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Review of  Aspect in Mandarin Chinese

Reviewer: Chienjer Lin
Book Title: Aspect in Mandarin Chinese
Book Author: Richard Xiao Anthony Mark McEnery
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Semantics
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 16.2397

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Date: Mon, 15 Aug 2005 20:18:26 -0700
From: Chienjer Lin
Subject: Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: A Corpus-Based Study

AUTHOR: Xiao, Richard Zhonghua; McEnery, Tony
TITLE: Aspect in Mandarin Chinese
SUBTITLE: A Corpus-Based Study
SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series 73
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins
YEAR: 2004

Chienjer Lin, Department of Linguistics, University of Arizona


Aspect in Mandarin Chinese (henceforth AMC) is a corpus-based investigation
of both situation and viewpoint aspects in Mandarin Chinese. In addition to
theoretical considerations of a broad variety of issues related to aspect
in Mandarin, it provides many examples and descriptive statistics about the
use of aspect in Mandarin Chinese. This work is based on the Ph.D. thesis
of the first author, supervised by the second author from Lancaster
University (defended in 2002). It is composed of seven chapters. In this
review, summaries of each chapter are given in section 2, followed by my
comments and evaluations in section 3.


Chapter 1 Introduction: Chapter One, as an introduction, reviews the notion
"aspect" in the literature and discusses previous approaches to it. Xiao
and McEnery (henceforth X&M) explicates the methodology undertaken in this
monograph--to complement traditional intuition-based approaches with a
corpus-based approach. The authors used The Weekly Corpus (comprised of
texts from a Chinese newspaper published in the year of 1995 in Southern
China). This corpus is small in size, containing 125,825 Chinese characters
(p.6). They also used the Freiburg-LOB Corpus of British English for
English data, and the Lancaster Corpus of Mandarin Chinese for the
English-Chinese translation data. X&M provide a "two-component model of
aspect in Mandarin Chinese (p.10)." The two components refer to situation
aspect (e.g. event types and telicity) and viewpoint aspect (e.g.
perfectives, imperfectives, etc.). This model summarizes the structure of
the rest of the book. Chapter 2 discusses the model; Chapter 3 discusses
situation aspect; Chapters 4 and 5 discuss viewpoint aspect. Chapter 6
contrasts between aspect in Chinese and English. Chapter 7 is a summary of
the findings.

Chapter 2 Two-Component Aspect Theory: Chapter Two discusses definitional
problems to the notion of aspect in previous research. X&M follow Smith
(1991, 1997) distinguishing situation and viewpoint aspects as two separate
notions to be studied. Situation aspect refers to "the classification of
verbs and situations according to their temporal features" including
"dynamicity", "durativity" and "telicity" (p.21). Viewpoint aspect refers
to the perfective/imperfective distinction, which is usually imposed on top
of verbs.

Chapter 3 Situation Aspect: This chapter discusses the event construction
that is inherent to the verbs. Eventuality is suggested to compose in two
levels: the lexical level and the sentential level. The lexical level is
further decomposed into three layers--"nucleus, core, and clause" based on
van Valin's proposal in Role and Reference Grammar. It is proposed that the
aspectuality classification system applies to both levels, and that there
are "rules that map verb classes at the lexical level onto situation types
at the sentential level (p.33)."

This chapter has detailed discussion of the descriptive system for
situation aspect including features such as [+/-dynamic], [+/-durative],
[+/-telic], [+/-result], and [+/-bounded]. These features are used to
describe traditional verbal classes such as accomplishments, achievements,
activities, states (individual and stage levels) and semelfactives. The
authors also look into the implications among the features regarding
unattested gaps.

In sections 3.4 and 3.5, the authors discuss different levels of event
composition, including the lexical level and the sentential level. The
lexical level is divided into the nucleus level (similar to the predicate
level), the core level (predicates plus arguments), and the clause level
(predicates plus arguments and non-arguments). Twelve rules are proposed to
derive eventuality from a core verb to a clause. Then the authors describe
how different situation types at the sentential level can be distinguished
using the feature system.

