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date: 25 June 2024

Chinese Semanticsfree

Chinese Semanticsfree

  • Haihua PanHaihua PanChinese University of Hong Kong
  •  and Yuli FengYuli FengFudan University


Cross-linguistic data can add new insights to the development of semantic theories or even induce the shift of the research paradigm. The major topics in semantic studies such as bare noun denotation, quantification, degree semantics, polarity items, donkey anaphora and binding principles, long-distance reflexives, negation, tense and aspects, eventuality are all discussed by semanticists working on the Chinese language. The issues which are of particular interest include and are not limited to: (i) the denotation of Chinese bare nouns; (ii) categorization and quantificational mapping strategies of Chinese quantifier expressions (i.e., whether the behaviors of Chinese quantifier expressions fit into the dichotomy of A-Quantification and D-quantification); (iii) multiple uses of quantifier expressions (e.g., dou) and their implication on the inter-relation of semantic concepts like distributivity, scalarity, exclusiveness, exhaustivity, maximality, etc.; (iv) the interaction among universal adverbials and that between universal adverbials and various types of noun phrases, which may pose a challenge to the Principle of Compositionality; (v) the semantics of degree expressions in Chinese; (vi) the non-interrogative uses of wh-phrases in Chinese and their influence on the theories of polarity items, free choice items, and epistemic indefinites; (vii) how the concepts of E-type pronouns and D-type pronouns are manifested in the Chinese language and whether such pronoun interpretations correspond to specific sentence types; (viii) what devices Chinese adopts to locate time (i.e., does tense interpretation correspond to certain syntactic projections or it is solely determined by semantic information and pragmatic reasoning); (ix) how the interpretation of Chinese aspect markers can be captured by event structures, possible world semantics, and quantification; (x) how the long-distance binding of Chinese ziji ‘self’ and the blocking effect by first and second person pronouns can be accounted for by the existing theories of beliefs, attitude reports, and logophoricity; (xi) the distribution of various negation markers and their correspondence to the semantic properties of predicates with which they are combined; and (xii) whether Chinese topic-comment structures are constrained by both semantic and pragmatic factors or syntactic factors only.


  • Language Families/Areas/Contact
  • Semantics

Semantics is a relatively young field in the study of linguistics, since the earlier approaches to language such as historical linguistics or anthropological linguistics focused more on phonetics, phonology and morphology. In the late 20th century, as the interaction between linguists and philosophers—in particular, logicians—became more active, semantic researchers were equipped with more theoretical tools, such as first order logic, Boolean algebra, and lattice theory, to name just a few. Also, with the rise of the cognitive approach to language—in particular, generative semantics—the role of semantics in the structure of language was valued more. Moreover, how semantics can be integrated into the architecture of language prompts the study of the interface between syntax and semantics.1

Most of the earlier breakthroughs in the history of semantic studies pertain to the English language, for instance, Montague’s (1970) seminal work relates formal languages to ordinary languages which are instantiated by a small fraction of the English data. Later on, semantic studies begin to integrate cross-linguistic data, which provides the theoretical hypotheses with more solid evidence; meanwhile, cross-language investigation also adds new insights into traditional theories. If one traces back to the development of semantic theories, a place for Chinese linguistics can surely be found. Major topics of semantic studies are all touched upon by research on the Chinese language and substantive progress has been made. At the same time, studies are also on the rise concerning the interfaces between semantics and syntax, pragmatics, as well as phonology.

This article aims to give an overview of the semantic theories crucial to the Chinese data as well as Chinese language phenomena that interest semanticists. It may not exhaust every existing study but aims to cover the essential issues in the field, which includes Chinese bare noun denotation (Section 1), quantification (Section 2), degree semantics of Chinese expressions (Section 3), polarity items (Section 4), conditionals and binding strategies (Section 5), tense and aspect (Section 6), long-distance reflexives (Section 7), negation (Section 8), and topic licensing (Section 9). The article is concluded with some brief comments on new directions in the study of semantics of Chinese, e.g., the study of interfaces.

1. Chinese Bare Noun Denotation

Chinese bare nouns can freely appear at argument positions and be interpreted in various ways. As can be observed from (1) through (3), the bare nouns in Chinese are construed as kind-denoting, indefinite, or definite. Also, Chinese nouns lack true number marking and are thus number-neutral, as illustrated in (2).




Based on the observation above, Chierchia (1998) proposes that Chinese nouns are argumental, and the reason why they can appear at argument positions freely without a determiner is because they are basically kind-denoting.2 The kind denotation can be shifted to the property denotation via a down operator, while the existential or definite interpretation of nouns is further derived by the implicit application of certain semantic operators, which helps explain the apparent diverse interpretations of bare nouns in the above examples. Chierchia also argues that Chinese nouns are essentially mass, drawing a parallel with English mass nouns, which he also takes to be kind-denoting. To achieve countability, classifiers are needed in Chinese to individuate the mass domain into multiple countable units (see also Krifka, 1989, 1995).

Krifka (1995, 2004) offers a different line of explanation with respect to the data above. He argues that Chinese nouns are by nature predicational and shifted to other interpretations via implicit semantic operations. More importantly, he proposes that Chinese nouns, lexically, do not encode a number argument and are thus uncountable. Classifiers, as the explicit instantiation of measurement, can map the relevant nominal domain into numbers. On the contrary, English count nouns encode a number argument which can be specified by a number word, and as a result, English count nouns can directly combine with number words without the help of classifiers.

Actually, the predicational use of bare nouns is very common in Chinese, as illustrated in (4), which lends support to Krifka’s property-denoting approach. In (4), the modified bare noun dayi ‘coat’ cannot combine with the predicate which specifically applies to kinds because dayi has to be property-denoting to combine with yangmao ‘wool’, as marked by the morpheme de, which indicates predicate modification in Chinese, according to Lu (2012). On the other hand, without de, the N-N construction is kind-denoting, as illustrated in (5). In this light, Lu argues that in Chinese N-N compounds, bare nouns refer to kinds and are conjoined at the level of kinds, while in N-de-N constructions, bare nouns denote property, as de is a marker of predicate modification in Chinese.



2. Quantification

The study on quantificational expressions plays a starring role in the development of the formal approach to natural language semantics (Partee, 2012). It sparks from the observation that noun phrases like John and everyone behave differently despite the fact that they apparently occupy the same syntactic slot (see Lakoff, 1968). The mismatch is resolved through the work of Montague (1973), which raises the type of quantifier expressions to a higher type of <<e,t>,t>, enabling quantifier expressions to take VP denotation as their argument and solve the problem of compositionality. Barwise and Cooper (1981) further propose a generalized treatment of all noun phrases as denoting sets of sets and uncover a number of significant properties of quantificational determiners. Essentially, quantificational devices are divided into D-quantification, i.e., quantificational forces instantiated by determiners, and A-quantification, which involves quantificational adverbs, auxiliaries, affixes, etc.

