External degree constructions in Mandarin


This paper analyzes the Mandarin counterpart of a German construction that is initiated with a [degree + determiner] cluster, such as total die Party ‘a total party’. It shows that the Deg-to-D head movement in German is also seen in the Mandarin hao + yi + ge construction. Moreover, it argues that in Mandarin, the head cluster moves further out of the DP, explaining why the construction rejects an overt copula and why it is used as a predicate exclusively. Furthermore, it identifies the null subject of the construction in Mandarin, which is exclamative, as a new type of obligatorily silent subject, parallel to the type of null subject that is found in imperatives and exhortatives.

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  1. 1.

    Abbreviations in the glosses: CL: classifier; DE: modification; EI: expressive intensifier; EXCL: exclamatory; FM: focus marker; PRF: perfective aspect; Q: question.

  2. 2.

    A nominal like that in (2a) can be built by the raising of the modifier phrase to the left edge of the nominal (Matushansky 2002 for English, Kallulli and Rothmayr 2008 for German, and Zhang 2015b for Mandarin).

  3. 3.

    Our discussion is restricted to the constructions that are initiated with the cluster hao + yi + CL. (i) represents a more complex construction, where da ‘big’ precedes the classifier or unit word. We do not discuss it here.

    (i) Hao yi da guan mifeng gai zenme chuli a?
      ei one big jar honey should how deal.with q
      ‘How should I deal with this big jar of honey?’

    We also leave for future research the hao-ni-ge construction, as seen in (ii). Unlike EDCs, the construction is used to condemn or mock the hearer only: it cannot be used to address any other persons.

    (ii) Hao ni ge pianzi!
      ei you cl cheater
      ‘EI you cheater!’    
  4. 4.

    In G&T, their (67a) and (68a), which are our (11a) and (12a), respectively, are marked with *. But as pointed out by an anonymous reviewer, these examples can be acceptable given the right context. We thus marked them with #.

  5. 5.

    One reviewer asks why, if the adjective in the EDC in (ib) is gradable, can it not occur with hen ‘very’ in (ia).

    (i) a. *hen naohonghong de jiaoshi b. hao yi ge naohonghong de jiaoshi.
       very chaotic.noisy de classroom   ei one cl chaotic.noisy de classroom
            ‘EI a chaotic and noisy classroom’

    A complex adjective such as naohonghong is indeed incompatible with a degree word (Lü 1980; Zhang 2015: 27). One account for the acceptability of (ib) is that the construction can be an N-EDC, instead of M-EDC. In other words, the EI hao is associated with the whole nominal naohonghong de jiaoshi, rather than naohonghong alone. But I leave the issue for future research.

  6. 6.

    The pro subject of an EDC in Mandarin may not be plural, as seen in (i). But this restriction comes from the yi-nominal itself. This restriction is seen in any nominal predicate that has yi, not restricted to EDCs.

    (i) Hao yi ge xingshang {ziji/*tamen-ziji} de ren!
      ei one cl admire self/they-self de person
      ‘What a person that admires himself!’
  7. 7.

    The compound zi-wo ‘self-1st.sg’ is synonymous to ziji ‘self’, and thus it does not have a first person feature. In (63a) and (63b), ziji can be replaced with zi-wo.

    Also, for some unknown reason, if a reflexive is intended to have a second or first person reading, only the bare ziji, but not ni-ziji ‘yourself’ or wo-ziji ‘myself’, is allowed in an EDC (I thank Hsuan-Hsiang Wang for noticing this fact):

    (ii) Hao yi ge xingshang {ziji/*ni-ziji} de ren!
      ei one cl admire self/you-self de person
      Intended: ‘You are an EI person that admires yourself!’
  8. 8.

    One reviewer asks whether, in the case where an EDC is an exclamative, rejection of a copula and the impossibility of functioning as an argument can be explained straightforwardly. Let us consider the contrast between (ia) and (ib):

    (i) a. Mary knows how very cute he is.      (Zanuttini and Portner 2003: 46)
      b. *Mali zhidao hao yi duo moli-hua.
       Mali know ei one cl jasmine-flower

    If know c-selects either a DP or CP, (ia) satisfies the CP selection, since the wh-movement of the how-phrase lands in the C-domain. Assume that zhidao ‘know’ also c-selects either a DP or CP. The unacceptability of (ib) may suggest that the clause level of an EDC in Mandarin is lower than a CP and thus it cannot be selected by zhidao. Thus, an EDC in the language is still different from other kinds of exclamatives.

    The rejection of a copula in an EDC is indeed compatible with the status of an exclamative clause, which never follows a copula. Thus, the restriction can be explained from different perspectives. Nevertheless, the head movement of a degree element is still necessary to derive an EDC, where hao is not in its canonical position (§3).


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I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and to James Huang for his continued support. I also thank Hsuan-Hsiang Wang, Wei Cheng Sung, Chiachen Chang, Jianhui Zhang, Chuyao Zhang, and Lixin Jin for their help with the examples. Remaining errors are mine. This research has been partially supported by the grants from the Ministry of Science and Technology, Taiwan.

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Zhang, N.N. External degree constructions in Mandarin. J East Asian Linguist 29, 365–392 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10831-020-09216-6

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  • Expressive
  • Intensifier
  • Degree
  • Exclamative
  • Copula
  • Pro
  • Mandarin