Chapter 4 The Perfective Aspects in Chinese: This chapter discusses the
perfectivity of four constructions in Mandarin: actual aspect with LE,
experiential aspect with GUO, delimitative aspect with REDuplication, and
completive aspect with Resultative Verb Compounds (RVCs). The two LEs (the
actual LE and the change-of-state LE) are first distinguished. Each
subsection discusses the perfective aspects regarding how they interact
with verbs of different situation types, and their properties of
holisticity and dynamicity. Corpus frequencies of different verb classes
and perfective markers are provided in each subsection of the chapter.

Chapter 5 The Imperfective Aspects in Chinese: This chapter discusses four
imperfective markers in Mandarin--ZHE, ZAI, QILAI and XIAQU. They are
discussed in terms of holisticity and dynamicity. ZHE is described as a
durative marker; ZAI, a progressive marker; QILAI, an inceptive marker, and
XIAQU, a continuative marker. Frequencies of different situation types that
take these markers in the corpus are provided.

Chapter 6 Aspect Marking in English and Chinese: This chapter is a
crosslinguistic comparison of aspect uses in English and Chinese. The
authors consider situation aspect to be universal, and therefore focus on
the language-specificity of VIEWPOINT aspect in different languages. The
approach adopted is to look at aspect uses in English texts and their
Chinese translations. Frequency counts and examples of corresponding
translations are provided in each section. Different text types are also
shown to demonstrate distinct uses of aspectual expressions.

Chapter 7 From the Study of Aspect to Contrastive Grammar: This chapter is
a summary of the major findings. It emphasizes the methodological advantage
of the corpus-based approach, and its contributions to Chinese linguistics
and aspect theory in general.


This work aims at being the first attempt to study aspect from both a
theory-driven approach and a corpus-driven approach. The corpus evaluations
of theoretical claims are suggested to make the accounts more "realistic."
It proposes a two-component model, looking at both situation and viewpoint
aspects in Chinese. It provides detailed descriptions of event composition
at different levels. After presenting data of both levels and from English
and Chinese, it is suggested that situation aspect is a semantic notion,
while viewpoint aspect is a grammatical notion. The former is more
universal while the latter is language-specific.

This is a work with great ambitions. The attempt to marry the theoretical,
intuition-based approaches with corpus data is respectable. The scope of
discussion on Chinese aspect is comprehensive. It proposes a model of
aspect as a route map for the whole book, then explores each component of
the model in great detail. This proposed model covers both situation aspect
and viewpoint aspect, which in previous literature have often been treated
separately. The authors provide detailed reviews and discussions of the
semantic features (such as dynamicity, result, boundedness, etc.) they
adopted to describe events. They have also provided detailed frequency
distributions obtained from corpora regarding what situation types co-occur
with which viewpoint aspects. It is worth noting that statives are divided
into individual-levels and stage-levels and discussed separately
throughout. This uncovers the many distinct behaviors of the two kinds of
statives and is a great contribution. The coverage of different viewpoint
aspects in Mandarin Chinese is very extensive. In addition to the
frequently discussed aspect markers such as LE, GUO, ZHE, ZAI, it includes
verbal reduplication and resultative compounds in the perfective section,
and QILAI and XIAQU in the imperfective section. This book-length study of
Chinese aspect has extended the scope of our knowledge. The use of corpus
data is a worthy attempt.

While X&M's work is extensive in demonstrating realistic data from the
corpus to verify previous theoretical claims, they have not provided a work
that is ambitious on the theoretical side. The two-level model seems more
like a classification system than a theory of aspect that has predictive
power. With interesting data presented, the readers are left with a desire
to know more about WHY. Why do certain semantic features compose into
certain situation types? Why do we arrive at a certain event when certain
viewpoint aspects are added? Why does the same aspect marker (LE for
example) arrive at different eventuality when it occurs with verbs of
different situation types? Is there a unified explanation for the different
semantic compositions? It would be nice if X&M had dug further to make
their descriptions more explanatory.

In this book, the authors often give more descriptions than explanations.
The twelve rules provided in the section on situation aspect (3.4) are
purely descriptive. For example, Rule 4 in the core-level composition is a
descriptive translation of the facts, with a flat syntactic structure:

Rule 4: NP + Verb[-telic] + NP => Core[-telic] (p.64)

The event compositions with different arguments are represented as
independent rules (e.g. rules 3, 4, & 5). These rules have not captured the
fact that event composition is hierarchically structured. Compositionality
works by first computing the telicity of the verb and its internal
argument(s), and then the external arguments, and then the adjuncts. This
negligence has led to the rules being flat and not capturing the patterns
of compositionality level by level.