Chinese employs both devices: typical D-quantifiers include but are not restricted to cardinals, e.g., san-ge ‘three’, value judgment quantifiers, e.g., hen-duo ‘many’, proportionals, e.g., da-duoshu ‘a large majority of’, and universals, e.g., mei-(yi)-ge ‘every’; typical A-quantifier expressions include but are not limited to dou ‘all’, you-shihou ‘sometimes’, changchang ‘often’, cong-bu ‘never’, and zongshi ‘always.’ The rich inventory of quantifiers makes quantification the most intriguing topic in the semantics of Chinese, yielding the most research outputs.

2.1 Mandarin Dou: The Most Studied Quantificational Morpheme in Chinese

The universal quantifier ∀ is one of the two basic quantifiers in modern logic; thus, universal quantification is always the ‘protagonist’ on the stage of quantification. In Mandarin Chinese, the expressions related to universal quantification include adverbs dou and quan, which are rough counterparts of the English all, as well as ge, a rough counterpart of the English each, and nominal determiners like suoyou and quanbu, both of which can be translated into all in English, and mei ‘every.’ Among all these expressions, dou is the most studied. Also, since it many a time co-occurs with other quantificational expressions, it can be regarded as a thread connecting the studies of other Chinese quantifier expressions.

Lee’s (1986) pioneering work on quantification in Chinese treats dou as a universal quantifier that can induce a distributive interpretation, as in (6).


Lee’s observation is further supported by a number of studies (see Cheng, 1995; Jiang, 1998; Jiang and Pan, 2013; Liu, 1990; Pan, 2000, 2006; Wu, 1999; among others). Lin (1998a) observes that dou does not necessarily distribute down to atoms and formalizes dou as a generalized distributive operator exerting its universal force on covers in the sense of Schwarzschild (1996). His proposal is based on examples like (7).


In (7), the universal force of dou does not relate the VP property of being couples with each atomic individual in the noun phrase denotation; rather, the VP denotation is distributed over pairs of people, i.e., a cover generated by the plural set of tamen.

Aside from distributivity, dou can express exhaustivity and exclusiveness as in (8) and (9), respectively, and convey unexpectedness as in (8) and (10).




To countenance the facts above, one may assume that dou has different meanings in different sentences; as an alternative, one may adopt the unified approach which assigns dou a core meaning and derive the different uses from it. Jiang (1998), Pan (2006), and Jiang and Pan (2013) follow the second option. Assuming that dou is primarily a universal quantifier, they extend the universal quantificational approach to the various uses of dou by allowing it to quantify over different sorts of entities and by regulating the ways of quantificational mapping. For instance, in a scalar context like (3), dou operates on a set of ordered alternatives generated by the focused constituent marked by lian in the topic part of the sentence, i.e., the set of problems ordered by their levels of difficulty, and requires that all the alternatives satisfy the condition imposed by the rest of the sentence. The universal force endows the sentence with the interpretation: he works out the most difficult problem, let alone the less difficult ones.

Example (8) can be followed by a sentence as in (11), which seems to exclude the possibility of universal quantification over all the scalar alternatives.


To bypass the problem with universal quantification, one may simply assume that dou in these cases expresses the maximal level of unlikelihood or anti-expectation (Chen, 2008; Xiang, 2008). Yet, if one chooses to stick to the universal quantificational approach, one can then argue that the ordered alternatives to the surface proposition are conversational implicatures, which can be canceled or negated, and that dou actually exerts its universal force on implicatures as well as the surface proposition. In this sense, the analysis of dou puts a lot of weight on the level of pragmatics (see Jiang, 1998). To take the load off pragmatic factors, one may also argue that in scalar contexts like (8), dou universally quantifies over the worlds where the speaker’s belief for the actual world holds and relates each possible world with an alternative proposition to the surface proposition. In words, (8) then means that in all the possible worlds where the speaker’s belief for the actual world holds, some more likely alternative proposition(s) is (are) true, yet in the actual world, the surface proposition, which is the most unlikely, is true. In this sense, by expanding the range of entities on which it operates, dou still exerts its universal force at the level of semantics (see Feng, 2014).

2.2 Quantificational Mapping of Dou and Other Expressions

Example (9) is concerned with another interesting phenomenon of dou. In examples like (6), the quantificational mapping is regulated by syntactic structures, that is, the material left to dou is mapped to its domain, and the rest of the sentence to its scope. However, to yield the proper interpretation of (9), repeated below as (12), the mapping strategy cannot be the same as that for (6).


In (12), obviously, the singular subject ‘he’ cannot serve as the domain of dou. Instead, in such an example, the mapping of dou is constrained by the focus-background structure. Specifically, the focused constituent, i.e., mantou, is mapped to the scope, and the background, to the domain. Focus-background mapping can yield the exclusive reading over the focused constituent, meaning ‘For all the x that he eats, x has the property of steamed bums but not that of other things’ (see Pan, 2006, and Jiang & Pan, 2013, for more details).

In still other cases, the domain of dou is not contributed by any overt constituent in the sentence but substantiated with contextual information, as in (13).


According to Jiang (1998), in (13), the domain of dou is contributed by contextual information, that is, it quantifies over a set of salient situations where ‘he’ goes shopping for coats (see also Yuan (2007)). Beaver and Clark (2003) observe that the quantificational structure of the English always and only are different despite that they both encode universal quantification. Always operates on contextual information, while the mapping of only is regulated by the focus-background structure only. Taking the Chinese data of dou into consideration, we can further propose: the mapping strategies of quantificational expressions are diverse. In English, different quantifier words, i.e., always and only, follow their respective mapping rules, while in Mandarin Chinese, different strategies coincide in one single morpheme, i.e., dou, which is endowed with multiple uses or ‘meanings.’ In other words, the core semantics of dou is always universal quantification; however, since it can follow different mapping strategies and operate on domains of various sorts (e.g., individuals, ordered alternatives, worlds), dou-sentences are interpreted in different ways and take on various effects including distributivity, exhaustivity, exclusiveness, scalarity, etc. This is exactly what has been proposed in Pan (2006) and Jiang and Pan (2013), which assume a unified approach to the various uses of dou. Essentially, they argue that dou is basically a universal quantifier which can either operate on an ordered or unordered domain, and its quantificational structure is regulated by the following two rules:

P1: If the material left to dou can either serve as the quantificational domain or provide the quantificational domain through pragmatic inferences, it is mapped to the domain and the rest of the sentence, to the scope.

P2: If the sentence contains a contrastive focus in the comment, the focused constituent is mapped to the scope and the rest, to the restrictor, which induces an exclusiveness interpretation on the focus.

