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How to interpret structurally ambiguous sentences such as "他誰都怕"?
asked Jan 31, 2018 in Questions about Chinese Grammar by admin (25,520 points) | 584 views

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The sentence 他誰都怕 (t¯a sh´ei d¯ou p`a) has two different readings, depending on specific structural analysis for t¯a (他) and sh´ei (誰). The two NPs, t¯a (他) and sh´ei (誰), at the beginning of the sentence can be analyzed as having different functions prescribed by the Chinese phrase-structure rules and discourse factors.

To begin with, when t¯a (他) is an undergoer and sh´ei (誰) is a doer, the sentence should be interpreted as "everybody is afraid of him." t¯a (他) is fronted to take up the sentence-initial position as a topic.

 However, when sh´ei (誰) is an undergoer and t¯a (他) is a doer, the sentence means "He is afraid of everybody." In this case, sh´ei (誰) is fronted as a secondary topic for the emphasis “afraid of everybody.” 

In sum, the basic Chinese word order can be altered as long as it is pragmatically motivated and syntactically well formed.

Reference: Chinese: a linguistic introduction by Chao Fen Sun

answered Jan 31, 2018 by admin (25,520 points)
edited Apr 25, 2018 by admin

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