken Chinese. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Cheng, Lisa Lai-Shen. 1997. On the typology of wh-questions. New York: Garland.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Cresswell, Max J. 1976. The semantics of degree. In Montague grammar, ed. Barbara Partee, 261–292. New York: Academic Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Dixon, R.M.W. 1982. Where have all the adjectives gone? And other essays in semantics and syntax. The Hague: Mouton.

    Google Scholar 

  7. Erlewine, Michael. 2007. A new syntax-semantics for the Mandarin bi comparative. MA thesis, University of Chicago.

  8. Francez, Itamar. 2009. Quantified possessives and direct compositionality. In Proceedings of se-mantics and linguistic theory (SALT), 165–179.

  9. Francez, Itamar, and Andrew Koontz-Garboden. 2015. Semantic variation and the grammar of prop- erty concepts. Language 91(3): 533–563.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Francez, Itamar, and Andrew Koontz-Garboden. 2017. Semantics and morphosyntactic variation: qualities and the grammar of property concepts. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  11. Grano, Thomas. 2012. Mandarin hen and Universal Markedness in gradable adjectives. Natural Language Linguistics Theory 30: 513–565.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Grano, Thomas, and Stuart Davis. 2017. Universal markedness in gradable adjectives revisited. Natural Language Linguistic Theory 34: 1281.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Grano, Thomas, and Christopher Kennedy. 2012. Mandarin transitive comparatives and the grammar of measurement. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 21: 219–266.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Grimshaw, Jane. 2005. Words and structure. Stanford: CSLI Publications.

    Google Scholar 

  15. 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], ed. Yang Shen and Shengli Feng, 97–119. Beijing: Commerce Press.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Guerzoni, Elena. 2004. Even-NPIs in yes-no questions. Natural Language Semantics 12: 319–343.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Hanink, Emily A., Andrew Koontz-Garboden, and Emmanuel-Moselly Makasso. 2019. Property con- cepts in Basaá and the ontology of gradability across category. In Proceedings of SALT 29, 201–218.

  18. Heim, Irene, and Angelika Kratzer. 1998. Semantics in generative grammar. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Huang, Cheng-Teh James, Yen-Hui Audrey Li, and Yafei Li. 2009. The syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Huang, Shi-Zhe. 2006. Property theory, adjectives, and modification in Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 15(4): 343–369.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Jenks, Peter, Andrew Koontz-Garboden, and Emmanuel-Moselly Makasso. 2018. On the lexical semantics of property concept nouns in Basaá. In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung, ed. by Robert Truswell et al., 643–660.

  22. Kennedy, Christopher. 2002. Comparative deletion and optimality in syntax. Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 20(3): 553–621.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Kennedy, Christopher. 2007. Vagueness and grammar: The semantics of relative and absolute gradable adjectives. Linguistics & Philosophy (Dordrecht) 30(1): 1–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Kennedy, Christopher, and Beth Levin. 2008. Measure of change: The adjectival core of degree achievemenets. In Adjectives and adverbs: Syntax, semantics and discourse, ed. Louise McNally and Christopher Kennedy, 156–182. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  25. Kennedy, Christopher, and Louise McNally. 2005. Scale structure, degree modification, and the semantics of gradable predicates. Language 81(2): 345–381.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Klein, Ewan. 1980. A semantics for positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics & Philosophy (Dordrecht) 4: 1–45.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Laka, Miren Itziar. 1990. Negation in syntax: On the nature of functional categories and projections. Ph.D. thesis, MIT.

  28. Li, Xiao. 2017. Measurement scales and gradability: on the semantics of the possessive property concept construction in Mandarin Chinese. In Proceedings from the annual meeting of the Chicago linguistic society.

  29. Lin, Jo-wang. 2009. Chinese comparatives and their implicational parameters. Natural Language Semantics 17: 1–27.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Link, Godehard. 2002. The logical analysis of plurals and mass terms: a lattice-theoretical approach. In Formal semantics: The essential readings, ed. Paul Portner and Barbara Partee, 127–146. Oxford: Blackwell.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Liu, Chen-Sheng. 2010. The positive morpheme in Chinese and the adjectival structure. Lingua 120(4): 1010–1056.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Liu, Chen-Sheng. 2018. Projecting adjectives in Chinese. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 27: 67–109.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. McCawley, James. 1992. Justifying part-of-speech assignments in Mandarin Chinese. Journal of Chinese Linguistics 20: 211–245.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Menon, Mythili, and Roumyana Pancheva. 2014. The grammatical life of property concept roots in Malayalam. In Proceedings of Sinn und Bedeutung, 289–302.

  35. Moltmann, Friederike. 2009. Degree structure as trope structure: A trope-based analysis of positive and comparative adjectives. Linguistics and Philosophy 32: 51–94.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Paul, Waltraud. 2005. Adjective modification in Mandarin Chinese and related issues. Linguistics 43: 757–793.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Paul, Waltraud. 2010. Adjectives in Mandarin Chinese: The rehabilitation of a much ostracized category. In Adjectives: Formal analyses in syntax and semantics, ed. P. Cabredo-Hofherr and O. Matushansky, 115–152. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Sybesma, Rint. 1999. The Mandarin VP. Dordrecht: Springer.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Thompson, Sandra A. 1989. A discourse approach to the cross-linguistic category ‘adjective’. In Linguistic categorization, ed. F. Eckman, R. Corrigan, and M. Noonan, 245–265. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

    Google Scholar 

  40. von Stechow, Arnim. 1984. Comparing semantic theories of comparison. Journal of Semantics 3: 1–77.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Xiang, Ming. 2005. Some topics in comparative constructions. Ph.D. thesis, Michigan State University.

  42. Xun, Endong, et al. 2016. Da shuju beijing xia BCC yuliaoku de yanzhi [The creation of BCC corpus in the background of Big Data]. Yuliaoku Yuyanxue 1.

  43. Yip, Po-Ching, and Don Rimmington. 2004. Chinese: a comprehensive grammar. London: Routledge.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Zhu, Dexi. 1980. Xiandai Hanyu Yufa Yanjiu [Studies on Syntax of Modern Chinese]. Beijing: Shangwu Yinshuguan.

    Google Scholar 

Download references


This article was developed based on my qualifying paper submitted to the Department of Linguistics at Indiana University. I am especially grateful to my advisor, Professor Thomas Grano, for his advice throughout this project. I also would like to thank the reviewers as well as the editors for their critical questions and constructive suggestions. Some content and material has been presented at departmental workshops and seminars and I am grateful to the audiences for providing their helpful feedback.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yiwen Zhang.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Zhang, Y. Nominal property concepts and substance possession in Mandarin Chinese. J East Asian Linguist 29, 393–434 (2020).

Download citation


  • Property concepts
  • Mandarin
  • Abstract mass nouns
  • Possession
  • Gradability
  • Comparison