Only when dou quantifies over an ordered domain can the sentence in question display an effect of unexpectedness, and only when a dou-sentence is regulated by the P2 mapping rule can the sentence in question receive an exclusive interpretation on the focus, as illustrated in (12). The classification of the different uses of dou, as proposed by Jiang and Pan (2013), is shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Mapping Strategies of Dou.

DOU: universal quantifier

DOU1: quantify over an ordered domain

DOU1a: P1 mapping, [-exclusive]

DOU1b: P2 mapping, [+exclusive]

DOU2: quantifier over an unordered domain

DOU2a: P1 mapping, [-exclusive]

DOU2b: P2 mapping, [+exclusive]

For Mandarin dou, its quantificational structure can be determined by grammar, contextual information, or focus-background. Furthermore, the mapping of the Cantonese universal verbal affix –saai is even more interesting. Lee and Pan (2008) and Lee (2012) observe that the mapping of –saai, similar to dou, is concerned with both syntax and focus structure; moreover, the data show that the relevant interpretation involves two independent processes: the selection process and the mapping process. The selection process applies first to select the material with which –saai is associated according to the grammatical function hierarchy (henthforth GFH) in (14).


Then the mapping process comes into play. If the selected constituent is in focus, it is mapped to the scope of –saai, and the rest of the sentence to the domain, following the background-focus mapping; otherwise, the selected constituent is mapped to the domain, and the rest of the sentence to the scope. For example, in both (15) and (16), the affix –saai is associated with the direct object rather than the plural subject, according to GFH. However, their semantic mappings are determined by different factors: by background-focus in (15), with the focused direct object mapped to the scope, and by the lexical semantics of -saai in (16), with the unfocused direct object mapped to the domain. Hence only (15) has an exclusive reading on the focused direct object.



The Cantonese data are particularly interesting in that they blur the borderline between D-quantification and A-quantification. Conventionally, D-quantificational structures pertain to syntax, while A-quantificational structures pertain to information structure. However, the interpretation of –saai involves both syntax and information structure, which are at work at their respective stages: syntax determines the item for association, while information structure or the lexical semantics of the quantifier in question decides the mapping of the selected item. It should be noted that the quantificational mapping of Mandarin dou also echoes with the two-process approach to quantification related to Cantonese –saai, that is, when dou associates with a contrastive focus in the topic, its mapping is determined by the topic-comment structure, and when dou associates with a contrastive focus in the comment, its mapping is regulated by the background-focus structure, leading to the exclusiveness interpretation on the focus in question, as discussed earlier in this subsection. Although dou is associated with a contrastive focus in both cases, the mappings to the quantification structure are different depending on whether the focus in question is in the topic or the comment, and only the one in the comment leads to an exclusive interpretation of the associated item in question, which argues strongly for the separation of the selection process—association—from the mapping process for quantification including dou.

2.3 Dou’s Interaction with Various Noun Phrase Types

The research on dou also sheds light on noun phrase interpretations. In Mandarin, certain noun phrases, e.g., mei+(yi ‘one’)+CL+N ‘every N’ and suoyou/quanbu+ (de)+N ‘all N’, often require the support of dou to participate in universal quantification, while other noun phrases, e.g., daduoshu+(de)+N ‘a large majority of N’, henduo+de/CL+N ‘many N’, do not have to but still can co-occur with dou. Still other noun phrases, e.g., henshao+N ‘few N’, bu+dao+san+CL+N ‘fewer than three N’, however, normally cannot be quantified by dou. The dividing line between dou-quantifiable and non–dou-quantifiable noun phrases is never very clear. Lin (1998a), Wu (1999), as well as Cheng (2009) all generalize that dou can associate with strong noun phrases but not weak ones (see Milsark, 1979, for strong-weak distinction of quantifier expressions), despite the fact that they base their generalization upon different assumptions. Yet, the strong–weak distinction of noun phrases only partly coincides with dou-quantifiablity, for instance henduo ‘many’ and percentage phrases like baifenzhi sanshi ‘30%’ are weak quantifier determiners, yet they can still co-occur with dou.

Liu (1997) examines an almost exhaustive list of Mandarin noun phrases and proposes to tease apart dou-quantifiable and non–dou-quantifiable noun phrases by the notion of G(eneric)-specificity,3 arguing that only G-specific noun phrases are dou-quantifiable. A G-specific noun phrase can be scope-independent as well as induce inverse scope on the object position, while a non–G-specific noun phrase can never be scope-independent. Liu’s observation and generalization concerning the scope behaviors of noun phrases are inspiring, yet it should be noted that G-specificity, a semantic notion defined upon scope data, is used to explain the scope relation between dou and other noun phrases, which may involve some looping logic.

Lee et al. (1989) and Xu (2007) propose that dou can only associate with a noun phrase expressing a large cardinality relativized to the speaker or the context. Jiang (2011) further relates the subjectively large cardinality with the concept of exhaustivity, as discussed in Fiengo (2007). Essentially, if a noun phrase is exhaustive, then its domain is determined relative to all the entities in the denotation of the common noun contained in it; for instance, the domain of mei+CL+N phrases or suoyou+de+N phrases takes into consideration all the (contextually salient) entities in the denotation of N. Similarly, if one judges that the plurality in the denotation of daduoshu+de+N has some property, one needs to evaluate the proportion of the plurality with respect to the totality of N so as to make sure that it accounts for the majority. Phrases like shaoshu+(de)+N ‘a minority of N’ are not exhaustive since one need not evaluate the pluralities these phrases pick out relative to all the entities in the noun denotation; rather, one can just determine the quantity according to their subjective judgment or experience. However, phrases like mou+xie+N ‘some certain Ns’ are not exhaustive, yet they can co-occur with dou, as in (17).


It can be concluded from the discussion above that a consensus is not reached as to dou’s compatibility with noun phrases. If some semantic property could be singled out to help draw a dividing line between dou-quantifiable and non–dou-quantifiable noun phrases, then our understanding of the morpheme as well as the various noun phrase types would surely be deepened.

The last thing that needs to be mentioned is the concern of double quantification. Dou is conventionally analyzed as a universal quantifier which denotes a binary relation between the domain and the scope. In the meantime, dou can co-occur with various types of noun phrases which are also analyzed as generalized quantifiers denoting binary relations (Barwise & Cooper, 1981). The co-occurrence of multiple quantificational phrases may cause the problem of double quantification, that is, the same nominal domain is operated over by two quantifier words. For instance, in (18), both dou and the nominal determiner mei are associated with the domain of students, and both seem to contribute to the universal reading of the sentence.


To solve the problem of double quantification, one may assume that the determiner is not truly a generalized quantifier but a one-place operator which sums together all the students and provides the domain for dou. Also, it can be argued that mei contributes the universal force in (18) and dou is trivialized into a distributive operator which matches students with events of liking linguistics. Sections 2.4 to 2.6 present a more detailed discussion on the interaction of dou with other quantificational nominals.

