Chinese grammar has a way of lulling you into a false sense of security.
No verb conjugation?
No singulars or plurals?
Subject-verb-object word order?
Chinese grammar? Easy peasy.
That is, until you’ve built up a solid base of language building blocks. Until then, perhaps you’ve been able to ignore the little words sneaking in around the edges, warning you that Chinese grammar and English grammar are worlds apart.
Once you start pushing towards intermediate Chinese, though, these little words get harder and harder to ignore. One that’s tripped up more than one language learner along the way is 把 (bǎ).
In today’s post, we’ll get you started with the basics: what 把 (bǎ) sentences look like, why they’re used, and most importantly, how you can start getting yourself in the habit of using them.
What does the 把 (bǎ) construction look like?
There are two things about 把 (bǎ) that make it especially tricky for language learners. One is that it has no equivalent in English grammar. The other is that it completely changes the order of the sentence.
When you use 把 (bǎ), you have to remember to put your object before the verb. Since English speakers just don’t plan their sentences that way, it takes some getting used to.
As a fairly simple example, take the following sentence.
她把饺子吃掉了。(Tā bǎ jiǎozi chī diào le.) “She ate up the dumplings.”
This follows the basic order of a 把 (bǎ) sentence:
Subject (她 tā “she”) + 把 (bǎ) + Object (饺子jiǎozi “dumplings”) + Verb (吃掉了chī diào le “ate up”)
Note that I didn’t choose such a complicated verb just to show off my mad grammar skills—we’ll come back to this in a bit.
Why do I have to learn the 把 (bǎ) construction?
You mean besides the fact that you want to learn to speak Chinese like a native, right?
There are a lot of sentences in Chinese that sound a little better, a little more natural, if you use 把 (bǎ), but if you don’t feel like making your brain hurt, you can get by without it.
That said, Chinese has at least one common verb where you just can’t use normal English word order: 放 (fàng) “put” requires you to use 把 (bǎ).
Here’s an example:
我把书放在桌子上。(Wǒ bǎ shū fàng zài zhuōzi shàng.) “I put the book on the table.”
What is the 把 (bǎ) construction good for?
Now that you know what a 把 (bǎ) sentence looks like, and you’re convinced (I hope) that you won’t be able to ignore it forever, we’ll look more carefully at when and why you might want to use 把 (bǎ).
First, the word itself—the clever Chinese student might note the hand radical in the word 把 (bǎ). Use this as a mnemonic—把 (bǎ) sentences are often used in situations where you could say, figuratively at least, “The subject took the object and did something to it.” (This is, in fact, the likely historical source of the 把 (bǎ) construction.)
Remember our original sentence?
她把饺子吃掉了。(Tā bǎ jiǎozi chī diào le.) “She ate up the dumplings.”
You could express roughly the same meaning by saying “She took the dumplings and ate them up.”
Talk about what happened to something
Sentences with 把 (bǎ) are better answers to the question “What did the subject do to the object?” or “What happened to the object?” rather than to “What did the subject do?”
In our dumpling sentence, we can check: “She ate up the dumplings” is a good answer to “What did she do to the dumplings” or “What happened to the dumplings?”
What this means is that you can’t describe just any old situation with a 把 (bǎ) sentence. You only use 把 (bǎ) when the object has undergone some change, or when it has been strongly affected by the action. (Grammar books will sometimes refer to this as affectedness or disposal.)
The more strongly the object has been affected, the more likely it is that it will show up in a 把 (bǎ) sentence. This is why our example sentence uses 吃掉了(chī diào le) “ate up” and not just 吃了(chī le) “ate”: 吃掉了(chī diào le) “ate up” emphasizes more clearly the effect of the verb on the object.
In fact, while 吃了(chī le) “ate” is perfectly happy being used without 把 (bǎ), if you try to use 吃掉了(chī diào le) “ate up” without 把 (bǎ), native Chinese speakers may find it cringe-worthy.
In most 把 (bǎ) sentences:
- You can see the result of the verb’s action. The action is complete.
- The entire object has experienced the effect. The effect is complete.
Let’s think dumplings again. In our sentence, the dumplings have undergone a change (from not eaten to eaten). The result is clear (they’re gone), and all of the dumplings (not just some of them) have been eaten.
There are certain verbs that are especially well-suited to being used with 把 (bǎ) because they always describe this type of event. Besides 放 (fàng, “put”), some other common examples are 卖 (mài, “sell”), 买 (mǎi, “buy”), and verbs that combine with成 (chéng, “become”) such as 变成 (biàn chéng “turn into”) and 翻成 (fān chéng, “translate”).
我把我的电脑卖了。(Wǒ bǎ wǒde diànnǎo màile.) “I sold my computer.”
他把水变成酒。(Tā bǎ shuǐ biàn chéng jiǔ.) “He turned the water into wine.”
