Chinese (Mandarin) translation of my question may be an example of the sentence structure that both English and Chinese share:

[Is there any] [sentence structure] (that) [English has but Chinese (Mandarin) does not]?
[有没有什么][句子结构][英语有但是汉语(普通话)没有]?
  • She's not a trained linguist, but my wife still claims that multiple embedding is rare in Chinese, and many of the center-embedded sentences need to be rearranged to parataxis. – Ron Maimon Mar 24 '12 at 8:50
  • @Ron Maimon It's quite true. Thx! – syg Mar 24 '12 at 18:21
  • If it's true, maybe you can answer my question on Chinese embedding--- linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/1598/… . Do you know how true it is in the 20th/19th/18th centuries? When did center embedding first appear approximately? Is it still going on, are the number of embedding constructions increasing? I wonder about this endlessly, and my wife lost patience with me on this a long time ago. – Ron Maimon Mar 26 '12 at 7:44
  • @Ron Maimon I will ask my friend who is majoring in ancient Chinese, maybe on this Saturday. :D – syg Mar 27 '12 at 16:13
  • any news .....? – Ron Maimon Apr 2 '12 at 16:52

Consider preposition stranding, which is possible in English but not in Mandarin:

the girlfriend I broke up with

*跟分手的女朋友

*gen  fenshou de nvpengyou
with breakup DE girlfriend

A resumptive pronoun is obligatory in Mandarin but impossible in English:

*the girlfriend I broke up with her

跟她分手的女朋友

gen ta fenshou de nvpengyou
with her breakup DE girlfriend

There are several other cases such that extraction out of a constituent is grammatical in English but not in Mandarin. In other words, many phrases in Mandarin including 把+NP and the aforementioned prepositional phrases seem to be extraction islands.

EDIT: I can also think of a case of the converse (a Mandarin syntactic construction which cannot be rendered in English without some circumlocution).

  • thx for your answer! but the example of “跟她分手的女朋友” seems not to be a valid sentence for me (I'm a native Chinese). The possible translation of "the girlfriend I broke up with" is "已经跟我分手了的女朋友". In real life, I would actually say "已经分手了的女朋友". The "跟我" is quite superfluous. – syg Mar 24 '12 at 18:15

As jogloran pointed out, preposition stranding (and how you can't do it in Chinese) is a good source of these. Here are several examples of relative clauses where the object of a preposition is being pulled out. Note that the Chinese grammar doesn't match the English (because the obvious way to do it is ungrammatical):

  1. carry a bag for X

    I'm carrying this bag for him.

    我帮他拿这个包。 I help him grab this CL bag

    The person I carried this bag for is gone.

    我帮他拿这个包的人走了。 I help him grab this CL bag REL person leave PFV

  2. come back from X

    I just came back from France.

    我刚从法国回来。 I just from France return

    The country I just came back from uses the Euro.

    我刚从那里回来的国家用欧元。I just from there return REL country use Euro

  3. Literally hit a phone for X

    I called Apple (the computer company).

    我给苹果公司打了电话。 I give apple company hit PFV telephone

    The company I called makes computers.

    我打了电话的公司是制造电脑的。 I hit PFV telephone REL company is make computer

  4. poke your arm with X

    I poked your arm with a chopstick.

    我用筷子戳你的胳膊。 I use chopstick poke you POS arm

    The chopstick I poked your arm with is on the floor.

    我用来戳你胳膊的筷子在地上。 I use-come poke you (POS) arm REL chopstick located floor-on

  5. sell my bike to X

    I sold him my bike.

    我给他卖我的自行车。 I give him sell I POS bike

    The person I sold my bike to also lives in China.

    我把自行车卖给(他?)的那个人也住在中国。I OBJ-Marker bike sell give (him?) REL that CL person also live in China

It seems there are a few different grammatical strategies:

  • Delete the preposition (as in #3); the meaning is still clear from the context.

  • Use a "dummy variable" as the object of the preposition (他 = he in #1 and #5, 那里 = there in #2)

  • Reverbalization of the preposition using 来 = come (e.g., #4)

Notes on glosses:

CL = Classifier, as in the measure words in Chinese (e.g., 个).

REL = Relativizer; the 的 particle which links adjectives or relative clauses to nouns.

PFV = Perfective; the 了 particle which marks for completedness of verbs.

  • 1
    Glosses of the Mandarin text would be a great help for those who don't read Mandarin but would still like to follow along. – Joe Jun 18 '12 at 18:22
  • @Joe I added them. I don't have a lot of experience glossing Mandarin, so feel free to fix up the abbreviations for the particles if you so desire. – Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 19 '12 at 13:55

English participial phrases and absolute clauses come to mind.

Take this sentence in English, for instance:

Seeing the yellow light, I slowed down.

The Mandarin equivalent would need to be something like this:

[Wǒ] [kàn-dào             huángdēng    de  shíhòu] [màn   le       xiàlai].
 I  see-EXTENT-complete  yellow light  MOD  time   slow  ASP-perf  EXTENT-down

It could be loosely stated as two uncoordinated verbal phrases, but they would be more disconnected than the English construction.

[Wǒ] [kàn-dào               huángdēng],   [wǒ] [màn  le         xiàlai].
 I    see-EXTENT-complete  yellow light    I   slow  ASP-perf   EXTENT-down

Which is better rendered in English as 'I saw the yellow light; I slowed down.'

A sentence using an absolute construction in English, on the other hand, does not always make sense uncoordinated in Mandarin.

Weather permitting, I will see you tomorrow.

The conditional needs to be stated in Mandarin:

[Tiānqì] [yǔnxǔ   de huà],   [míngtiān  jiàn].
weather   permit    if        tomorrow   see

Which is more like "In the case that weather permits, I will see you tomorrow" in English.

Notes on glosses:
MOD - modifier; makes the preceding phrase modify the following phrase
EXTENT - extent marker; -complete indicates completion, and -down indicates gradual completion.
ASP - aspect marker; -perf indicates perfective.

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