2.4 More on Universal Nominals

As mentioned in Section 2.3, phrases headed by mei/suoyou/quanbu normally need the support of dou to express universal quantification, which are referred to as universal nominals below. Lin (1998a) gives a uniform analysis of such phrases as contributing pluralities to the domain of dou. Following Beghelli and Stowell’s (1997) feature-checking approach, Lin argues that universal nominals carry a strong [dist] feature, which must be checked off at the Spec of a distributive phrase whose head is occupied by dou. Yet language facts show universal nominals do not necessarily require the support of dou, as shown in (19).


Pan (2005) proposes that mei is ambiguous between a universal quantifier and a sum operator, that is, in cases like (19), mei is a universal quantifier with its own full-fledged quantificational structure, while in (20), mei is ambiguous between a universal quantifier and a sum operator.


In (20), when mei is treated as a universal quantifier, dou is regarded as a matching function in the sense of Rothstein (1995) which pairs the smiling events with individual people. If dou is treated as a universal quantifier, then mei is reduced to a sum operator which collects all the atomic individuals to provide the quantificational domain for dou.

Luo (2011) also adopts an ambiguity approach; however, he argues that mei is primarily quantificational and shifted to a determiner (i.e., a sum operator) as a last resort to satisfy interpretability. The difference between mei and dou lies in the entities they can distribute, i.e., mei distributes over individuals, and dou, over events. As a result, when an indefinite or a reflexive is within the scope of mei, it can exert distributivity without dou. The type-shifting analysis is a bit problematic for cases like (21), though.


In (21), there are no individuals for the students to form a dependency with; hence, mei cannot be interpreted as a quantifier. Naturally, as a repairing strategy, mei could be shifted to a definite determiner that simply outputs a plurality (following Luo’s idea of type-shifting) and the sentence thus means that a certain plurality of students came; however, (21) is not acceptable without dou. Supposedly, after the type-shifting of mei, there is no type mismatch or violation of interpretability. It is thus unclear why type-shifting plus the explicit insertion of dou becomes the winning strategy, which is obviously less economical.

2.5 Other Analyses of Dou

Conventionally, dou is treated as a universal quantifier; yet, the semantics of dou does not command universal assent in the linguistic circle. In recent years, it has also been evaluated as a marker of sum formation (Huang, 1996; Yuan, 2005), maximization (Giannakidou & Cheng, 2006; Xiang, 2008), anti-expectation (Chen, 2008), high degrees (Xu, 2007, 2014), large amounts (Li, 2013), and focus-sensitivity plus additive/scalar presupposition (Liao, 2011). Among these proposals, some only tackle certain uses of dou and cannot be deemed as a unified account; some are still a few steps away from compositionality. Under this context, if the universal quantificational approach seeks to win general acceptance, the potential problems of these proposals and ways to integrate their evidence into the quantificational framework need to be studied. Whether the notions mentioned above are semantic primitives or derived effects from quantification would be an interesting issue for further research.

2.6 Other Quantificational Adverbials in Chinese

The other line of research on quantification in Chinese focuses on how to capture the difference and interaction among various quantificational adverbials (i.e., ge ‘each’, quan ‘all’, yi-CL-yi-CL ‘one by one’) (see Feng, 2014; Lee et al., 2009, 2013; Lin, 1998c; Soh, 1998; Tomioka & Tsai, 2005). Just like dou, the other quantificational adverbials can also induce distributivity, though with distinct semantic requirements on their domain and scope. Lee et al. (2009) generalize that the occurrence of the distributive ge needs to be licensed by a variable in its c-commanding domain, which can be instantiated as an indefinite numeral, a bare noun phrase, a reflexive or a wh-phrase. Tomioka and Tsai (2005) compare the difference between dou and quan and point out quan is not a standard universal quantifier; rather, it is a mere domain restrictor, while Lee et al. (2013) argue that quan is ambiguous between a universal quantifier and a domain restrictor. Intuitively, some adverbials, e.g., dou and quan, stress uniformity, while other adverbials, e.g., ge, convey diversity. It is still unclear how such differences can best be formally captured, and research in this direction will surely enrich the theoretical framework of quantification.

The most complicated yet fascinating puzzle concerning quantificational expressions in Chinese is the co-occurrence of multiple quantifiers, as illustrated in (22) and noted in Lee et al. (2009), which may cause a clash of semantic types.


Examples like (22) contain multiple quantifier expressions: determiner suoyou or mei-ge, and three adverbs quan, dou and ge. To derive the semantic interpretation of (22) successfully, some expressions need to be reduced to one-place operators. A possible solution is to treat the determiner as a maximality or sum operator, quan as a domain restrictor, dou as a universal quantifier, and ge as a matching function. The first two expressions locate the domain for dou, while ge, in the scope of dou, is sensitive to the event variable and matches an individual in the domain of dou with a distinct donating event (see Feng, 2014). Type-shifting of some adverbials into sum operators over the nominal domain can solve the type-logical clash, yet in the meantime it also increases the ambiguity of these morphemes.

2.7 Scope Interaction Among Different Quantifiers

A sentence may contain multiple quantifier expressions, and the scope interaction among them may yield multiple interpretations. Interestingly, Huang (1982) observes that the Chinese sentence (23) is not ambiguous, while its English counterpart is. To explain the difference, Huang proposes an Isomorphic Principle, which requires the scope relation of two quantifiers to correspond to their c-commanding relation at S-structure, while English (but not in Chinese) has a restructuring process that can switch the c-commanding relation.


Based on Huang (1982), Aoun and Li (1993) further provide a comprehensive structural account of the difference between English and Chinese with respect to scope interaction between quantifiers and wh-phrases in active and passive sentences and double object constructions. They argue that both languages follow a minimal-binding requirement and a scope principle and the interpretational difference is due to the lack of subject-raising in Chinese (but not in English). Liu (1997), however, investigates the scope behavior of almost every Chinese quantifier expressions and proposes G-specificity to distinguish ready inverse scope takers from poor inverse scope takers. Kuno et al. (1999) further propose that the availability of multiple interpretations is determined by weighing syntactic, semantic, and discourse factors. In this light, we may conclude that quantifier scope is an area where multiple linguistic subfields interact, and further study is definitely needed.

3. Degree Semantics of Chinese Expressions

Degree semantics has been a popular topic in the field of semantics in the past 15 years, and the research on the Chinese language also contributes to the progress in this area. The research on degree semantics in the Chinese language focuses on the semantics of comparative constructions and degree morphemes like hen, a rough counterpart of very, and duo, a rough counterpart of much.

3.1 The Semantics of hen and Its Covert Counterpart

In Chinese, simple gradable adjectives cannot appear as the predicate in the sentence without the support of overt degree morphology, e.g., hen ‘very’; hence, (24) is infelicitous out of context without hen.


