Linguists claim that subordination is universal across the world languages.

Subordination in English looks can be understood by looking into these examples:

I know a person who has a dog

I know a person who has a dog which barks at a cat

I know a person who has a dog which barks at a cat which lives in a house

I know a person who has a dog which barks at a cat which lives in a house which is located in a city which ....

You get the idea...

I would like to know how could we translate the longest English sentence from the examples into Chinese (with preserving the subordination), that is, leave everything in one sentence. like:



I am no Chinese nor English native speaker, but my intuition is telling me that this sentence, however unnatural, sounds more naturally in English than in Chinese, is that the case?

I even have doubts if subordination really exists in Chinese...

  • 2
    To be clear, "subordination" as usually defined does not require long sentences like your later examples. The first example with only one relative clause ("I know a person who has a dog") is considered to be an example of subordination in English. The following question about about embedding/recursion in Chinese might be related to yours: How did Chinese recursion evolve? Commented May 15, 2019 at 14:06

2 Answers 2


Just keep spamming 的-clauses. To use your example:





My own judgement is that the longer sentences don't sound natural in Chinese (because of a well known phenomenon where centre-embedding is difficult to process) whereas the first sentence you provide sounds perfectly fine structurally. (It would be improved by changing 知道 to 认识 and 有 to 养 though.)

I'd also like to echo sumelic's comment on the meaning of subordination.


Although from a mechanistic point of view it may be appealing to think that we can simply 'spam 的-clauses' as suggested in the other answer, it is simply not idiomatic Chinese, and you will never find a native Chinese speaker speak that way.

In my experience, Chinese speakers typically only have up to one level of true arbitrary subordination, and up to one extra level that is short (such as "三个有“包括”含义的单词的区别"). The reason for this is presumably the same as why nested center-embedding is rare in all natural languages, namely that humans have a finite working memory and cannot easily store too much information for too long. The '的-clause' is the only way to obtain true grammatical subordination in Chinese, so it similarly faces the issue of requiring more working memory for each additional subordinating clause.

Instead, Chinese speakers (especially if they do on-the-fly translation) will break the sentence up into sufficiently short pieces, strung together not by grammatical subordination but by conjunctions (and those pieces may even be complete sentences):


I know someone, whose dog often barks at a cat that lives in a house in the city, and that city ...

Note also that "知道" is for knowing information and not for knowing people, whereas "认识" is for recognizing things or people. I also took the liberty of adding "经常" (often) because that is implicitly suggested by the English "which barks at a cat ..." (habitually).

  • Arguably, even that example I quoted is not subordination, since it parses as ( ( 三 个 ( 有 “包括” 含义 的 ) 单词 ) 的 区别 ), and the second "的" just has a possessive function, but it feels to me that Chinese do in fact think of "的" as indicating a property, whether or not to indicate that X belongs to A (A的X) or that X has property Q (Q的X). So at least in my mind they are the same kind of construction, and all that matters is whether they are short enough for the listener or reader to mentally hold until the property can be applied to the correct noun phrase.
    – user21820
    Commented Oct 21, 2019 at 18:01

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