The discussion of the lexical level of situation aspect follows the three
levels proposed by van Valin (forthcoming). However, it is unclear why
these levels should be distinguished in X&M's model of aspect. A different
(and more interesting) pursuit is to look for the commonality of event
composition in these different levels and distinguish the levels only when
it is justified; that is, only when empirical data show that eventuality is
composed differently in different levels should we see them as distinct.
The same critique extends to the distinction between the lexical and
sentential levels of composition.

The crosslinguistic comparison using a translation corpus is a novel
attempt. However, that chapter (Chapter 6) is replete with numbers and
descriptions, but not enough explanations. The readers may easily get lost
without seeing the big picture.

In addition to the explanatory inadequacies, certain typological
generalizations that the authors made were not justified. X&M claims that
"situation aspect is basically a cognitive-semantic concept while viewpoint
aspect is a grammatical concept (p.30)." This claim, though repeated
several times in the monograph (e.g. in Chapter 6--p.245), has not been
clearly justified. Both situation and viewpoint aspects have their semantic
and syntactic dimensions. If we look at the composition of situation aspect
at the level of the verb and its arguments, it is syntactic.
(Compositionality is itself syntactic in nature.) The viewpoint aspect,
though overtly indicated by aspect markers, also has to be interpreted
semantically. The semantic vs. grammatical distinction of situation and
viewpoint aspects is the result of the authors using more semantic notions
to describe situation aspect and more syntactic notions for the viewpoint
aspect. This is the result of their methodological artifact rather than of
any inherent differences between the two.

1. The features chosen to distinguish different situation types are not of
the same nature. Why are these features chosen (apart from the fact that
they were often mentioned in previous literature)? Does the inclusion of
these features of very different natures in one theory unnecessarily
complicate the explanation? For instance, [result] is inherently a
causative notion which is very different from [dynamic]. Should they be
discussed in one single account?

2. In 3.4.2, the discussion of event composition of verbs and their nominal
arguments, the NPs were only considered on the basis of [+/-count]. In
fact, the plurality of the NPs can also affect the telicity of the
predicates. For example, "I ate a cookie" sounds more telic than "I ate 60
cookies" since you can more easily add "for 10 minutes" to the latter than
to the former. This [plurality] dimension is missing in the discussion,
since the NPs are both [+count].

3. Some of the rules discussed in 3.4 involve coercion (Rule 8 & Rule 10).
Coercion is a different semantic process, and should be treated separately
from the other rules which are purely based on syntactic-semantic composition.

4. In Chapter 3, a general theory on the different functions of LE is still
missing. Why does LE mean differently in different cases? Is there a
unified account?

5. On p.200, the authors discussed the interchangeability of ZHE and LE. In
fact, these cases do not show that ZHE and LE are interchangeable. They
just show that ZHE and LE can both be used to describe different aspects of
the same event. We use different linguistic devices to describe the same
scenes all the time. This does not mean these devices should have anything
in common. Therefore, the discussion in 5.1.7 does not seem necessary.

This work contributes to our understanding of Chinese aspect by providing
abundant corpus data, comprehensive reviews and discussions of various
issues related to aspect and eventuality. Students of Chinese aspect and
eventuality will be inspired by this contribution.


Smith, C. (1991, 1997). The Parameter of Aspect. Dordrecht: Kluwer.

van Valin, R. (forthcoming). The Syntax-Semantics-Pragmatics Interface: An
Introduction to Role and Reference Grammar. Cambridge University Press.


Chienjer Lin is currently A Ph.D. candidate in the Joint Ph.D. Program in
Linguistics and Anthropology at the University of Arizona. He has worked on
resultative constructions and aspect incorporation in Mandarin Chinese
(2003 WECOL Proceedings), and done research on lexical access and semantic
representation, and tonal phonology. Currently, he is writing his
dissertation on processing relative clauses in Chinese and other
typologically distinct languages. His research interests include language
processing, syntax-semantics interface (e.g. eventuality & light verb
constructions), evolutionary foundations of language, linguistic theory,
and linguistic typology.