5.5 Verb-Complement Constructions

A verb-complement construction is composed of a verb followed by a complementary element, or complement. A verb complement is different in nature from a verb object; an object is the recipient of the action expressed by the verb and is usually a noun, but a complement serves to describe or explain the action expressed by the verb and is almost never a noun. Adjectives or verbs more commonly serve as complements.

The verb-complement construction, like the verb-object construction, can be used either to form phrases or to form words. When a verb-complement construction forms a phrase, it is composed of two individual words; when it forms a word, then its two components are dependent morphemes. It is often extremely difficult to tell whether a given verb-complement construction is a phrase or a word, as in the examples below:

From a semantic or from an intuitive point of view, the relation between the two components of the verb-complement construction is closer than that between the components of the verb-object construction. Consider the verb-object construction dǎ rén (to hit a person), in which the verb dǎ stands in opposition to its object. The whole clearly forms a phrase, not a single word. It is far more difficult to determine whether the following verb-complement constructions with dǎ are single words or phrases:

For this reason, we are forced to fall back on the criterion of number of syllables and Putonghua's tendency toward disyllabism to set rules for the writing of verb-complement constructions. Ruling on the basis of syllables has two distinct advantages: it makes orthography easier to master and avoids the question of word versus phrase; and it keeps written words moderate in length, which is an aid to comprehension. In the following section, verb-complement constructions are introduced and discussed according to internal syllable structure.

  1. 1 + 1: are written as a single unit:
    • Complements showing direction:
      • ná (to take) + lai (to come) --> nálai (to bring);
      • zǒu (to walk) + qu (to go) --> zǒuqu (to walk away from the speaker));
      • pá (to climb) + shàng (on) --> páshàng (to climb up);
      • zuò (to sit) + xià (under) --> zuòxià (to sit down);
      • mǎi (to buy) + jìn (enter) --> mǎijìn (to purchase);
      • mài (to sell) + chū (to exit) --> màichū (to sell);
      • (to lift) + (to rise) --> tíqǐ (to raise up);
      • kàn (to look) + dào (to arrive) --> kàndào (to see).
    • Complements describing a result:
      • tīng (to listen) + dǒng (to understand) --> tīngdǒng (to understand what one hears);
      • gǎn (to drive) + zǒu (to leave) --> gǎnzǒu (to drive away);
      • zhuō (to catch) + zhù (to stop) --> zhuōzhù (to catch, capture);
      • chī (to eat) + diào (away, gone) --> chīdiào (to eat up);
      • tuī (to push) + fān (to overturn) --> tuīfān (to overturn, topple);
      • gǎo (to do) + hǎo (good) --> gǎohǎo (to do well);
      • fàng (to expand) + dà (large) --> fàngdà (to enlarge);
      • (to lift) + gāo (high) --> tígāo (to improve, increase);
      • yā (to press) + biǎn (flat) --> yābiǎn (to crush);
      • mó (to grind) + suì (to smash) --> mósuì (to grind to bits).
    • Complements showing degree:
      • (hungry) + (extreme) --> èjí le (very hungry);
      • hǎo (good) + (extreme) --> hǎojí le (excellent);
      • chà (to fall short) + yuǎn (far) --> chàyuǎn le (to fall far short);
      • shú (ripe) + tòu (fully) --> shútòu le (fully ripe);
      • (to worry) + (to die) --> jísǐ le (to be worried to death);
      • (angry) + huài (very) --> qìhuài le (to be extremely angry).
  2. 1 + 2: are written as two units:
    • Complements showing direction:
      • ná (to take) + huílai (to return) --> ná huílai (to bring back);
      • zǒu (to walk) + jìnlai (to come in) --> zǒu jìnlai (to walk in (toward the speaker);
      • pá (to climb) + shàngqu (to go up) --> pá shàngqu (to climb up (away from the speaker));
      • tiào (to jump) + guòqu (to go across) --> tiào guòqu (to jump across (away from the speaker));
      • chàng (to sing) + qǐlai (to begin) --> chàng qǐlai (to start singing).
    • Complements describing a result.
      • tīng (to listen) + míngbai (to understand) --> tīng míngbai (to understand what one hears);
      • jiǎng (to explain) + qīngchu (clear) --> jiǎng qīngchu (to make (something) clear);
      • xiě (to write) + xiángxì (detailed) --> xiě xiángxì (to write of in detail);
      • zuò (to sit) + wěndàng (still) --> zuò wěndàng (to sit still);
      • hē (to drink) + tòngkuài (to one's heart's content) --> hē tòngkuài (to drink one's fill);
      • (to wash) + gānjing (clean) --> xī gānjing (to wash clean).
  3. 2 + 1: are written as two units.

    There are relatively few example of this form:

    • huíyì (to recall) + (to rise) --> huíyì qǐ (to recall);
    • kǎolǜ (to consider) + dào (to arrive) --> kǎolǜ dào (to take into consideration);
    • zhěnglǐ (to arrange) + hǎo (good) --> zhěnglǐ hǎo (to put in order);
    • xuéxí (to study) + wán (to finish) --> xuéxí wán (to finish studying).
  4. 2 + 2: are written as two units:
    • jiānchí (to persevere) + xiàqu (to continue) --> jiānchí xiàqu (to persevere);
    • tuánjiě (to unite) + qǐlai (up) --> tuánjiě qǐlai (to unite);
    • dǎsǎo (to clean up) + gānjìng (clean) --> dǎsǎo gānjìng (to tidy up);
    • jiěshì (to explain) + míngbai (clear) --> jiěshì míngbai (to make clear).

To sum up: all verb-complement constructions except those of the form 1 + 1 are written as two units.

Two more points still require clarification:

  1. An adjective can sometimes serve as the "verb" of a verb-complement construction. The same ortbographic rules operate in this situation as with other verb-complement constructions. A few examples:
    • hóng (red) + tòu (fully) --> hóngtòu (red through and through);
    • hóng (red) + qǐlai (to begin) --> hóng qǐlai (to become red);
    • nuǎnhuo (warm) + qǐlai (to begin) --> nuǎnhuo qǐlai (to get warm).
  2. A verb-complement construction may be followed by the tense marker le. If the verb-complement construction is written as a single unit, then le is written together with it; if the construction is written as two units, then le is written separate from it. This is the same general principle as was set out in Section 2 above, in the discussion of le. A few examples of le with verb-complement constructions:
    • nálái (to bring) + le --> náláile (brought);
    • ná qǐlái (to pick up) + le --> ná qǐlái le (picked up);
    • tīngdǒng (to understand what one hears) + le --> tīngdǒng le (understood what one heard).
    • tīng míngbai (to understand what one hears) + le --> tīng míngbai le (understood what one heard).

    This rule applies only when le appears in the middle of a sentence. When le is the final element in a sentence or clause, it is always written separately from the word preceding it, as stated in Section 2 above.