On pseudo-categories, or why Chinese seems more difficult than it is

In what is taken by some to be the best reference grammar of Chinese in English, Yip Po-Ching & Don Rimmington’s “Chinese. A Comprehensive Grammar“(Routledge, orig. 2004), the authors grant special importance to a distinction they (and, apparently, nobody else) makes between ‘narrative’ and ‘expository’ sentences.

According to the authors, “A narrative sentence reports an event or incident that has already taken place, and it generally recounts that somebody (or something) carried out (or caused) an action or that something happened to someone (or something) on some past occasion.” [p. 297]

‘Expository’ sentences, in their turn, are said to be “factual statements that offer some form of explanation relating to actual situations or experiences” and one of their salient properties is that the aspect markers “le” and “zai4” <…> do not occur in them….” [p. 306].

For example, always according to the authors [p. 311], sentence a) is ‘narrative’, whereas sentence b) is ‘expository’:

a)      a) Wo3men qu4le shang4hai3 (= We went to Shanghai)[authors’ translation]

b)      b) Wo3men qu4guo shang4hai3 (= We’ve been to Shanghai)[authors’ translation]

And they further explain [p. 312] “The contrast here is plain: “le” in the first sentence indicating the completion of an action implies a past event and is therefore narrative, whereas “guo” in the second stating a past experience serves as an explanation and is therefore expository.”

However, as far as I can see, 1) BOTH a) and b) “report an event that has already taken place …. etc.”, 2) BOTH are “factual statements about actual situations or experiences” (of the subject “wo3men”), and 3) BOTH imply ‘completion’ of an action (= reaching Shanghai and being there). If you are skeptical about this latter claim, just imagine that sentence b) did NOT indicate completion of an event. If so, “*We’ve been to Shanghai but we never actually spent any time in Shanghai” should NOT be self-contradictory, but it IS, just as self-contradictory as “*We went to Shanghai but we did not quite get there”. Both derived sentences are equally self-contradictory, and they are because BOTH a) and b) imply completion of the events they respectively describe.

Thus, I see no difference whatsoever between a) and b) in ANY of those respects, but, in particular, I do not see at all how ANY of them can be said to offer an ‘explanation’ that the other one does not offer. As far as I can tell, the ‘narrative’ sentence a) could perfectly well be USED to indirectly offer an explanation if, say, a teacher asked two students “Why didn´t you two attend today’s seminar”, and sentence b) could perfectly well be USED to offer an explanation if somebody asked, say, “How come do you two know so much about Shanghai?”

And not only that. Of course, the OTHER types of sentences the authors claim exist, i.e., ‘descriptive’ ones like c) “wang2 lao3shi1 zai4bei4ke4” (= “Teacher Wang is preparing his/her lessons”) [p. 304] and ‘evaluative’ ones like d) “ta1 ying1gai1 ma3shang4 kai1shi3 gong1zuo4” (= “He must start work immediately”) [p. 310] could just as easily be USED to offer explanations, too. For example, c) would probably be fine if Wang2 Lao3shi1’s secretary wanted to explain why Professor Wang is not in his office when he should be, and I can easily imagine a lady saying d) to explain to her friends why her husband cannot go on holidays as they had planned to do. This should not surprise anybody: 'explanation' is a pragmatic category, it refers to one the numerous purposes for which sentences can be used, and there is no reason to expect any reliable correlation between the uses of expressions and their internal grammatical structure. When those two levels of description are confused what results is a mess.

In other words, although I am NOT saying that there are not OTHER differences between sentences a) and b), the differences Yip Po-Ching and D. Rimmington say there are seem to me highly questionable at best. As far as I can see, the ‘narrative’ vs. ‘expository’ distinction is an arbitrary, or, to be charitable, at least a rather obscure ad-hoc distinction that should be reconsidered along with all the 'explanations' that rest on it.

Yet, in the authors’ framework a) must crucially be classified as ‘narrative’ rather than ‘expository’, or the presence of “le” in it will constitute a flagrant counterexample to the authors’ further claim that the aspect marker “le” does NOT occur in expository sentences [p. 306]. And it is not just the rules for the use of “le” and “guo” that are involved: the authors resort to that suspicious opposition between ‘narrative’ and ‘expository’ sentences to support presumably fake explanations of several other facts I will not describe here.

Question: Am I missing something? If I am, I will be most grateful to anybody that can explain to me what, but in the meanwhile I suspect this is a good example of how ill-defined categories can make life much harder for learners of Chinese than it should be.

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I do not understand linguistics, can only provide a little help that to understanding these four sentences as native speaker.

1) 我们去了上海。

I can confirm "we" have completion of two actions (reaching Shanghai and being there) by this sentence. Whether leaving there, need to determine by the context.

2) 我们去过上海。

The actions of reaching, being there and leaving all completion.

3) 王老师在备课。

This sentence sets the teacher Wang in the behavior of preparing his/her lessons, and has not yet ended.

4) 他应该马上开始工作。

He ought to start work immediately. He will in that action but not start yet.