Because Chinese verbs, mercifully, aren’t conjugated to show things like time or completion, plain old verbs almost never show up in a 把 (bǎ) sentence. The verb in a 把 (bǎ) sentence is usually followed by another word that helps express how or where the action was carried out, or even clearly shows that the action is complete.
Some examples that show completion are the complements 好 (hǎo) and 完 (wán), as in:
我们把作业做好了。(Wǒmen bǎ zuòyè zuò hǎo le.) “We finished the homework.”
他把苹果吃完了。(Tā bǎ píngguǒ chī wán le.) “He ate the apple.”
Verbs followed by a directional complement are also tend to play nicely with 把 (bǎ) sentences. One example:
她把桃子摘下来了。(Tā bǎ táozi zhāi xiàlái le.) “She picked the peach.”
On the other hand, verbs that describe events like thinking, feeling, or perceiving, such as 知道 (zhīdào “know”), 喜欢 (xǐhuān “like”), and 看 (kàn “look”), are almost never used with 把 (bǎ) because the object remains unaffected. “She took the dumplings and liked them”—strange, right? So no 把 (bǎ) allowed.
Talk about what happened to a known thing
Because of the special meaning of a 把 (bǎ) sentence, only certain kinds of objects can be used in them. In most 把 (bǎ) sentences,
- The speaker knows what the object is that’s being talked about.
- The listener knows what the object is that’s being talked about.
(For the grammar book readers out there, this is another way of saying that the object needs to be either definite or generic.)
If you’re an English speaker, think about whether you could use the word “the” with the object. If you can’t, 把 (bǎ) isn’t going to work.
Suppose you wanted to tell your coworker what you ate for lunch. In this situation, you can tell your coworker
我吃饺子了。(Wǒ chīle jiǎozi.) “I ate dumplings.”
我把饺子吃了。(Wǒ bǎ jiǎozi chīle.) “I ate the dumplings.”
—unless your coworker already knows which dumplings you’re talking about: “I made some dumplings last night and brought them to work today. I meant to share but they were so delicious. So I ate all the dumplings. Sorry.” In that case, go ahead and use 把 (bǎ).
How can I make a habit of using the 把 (bǎ) construction?
Knowing how to put a sentence together grammatically is important, but it won’t get you any further than an A on an exam unless you can remember to use the grammar when the time is right. We’ll wrap up our post with some ideas to help you practice so that you can make that happen.
Walk yourself through your daily routine using 把 (bǎ)
As you get ready in the morning, there are all sorts of things you do to something else. Try talking your way through your routine in Chinese (and if you don’t live alone, consider keeping the conversation in your head!)
我把脸洗干净了。(Wǒ bǎ liǎn xǐ gānjìng.) “I washed my face clean.”
我把鸡蛋煎好了。(Wǒ bǎ jīdàn jiān hǎole.) “I finished frying the eggs.”
我把钥匙放在口袋里。(Wǒ bǎ yàoshi fàng zài kǒudài lǐ.) “I put my keys in my pocket.”
Practice with a language partner
把 (bǎ) sentences work nicely with imperatives, or ordering someone to do things. Have your language partner boss you around for a while, while you get up and carry out the actions.
把灯打开。(Bǎ dēng dǎkāi.) “Turn on the light.”
把笔放在椅子上。(Bǎ bǐ fàng zài yǐzi shàng.) “Put your pen on the chair.”
把碗擦好。(Bǎ wǎn cā hǎo.) “Wipe the dishes.” (Ok, maybe not.)
Tell a story—with feeling!
Chinese speakers don’t just use 把 (bǎ) sentences at random—they have a reason. And one of those reasons is to make a conversation sound more dramatic. (There’s a whole book about this, by Zhuo Jing-Schmidt, should you be looking for a very long diversion from your studies.)
So think of something exciting that happened recently. And then think about how you could tell a simple version in Chinese—with a 把 (bǎ) sentence:
昨天我去商城。(Zuótiān wǒ qù shāngchéng.) “I was going into the mall yesterday.”
有人碰了我一下。(Yǒurén pèngle wǒ yīxià.) “Someone bumped into me.”
我转眼看。(Wǒ zhuǎnyǎn kàn.) “I turned and looked.”
小偷把我的钱包偷走了。(Xiǎotōur bǎ wǒ de qiánbāo tōu zǒu le.) “A thief had stolen my purse!”
These tips should get you well on your way to a good understanding of 把 (bǎ). But if you still find 把 (bǎ) a little confusing, don’t worry. You’re in good company. Chinese syntacticians (people who study Chinese grammar for a living—and yes, they do exist) have written pages upon pages about 把 (bǎ). And they still can’t even agree about what part of speech it is.
Fortunately for us, though, you can use 把 (bǎ) perfectly without ever having an answer to that question.
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