Grammar Question about Aspect

August 19, 2010, 12:50 PM posted in General Discussion

I've been reading Li and Thompson's "Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar" (highly recommended even though it only provides examples in Pinyin) and I have a question about aspect.


The authors mention that certain verbs such as 死 and 忘 in Mandarin that  have an "endpoint  built into their meaning" often require a 了 as in:



They mention that such verbs cannot, by definition, have a durative aspect.  It is thus ungrammatical to say something like:


for the very natural English sentence "He is dying."  My question then is how do I translate such English sentences as the following:

He is dying.

(Recently) I am forgetting names.


I believe this topic is often discussed among Japanese linguists (as in the Japanese expression 死んでいる which literally translated means "dying" but technically means "dead") so I am hoping for some help from our Asian linguists out there (Pasden? Changye?).  Thanks!



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August 19, 2010, 01:42 PM

There's a coincidence. I've just got the same book, and I'm just up to the 'Aspect' chapter. I'll be dying to learn the answer.

BTW, it is not right to say 'Recently I am forgetting names'.

Instead: 'Recently I have been forgetting names'

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hmmm...maybe this is an American problem. I usually hate it when people clog up the boards with questions about English, but I can't help but ask if you also find the following ungrammatical:

"These days I'm drinking a lot more beer."

"This year he's gaining a lot of weight"

"Recently I'm studying Chinese"

...because they all sound fine to my Yankee ears.

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Your first two examples are fine. You have defined a time period - 'these days' and 'this year' which includes the present time, so it is perfectly OK to say 'I am (doing this thing).

In your 3rd example, your time word 'recently' does not include the present time, although it seems to be a common Americanism to do so. 'Recently' means 'in the near past'. You can't say that you are in the process of doing something that was in the past, and it does sound strange to me. Change 'recently' to 'at present', and it sounds fine.

But even using 'at present' is not good enough for the original example. This is because you are referring to multiple instances of 'forgetting', and you can't be 'in the process of' forgetting. 'I am' is only meant to be used to describe an event you are in the process of doing. Forgetting then forgetting again and again is not a process.

I would go so far as to say 'Recently I am forgetting names' sounds somewhat uneducated to me.

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August 19, 2010, 07:33 PM

While we wait for those who know to come along and answer your question ...

First, 1) I'm no linguist.  2) I don't understand aspect.
For what it's worth, I don't think of 死んでいる literally translated as dying; I think of it rather as 死んで/いる--having died, is (now lying) there. In Japanese 死ぬ, to die, is what happens at that very specific point, on that moment one passes from life to death. It's like what your book says about Chinese. It can not be durative, can not be something you are doing like "sleeping", or even something usually thought of as a momentary action like "winking".
... But that's an English-centric point of view isn't it. It may be very natural to you, but from our point of view the English expression He is dying is the one worth noting. The first time we come across this, we speakers of English as a foreign language (those of us coming from Japanese at least) learn that in English dying can mean the process, and that that can be as long as the final weeks or even months of a person's life.

[ Ironically I've just finished reading a book written in the 80s entitled よく死ぬことは、よく生きることだ (To Die Well is to Live Well). And I'm quite certain the author, a Japanese woman, by 死ぬ meant being pro-active in the process (= preparation leading up to the actual moment of death) because that's what the book is all about. While she was a very independent person and the values she expressed certainly her own, she was also very much influenced by western (American) thinking and attitudes. Often her views were new, quite unheard of, to most people in Japan in those days. Her refusal to become passive at the prospect of her own death from cancer or relinquish her independence and lifestyle in those days was "normal" in New York; in Japan in the 80s it was still not usual for a cancer patient to demand so much knowledge and say in the course of his/her own treatment, to remain as open and active as she was until the end. Anyway, it is also possible to use 死ぬ to refer to the process, to treat death as if it were something we do actively, I think particularly with an adverb(ial phrase)--自分らしく死ぬために ・ よく死ぬということ, etc. Most regularly, to refer to the process we would say things like 死を迎える, as opposed to 死ぬ. ]

OK so much for Japanese.  Nciku has this on "dying".

FYI Faulkner's As I Lay Dying has been translated to 《在我弥留之际》, but of course 弥留之际 is literary.

Chinese must have numerous commonly-used euphemistic expressions to refer to someone who "is dying".

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if my Chinese as a second language is ever 10% as good as your English as a second language, I'll be thrilled. Thanks for the input! Of course I wasn't trying to imply any English chauvinism by saying that the expression "is dying" is somehow natural, but I was curious about how to express this in Chinese, as when someone has a terminal illness. Thanks again for your explanation.

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Hey fourmoredays thanks for the (undeserved) compliment. No I didn't think you were being a chauvinist and I hope you get your question answered well (ah good, John replied). I just like to remind all of us learners sometimes--not you personally--often when it comes to our mother tongue we don't have the distance, the perspective that would let us recognize when something has more to do with how our mother tongue works than with a characteristic of our target language.

I guess the tricky part with English and Chinese is that some idiomatic expressions in English happen to translate to Chinese pretty directly, so it might be easy to come under the illusion that Chinese should mostly work for us as English does (not saying I think that's a problem you personally have). And I'm sure all of us learners with other first languages do the same thing.

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August 20, 2010, 03:24 AM

Good question.

The answers are:

1. There are many ways to say "dying" in Mandarin. Check out all these sentences:

Basically, the way to say it is "will die soon."  The easiest, most colloquial (and perhaps least sensitive) way would be 快要死了.

2. As for "forgetting names," you just say "recently I frequently forget names": 最近我总是忘记人的名字。