I hope the other Chinese can give their explanations to you.

Thank you!

Your glosses exactly correspond to what grammars explain about the main difference between "le" (well, that kind of "le" < "liao") and "guo". Crucially, the fact that somebody went to Shanghai sometime in the past and then, after whatever interval of time was involved, LEFT (and so at speech time is NO LONGER in Shanghai), as you observe, does NOT entail that the action of going to+visiting/living for some time in Shanghai was NOT completed. Even in the "guo" sentence the action WAS completed.

I will use two examples to illustrate the differences between "了" and "过".

1. 我的邻居赵骏耀在2001年的时候,他去了上海,和他奶奶一起生活,到现在已经在那里生活了13年了。

My neighbor Zhao JunYao, in 2001, he went to Shanghai, and to live with his grandmother, and now has lived there for 13 years.

2. 他的哥哥赵骏辉,在2008年的时候,去过上海,参加他的婚礼,并在那里玩了两周时间。

His brother Zhao JunHui, in 2008, has been to Shanghai, to attend his wedding, where he played for two weeks.

赵骏辉 is not lived in Shanghai. He always live in Zigong(自贡).

I'm not sure are you understand my meaning expressed or not.

Thank you!

Since the intricacies of the use of "le" vs. "guo" must have been discussed many times in this forum, our moderators might not approve of our going into them in this thread. Besides, if we were to discuss that issue, I would like to provide many more examples of cases in which why one or the other must be used is unclear to me, so I suggest we do not address that thorny issue here.

My only aim in this thread was to question the explanatory power of Po-Ching and Rimmington's distinction between 'narrative' and 'expository' sentences, and the presumed absence of "le" in the latter was only a marginal detail. In that respect, both your examples 1 and 2 might be considered 'narrative' from a 'functional' point of view: they recount events in the life of the Zhao brothers; nothing is gained by calling 1 'narrative' and 2 'expository'.

On the other hand, of course, although neither of your examples is by itself 'an explanation' of anything, both can be used to explain different aspects of the life, attitudes, etc. of the Zhao brothers, and, in that sense, both might qualify as 'expository' for Yip Po-Ching & Rimmington, but that is a vacuous move: it will not explain the distribution of "le" and "guo".

As far as I can tell, the presence of "le" in 1 is predictable to the extent JunYao's going to Shanghai and his living with his grandmother ever since is presented as a unified state of affairs (a chain of events) that continues to hold at speech time. As to why your example 2 contains "le" only in a subordinate clause, it is explicable, I suppose, if the speaker wants to underline only that Jun Hui has already benefited from being a guest on the occasion of his brother's wedding. His going to Shanghai is a past and 'closed' event (hence, "qu4guo"), whereas his having paid a two-week long visit to his brother, for some reason, remains an 'open' state of affairs that the context makes relevant even at speech time. I suspect, furthermore, that when you say he's always lived in Zigong you are using "live" in the strict sense of "having his official residence in (Zigong)", which does not exclude his having gone to Shanghai and spent two weeks of his life there (i.e., the 'completion' of the going-to-Shanghai event). And yet, 2 has "guo" in its first clause, which supports my guess that the "guo"/"le" difference does not turn on the opposition incomplete/complete event. But, anyway, since there surely is much more to say, I will check whether the matter has been discussed in this forum and, if not, I may ask a proper question about "guo" vs. "le" next time, :-).

Thank you very much.

秦先生,请问您这里的第3和4例是针对GongYiSi的哪个问题?我怕我的理解不够准。谢谢。

And not only that. Of course, the OTHER types of sentences the authors claim exist, i.e., ‘descriptive’ ones like c) “wang2 lao3shi1 zai4bei4ke4” (= “Teacher Wang is preparing his/her lessons”) [p. 304] and ‘evaluative’ ones like d) “ta1 ying1gai1 ma3shang4 kai1shi3 gong1zuo4” (= “He must start work immediately”) [p. 310] could just as easily be USED to offer explanations, too. For example, c) would probably be fine if Wang2 Lao3shi1’s secretary wanted to explain why Professor Wang is not in his office when he should be, and I can easily imagine a lady saying d) to explain to her friends why her husband cannot go on holidays as they had planned to do. This should not surprise anybody: 'explanation' is a pragmatic category, it refers to one the numerous purposes for which sentences can be used, and there is no reason to expect any reliable correlation between the uses of expressions and their internal grammatical structure. When those two levels of description are confused what results is a mess. 

这段里面的,你英文比较好,麻烦你再仔细给他解释一下。

I see what you're getting at Gong Yi Si - are 'narrative' and 'expository' *useful* labels. Would it be more helpful to call "quguo" 'life experience', for example.

Do you have a suggestion? What two labels might work better?

(As Qin Sheng suggests, it's basically a linguistic question. I don't know if many English speakers would have an opinion on, say, whether the present perfect in 'We've been to Shanghai' should be called 'tense' or 'aspect'!)

Cheers

James

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