Kennedy (2005) thus claims that hen is an overt positive morpheme conveying context sensitivity. As a result, (24) can be understood as follows: the degree of Zhangsan’s height meets the standard comparison determined by the context and returned a positive value. Liu (2010) further argues that aside from the overt hen, there also exists a covert positive operator, which behaves like a polarity item licensed by a number of constructions, i.e., negation, contrastive focus, ma-particle questions, and the embedded clause of epistemic modality. For instance, in (25), the adjective gao ‘tall’ is contrasted with ai ‘short’ and thus need not be licensed by any overt positive morpheme.


Now the question becomes why Chinese gradable adjectives require overt positive morphology and allow the application of covert positive operator in certain contexts. Grano (2012) explains the distribution of hen and covert positive morpheme through the interaction between degree semantics and syntax in Chinese following Gu (2008). Essentially, he proposes that covert positive semantics is not projected in syntax and consequently cannot provide a syntactic constituent of the proper type to serve as the complement of the Tense node. Instead, overt positive hen is needed to induce the projection of a degree phrase, a functional projection that can be the complement of T. Other functional projections, e.g., FocusP in the case of (25), can also make the sentence observe the relevant syntactic constraint.

3.2 Chinese Comparatives

Unlike English, Chinese does not have markers like –er or more, which can combine with adjectives to express explicit comparison. Instead, explicit comparison is marked the morpheme bi, followed by a term that indicates a standard of comparison, then a gradable adjective, and finally a differential expression which may be optional, as exemplified in (26); alternatively, the gradable adjective can precede the standard of comparison if bi is absent, as in (27), which is referred to as the transitive comparative (see Erlewine, 2007; Grano & Kennedy, 2012; Lin, 2009; Liu, 1996, 2011; Xiang, 2005; among others).



Semantically, Erlewine (2007) treats bi as the head of a verbal functional phrase and defines its meaning using event-based semantics, i.e., bi establishes the comparison between two eventualities along a scale determined by the gradable predicate. Lin (2009) proposes to treat bi on a par with the English comparative morpheme –er, arguing that bi syntactically functions as the head of a degree phrase. Liu (2011), however, rejects the analysis of bi as a comparative operator based on syntactic evidence; for instance, unlike typical degree phrases, bi and the gradable predicate it modifies can be intervened by other syntactic constituents. In this light, Liu argues that the meaning of comparison is not contributed by bi but by a covert comparative morpheme or the covert geng ‘even more’, which is in complementary distribution with the differential phrase. Bi per se only introduces the standard of comparison. It can be concluded that the semantics of bi is intertwined with its syntactic status, both of which still attract heated discussion.

Transitive comparatives, as in (27), are subject to stricter well-formedness conditions. Xiang (2005) observes that the differential expression is obligatory and that the gradable adjective must establish a scale with a conventional measurement system. Hence, gradable predicates like meili ‘beautiful’ which are evaluated with respect to subjective measurement cannot appear in transitive comparatives. More importantly, Xiang concludes that the gradable predicates in transitive comparatives have to allow differential measure phrases, e.g., wu-limi ‘five centimeters’, as shown in (27). Concerning the obligatory occurrence of the differential measure phrase, Grano and Kennedy (2012) define a covert comparative measure function μ‎ which takes the gradable predicate as its argument.

Another type of comparatives is referred to as differential verbal comparative (Cheng, 1966; Li, 2015). As exemplified in (28), a differential verbal comparative involves bi, the standard of comparison, a non-gradable verb preceded by duo ‘much’ or shao ‘little’, and a differential phrase.


Such types of comparatives are interesting because: (i) they only allow duo and shao but not other gradable predicates; (ii) the occurrence of a differential phrase is obligatory; and (iii) the differential phrase can be a definite noun phrase. Concerning the defining properties of differential verbal comparatives, Li (2015) proposes a degreeless mapping analysis, according to which (28) can be paraphrased as: there exists a mapping function f which maps every entity in domain B, i.e., the domain of objects Lisi read, to domain A, i.e., the domain of objects Zhangsan read, and the difference between the two domains is the book entitled Jane Eyre. The mapping-based analysis fares better than the degree semantic analysis in that the difference between the objects read by the two individuals are compared at the taxonomic level rather than by pure amounts or quantities, i.e., the book of Jane Eyre is not equivalent to the book of Wuthering Heights, although the quantity is the same.

4. Polarity Items in Chinese

In Chinese, wh-phrases can be interpreted non-interrogatively and are referred to as wh-indeterminates following Kuroda’s (1965) terminology, as exemplified in (29) and (30) (see Cheng, 1991; Huang, 1982; Li, 1992; Lin, 1998b).



The distribution of non-interrogative wh-phrases sparks the study on polarity items in Chinese. The following discussion focuses on the various attempts to pin down the polarity behavior of Chinese wh-phrases and also touches upon the difference in the distribution of bare wh-phrases, renhe ‘no matter of what’-phrases and which-phrases in Chinese.

Earlier analyses, e.g., Huang (1982) and Li (1992), treat the existential use of wh-phrases in Chinese on a par with negative polarity items (NPIs) in English, since the distribution of existential wh-phrases seem to coincide with typical NPI contexts such as negative sentences, questions, and the antecedent clause of conditionals. However, Li (1992) observes that existentially interpreted wh-phrases are licensed in a wider range of environments than standard NPIs, that is, they may also appear under the scope of non-factive verbs, e.g., yiwei ‘think’, expressions of uncertainty, e.g., dagai ‘probably’, or the circumstantial sentence-final particle le. Hence, Li concludes that existential wh-phrases are licensed in ‘contexts where the truth value of the proposition is not positively fixed in a definite manner.’ Lin (1996, 1998b) does a more thorough investigation on the possible contexts where existentially interpreted wh-phrases can appear and discovers that besides the environments identified in Li (1992), wh-phrases can also be licensed by imperatives sentences, epistemic modals of certainty, and future environments. Thus, Lin postulates a non-entailment-of-existence condition on existential wh-phrases, i.e., the proposition where such a phrase appears should not entail the existence of a referent satisfying the description of that phrase. Hua (2000), however, argues that both Li’s (1992) and Lin’s (1998b) generalizations are not adequate. Instead, he offers evidence concerning existential wh-phrase in affirmative contexts and complement of factive verbs, as exemplified in (31).


Exactly what factors condition the occurrence of existential wh-phrases is still unclear, and whether Chinese wh-phrases should be added to the landscape of NPIs is still debatable. Nevertheless, it is evident that wh-phrases can be licensed in NPI contexts. Interestingly, if dou is interpreted as a universal quantifier, then only its domain is downward entailing (see Ladusaw, 1980, which argues that NPI-licensing environments are normally downward entailing). This treatment of dou helps explain why the non-interrogative use of wh-phrases is licensed in the quantificational domain but not the scope of dou (see Chen, 2013). In this sense, the universally interpreted wh-phrases are not semantically different from existentially interpreted wh-phrases in negative contexts. Both can be treated as indefinites, in the sense of Heim (1982), which contribute a free variable, and their interpretational differences are due to the operators that bind them.

Aside from negative polarity sensitivity, Giannakidou and Cheng (2006), Cheng (2009), and Cheng and Giannakidou (2013) investigate another kind of polarity behavior, i.e., polarity of free choice items (FCIs) in Chinese. According to the free choice theory of Giannakidou (2001), FCIs are anti-episodic and display quantificational variability because they introduce a free individual as well as a world variable which awaits being bound by some non-veridical operator. The distribution of three types of FCIs in Chinese—i.e., bare wh-phrases, na-CL-NP ‘which-CL-NP’, and renhe-NP ‘regardless of which NP’— is differentiated. While the latter two types are intensional FCIs which encode a world variable and typically licensed in non-veridical, anti-episodic environments, the first-bare wh-phrases-are FCIs not subject to licensing and can appear in episodic positive contexts. It is also noted that the licensing of intentional FCIs in Chinese is normally supported by the morpheme dou. A parallel between na-CL-NP with or without dou and the definite/indefinite intensional FCIs in Greek is drawn to explain the obligatory co-occurrence with dou. Basically, in Greek, FCIs may combine with a definite morpheme which performs the maximization operation over the intensional nominal domain, and Giannakidou and Cheng (2006) argue that Mandarin dou serves the same function as the definite article in Greek.

Feng (2014), however, provides evidence arguing against the establishment of such a parallel. Essentially, in Greek, FCIs can be definite or indefinite as long as they are properly bound by a non-veridical operator. For instance, in (32), the Greek FCI licensed by the modal verb is realized as an indefinite FCI nominal.


Yet, Chinese na-CL-NPs are not necessarily anti-episodic and cannot be directly licensed by various types of non-veridical environments. Instead, in contexts with generic adverbs, modal verbs, and imperatives, etc., the licensing of na-CL-NPs strictly requires the support of dou, as illustrated in (33).


If dou performs maximization and expresses definiteness, then the definiteness requirement in these non-veridical environments deviates from the behavior of typical intensional FCIs in languages like Greek. With a closer investigation of the distribution of na-CL-NPs, Feng observes that they can be licensed by canonical negative contexts, as exemplified in (34).


Also, na-CL-NPs can be licensed by epistemic modality (as in (35)) and convey ignorance on the part of the speaker (as in (31)). Based on these facts, it is more appropriate to add na-CL-NPs to the stock of epistemic indefinites (Alonso-Ovalle & Menèndez-Benito, 2013) instead of FCIs.


From the above discussion, it can be seen that the distribution of non-interrogative wh-phrases in Chinese and their polarity behavior are intriguing because the semantic definition of such phrases is still unclear and their interaction with various operators, e.g., dou, has the potential to change the conventional analysis of these operators.

5. Conditionals and Binding Strategies

This section mainly introduces the semantics of two types of conditionals in Chinese, i.e., bare conditionals as in (36) and dou/ruguo-conditionals as in (37) and (38). The discussion below will focus on the differences between these conditionals and the implication for binding strategies in Mandarin Chinese.




Cheng and Huang (1996) investigate the correspondence between the types of conditional sentences and the choices of binding strategies. They observe that in bare conditionals, the wh-phrase in the antecedent clause can only be referred back to by the use of the same wh-phrase in the consequent clause, while in dou/ruguo-conditionals, the wh-phrase in the antecedent clause cannot be referred back to by a wh-phrase but by a definite NP or a pronoun (overt or covert) in the consequent clause. The wh-phrases in the antecedent and consequent clauses of a bare conditional can only be interpreted as a bound variable which are unselectively bound by the necessity operator. If the wh-phrase in the consequent clause is substituted by a pronoun or a definite NP, then the necessity operator only binds a variable in its domain, which results in ill-formedness. As a result, bare-conditionals do not allow definite NPs or pronouns in their consequent clause to refer back to the wh-phrase in their antecedent clause. In a dou/ruguo-conditional, the wh-phrase in the antecedent clause is existentially bound and thus cannot be further bound by the necessity operator. As a result, the unselective binding strategy cannot apply and the pronoun in the consequent clause is treated as an E-type pronoun (Evans, 1980).

Lin (1996) points out another important distinction between bare conditionals and ruguo-conditionals, i.e., the antecedent clause in a bare conditional pertains to fact, while that of a ruguo-conditional merely expresses a possibility. He proposes that if a pronoun is allowed in the consequent of a bare conditional, then the conditional expresses a one-case situation to fulfill the uniqueness requirement of the pronoun, which can be accounted for by the notion of Heimian definites.

Luo and Crain (2011) focus only on the semantics of bare wh-conditionals and analyze the type of conditionals in the cross-linguistic context by comparing it to English free relatives and correlatives in languages like Russian, Hungarian, etc. The phenomenon they are concerned with is the definiteness/uniqueness of wh-phrases in bare conditionals, as in (39).


Cheng and Huang’s (1996) treatment of wh-phrases as variables unselectively bound by the necessity operator cannot explain the behavior of wh-phrases in (39), where the second occurrence of wh-phrase is the possessor in a partitive construction, with a definiteness interpretation (see Barwise & Cooper, 1981). Luo and Crain (2011) use the notion of D-type pronouns (Cooper, 1979) to explain the uniqueness effect of wh-phrases in bare conditionals. Specifically, the antecedent wh-phrase in (35) encodes definiteness and the wh-phrase in the consequent clause is a D-type pronoun which encodes a definite description and a free relation variable R saturated by pragmatics.

Pan and Jiang (1997, 2015), though admitting the existence of the two binding strategies in Chinese, provide more evidence against the strict correspondence between sentence types and binding strategies. They argue that the relation between sentence types and binding strategies is only a strong tendency rather than a strict requirement and deviations are allowed with the support of additional contextual information. Also, they propose a bound variable hierarchy (BVH)—reflexives/wh-phrases > pronouns/demonstratives—to account for the distribution and interpretation of wh-phrases and pronouns in the conditional sentences in Chinese. In addition, they point out that both types of conditionals can express either facts (i.e., actual events) or rule-like statements which do not imply the existence of the related events. In contrast to Lin (1996), Pan and Jiang (2015) observe that the use of a pronoun in the consequent of a bare conditional does not necessarily express a one-case situation, which falsifies Lin’s uniqueness requirement on donkey pronouns in bare conditionals. For instance, (40) could be used to describe a situation where there exist different discussion groups, each of which has one person who did not finish his/her presentation. In such situations, the people in different groups will have a different referent for ta in the relevant sentence.


Aside from the aforementioned conditional sentences, there is also a special type of conditional, i.e., yue…yue conditionals, as in (41), which is investigated in Lin (2007).


Lin’s analysis of yueyue constructions is within the framework of conditional sentences, that is, such constructions are actually embedded in a universal quantificational structure typical of conditional sentences. Moreover, the two occurrences of yue are adjoined to the domain and the scope of the conditional quantificational structure and responsible for the comparison of certain degree arguments in the two situations. For instance, (41) can be paraphrased as follows: For all the situations s1 and s2, where the degree of his scolding me in s1 exceeds the degree of his scolding me in s2, then there exist s3 and s4, where s1 extends to s3 and s2 extends to s4 and the degree of my anger in s3 exceeds the degree of my anger in s4. Hence, the semantics of conditionals and degree semantics intertwine with each other in such an interesting construction.

6. Tense and Aspect

Essentially, the research on tense and aspect in Chinese is centered around the following two issues: (i) Does Chinese have tense? What devices can help locate time in Chinese? And (ii) What are the semantics of aspect markers like le, guo, zhe and zai?

6.1 Does Chinese Have Tense?

Unlike English, Chinese does not have overt tense morphology, and hence some believe that Chinese only has an aspect system but not a tense system (see Chen & Chen, 2005); still other studies postulate a possibly empty inflectional node which holds tense features just like in English (see Huang, 1998; Li, 1990; Lin, 2011; Sybesma, 2007).

Lin (2006) explores various kinds of devices for tense interpretation in Chinese including temporal adverbials, modals, aspectual particles, etc., and concludes that it is not necessary to assume an inflectional node and covert tense features; rather, the information offered by default viewpoint aspect, tense-aspect particles, and pragmatic reasoning combine to determine the temporal interpretation of Chinese sentences. Lin also points out that if tense is simply construed as the ordering of temporal intervals, then some particles can be deemed as tense-markers in the semantic sense. For instance, the tense-aspect particle guo requires that the time of the development of an eventuality is included within the topic time, which precedes the evaluation time; thus, the particle can be used to express the past relation while conveying perfectiveness.

Wu (2007) also agrees that tense does not have a syntactic projection in Chinese, and he further proposes investigating the Chinese tense system at the level of discourse by adding discourse time into discourse models such as DRT. In particular, Wu points out that the endpoint of an activity assigned by rhetoric relations such as narration can be accessed by the following-up utterances; hence, temporal location in Chinese is not assigned at the sentential-level by some empty syntactic projection but determined when a coherent discourse is formed.

Although multiple studies propose that Chinese is a non-tensed language from the syntactic perspective. However, it is still argued that Chinese does have an implicit distinction of finteness and non-finiteness, and some particular criteria are proposed to test the existence of such a distinction. For instance, Huang (1998) argues that only finite clauses allow the occurrence of aspectual markers and modals as auxiliaries; Li (1990) proposes that the existence of finite clauses can be verified by the co-occurrence constraint on the temporal adverbial congqian ‘before’ and aspectual markers, since finiteness can block the association of the adverbial and the aspectual marker in the embedded clause; Li (1990) also uses the licensing of negative polarity items as a diagnostic, arguing that a negation marker can only license negative polarity items in the same finite clause with the licensor. Hu et al. (2001), however, gives a detailed review of all the available tests of finite/non-finite distinction and generalizes that none of the tests is utterly reliable. Also, since they cannot find any other evidence supporting such a distinction, they conclude that the assumed existence of finiteness in Chinese clauses is not based on solid language facts.

6.2 The Semantics of Aspect Markers in Chinese

The Chinese words le, guo, zhe, and zai are normally treated as aspect makers which express different aspectual meanings. Conventionally, le is deemed as a perfective marker, guo, an experiential marker, zhe, an imperfective marker, and zai, a progressive marker. The following discussion focuses on guo and shows how the meaning of guo is approached from different angles and how the analysis of aspect undergoes continuous refinements.

Like the Chinese le, guo can express the perfective meaning since it implies the culmination of an event; however, guo also conveys discontinuity of the event and the point of reference (Iljic, 1990). Therefore, (42) means that Lisi’s leg was broken prior to the speech time and is healed when the sentence is uttered.


Aside from discontinuity, guo is also thought to require repeatability (Li & Thompson, 1981), which explains why guo is incompatible with predicates like si ‘die’ which express a once-only event, as illustrated in (43). The requirement of repeatability is formally presented as a plurality condition on the domain of temporal quantification (de Swart, 1991; Smith, 1997).


However, Pan and Lee (2004) argue that repeatability and discontinuity are not strictly required by guo, as exemplified in (44) and (45).



In (44), the missing of the book continues at the speech time, and in (45), the predicate ‘young’ expresses an unrepeatable state, yet it can still co-occur licitly with guo. In this light, Pan and Lee (2004) pin down the meaning of guo as expressing a change of state instead of discontinuity or repeatability. When guo co-occurs with predicates like ‘young’, the change of state is possible since one can change from being young to not young; while with predicates like ‘dead’, the change of state is impossible, which thus excludes the use of guo. They further stress that the change-of-state property of guo pertains to pragmatics rather than semantics. As illustrated in (44), the book’s changed state from missing to being found is canceled by the following-up utterance. Ljungqvist (2007), however, takes a more radical pragmatic approach and proposes that the conventionally assumed aspect markers in Chinese convey the speaker’s attitude toward the information in the sentence. Hence, Ljungqvist chooses to tackle these particles in the framework of the Relevance Theory and emphasizes the procedural information they encode and their influence on the processing of discourse information.

Unlike the aforementioned studies, some still try to explain the properties of guo with purely semantic analyses. Lin (2007) points out the problems with the analysis of guo as expressing a change of state and still chooses to analyze guo from a purely semantic perspective. His evidence against Pan and Lee (2004) involves guo’s interaction with in(definite) object noun phrases, as in (46).


Lin claims that Pan and Lee’s analysis would judge (46) as ill-formed regardless of the definiteness of the object NP; however, the actual grammaticality of the sentence varies with the choice of object NPs. Based on Lin (2006), Lin (2007) defines guo as having two semantic components, the assertion part and the presupposition part. The assertion part requires that the development of an event e in the denotation of the predicate that guo combines with is wholly before the speech time. If the event e in the predicate denotation has a target state (Parsons, 1990), then the presupposition part requires the possible existence of another event e’ distinct from e which also satisfies the predicate denotation and holds in an interval containing the speech time. The assertion part excluded cases where guo combines with predicates like ‘dead’, since the state of being dead cannot be wholly before the speech time; rather, it will hold along the time span. The presupposition part can explain the variance of acceptability caused by (in)definiteness of objects. Indefinite NPs but not definite ones allow flexible value assignment and can make events in the VP denotation distinct from each other. Lastly, it should be noted that the existence of distinct events is a possibility and thus not necessarily true in the actual world, which yields a similar effect of implicatures as in Lee and Pan (2004).

Wu (2008), however, approaches the semantics of guo adopting the notion of terminablility. Guo exerts its force on the whole semantics of a situation with which it combines and requires that the situation in question be terminable, i.e., the situation can be either completed (when it is bounded) or terminated (when it is unbounded). From terminablity, Wu thus derives the relevant properties of guo, i.e., discontinuity and repeatability/recurrence.

To summarize, the study of tense and aspect in Mandarin Chinese is related to a wide range of concepts including situation types, event structures, possible worlds, quantification, etc. Tense and aspectual interpretation also involves the interaction between semantics and pragmatics, and the division of labor between the two modules is not yet a settled issue.4

7. The Long-Distance Reflexive in Chinese

The long-distance reflexive ziji ‘self’ in Chinese can be anaphoric to an antecedent outside its governing category as in (47), which violates Binding Condition A (Chomsky, 1981).


To keep the syntactic theory intact, linguists have proposed either expanding the notion of governing category (Manzini & Wexler, 1987; Prognovac, 1993; Yang, 1983) or assimilating long-distance dependencies to local dependencies via head movement (Bettistella, 1989; Cole et al., 1990; Huang & Tang, 1991; Li, 1993; Pica, 1985). These syntactic accounts, however, are not satisfactory since some properties of long-distance anaphors (LDAs) such as the blocking effect cannot be well accounted for. The following discussion summarizes the properties of the long-distance ziji in Chinese and the major semantic-pragmatic theories pertaining to this issue.

7.1 The Properties of Long-Distance Reflexive ziji

The long-distance reflexive ziji is interesting in that its antecedent is normally the subject. For instance, in both (48) and (49), ziji is not anaphoric to the non-subject noun phrase Lisi.



Second, the long-distance ziji tends to be interpreted with a de se reading in intentional contexts (see Pan, 1995, 1997; Anand, 2006; Huang & Liu, 2001), as illustrated in (50).


It was generally held that the sentence in (50) can only fit in Scenario 1 but not in Scenario 2, that is, the reflexive ziji is anaphoric to the subject noun phrase and the sentence expresses a belief de se. However, Wang and Pan (2014, 2015) argue that the de se reading of long-distance ziji is not obligatory, especially in indirect speech contexts, though it is the preferred one.

The most puzzling issue pertaining to long-distance ziji is the blocking effect. Essentially, first- and second-person pronouns can prevent ziji from being anaphoric to a third-person noun phrase, but not vice versa as in (51) (Pan, 1995, 1997); the anaphoricity of long-distance ziji can be blocked by an expression which does not even occupy the subject position as in (52); the demonstrative use of a third-person NP can block the long-distance binding of ziji as in (53); when a plural NP and a singular NP appear in the same sentence, the blocking effect may vary, as shown in (54) (see Cole et al., 2005; Huang & Liu, 2001; Pan, 2001).





7.2 Theoretical Analyses of Long-Distance Bound ziji

This section reviews four major accounts which relate to the above-mentioned properties of long-distance ziji.

Concerning the fact that ziji tends to be anaphoric to the animate subject noun phrase of an attitude verb and the blocking effect induced by first and second person pronouns, Pan (1997) relates long-distance ziji with de se interpretations as well as the notion of self-ascription. To explain the anaphoricity of ziji, Pan proposes the condition of self-ascription and the condition of discourse prominence, both of which concert to determine the entity noun phrase ziji refers back to.

Huang and Liu (2001) approach the interpretation of ziji with the concept of logophoricity. Essentially, they argue that the long-distance ziji is the instantiation of a logophor in the sense of Sells (1987), who defines the antecedent of a logophor with the following three discourse roles: source (i.e., the individual who initiates the speech act), self (i.e., the individual whose mental state or attitude is described in the relevant proposition), and pivot (i.e., the temporal anchoring of the discourse). Huang and Liu (2001) further apply the theory of logophoricity to long-distance ziji and propose that ziji’s antecedent should assume at least one of the discourse roles mentioned above. However, their analysis is not watertight; for instance, according to the notion of logophoricity, ziji should be able to co-index with the source, i.e., the speaker, which is not the case in Chinese, however (see Pan, 1997). Furthermore, Wang and Pan (2012) observe that there are also cases where ziji is anaphoric to the hearer.

Anand (2006) notices that the de se interpretation of ziji and its strong tendency to refer back to the subject resembles very much the behavior of shifted-indexicals (Schlenker, 1999). Long-distance ziji can be interpreted as a shifted indexical because it is sensitive to the operator OPauth which can shift the speaker and thus the context. The blocking effect of first/second-person pronouns is thus explained as the exclusion of such pronouns in the scope of OPauth.Yet, it should be noted that Anand’s theory cannot countenance all the facts about long-distance ziji, for instance, in extensional contexts, ziji does not necessarily receive a de se reading; hence, one may further question whether long-distance ziji is a typical shifted indexical and what exactly its status is in extensional contexts.

Recently, based on the theory of empathy (Kuno, 1987; Kuno & Kaburaki, 1977; Oshima, 2006, 2007), Wang and Pan (2014, 2015) give a new account of Chinese long-distance ziji. Their main claim is that Chinese long-distance ziji is always empathic and in intensional contexts it is also logophoric, though there are exceptions in some particular cases, e.g., the indirect speech contexts. They show that (i) their proposal avoids the problem associated with Sells’s (1987) so-called unified notion of logophoricity, as used in Huang and Liu (2001); (ii) it also explains the special properties of Chinese long-distance ziji such as the different properties of ziji in intensional and extensional contexts, the possible non-de se reading of ziji in indirect speech, etc., and (iii) the non-de se reading of long-distance ziji leads to a trichotomy of attitude reports, i.e., de re, de se, and indirect de se, contra the traditional de se and de re distinction.

8. Negation

In Mandarin Chinese, negation is normally instantiated by the markers bu and mei. The research on negation in Chinese mainly centers on what kinds of constituents bu associates with and whether its negative force is syntactically or semantically constrained.

Both Huang (1988) and Ernst (1995) treat bu as a clitic-like element which needs to attach to an adjacent element. Their proposals are based on the observation that bu seems to be ungrammatical when co-occurring with the perfective le or manner phrases, as illustrated in (55) and (56).



To explain the data above, Huang (1988) argues that bu tends to be attached to the adjacent verb and its negative force turns the event expressed by the verb into non-events. On the other hand, the perfective marker le indicates the existence of the event in question, which is in a semantic clash with bu. Similarly, the non-event requirement of bu also makes the description of the event’s manner semantically absurd. Ernst (1995), however, argues that bu is incompatible with the perfective le because it requires an unbounded situation. As to why bu is also in clash with manner phrases, Ernst resorts to the intervening effect of the XP trace of a manner phrase.

Huang (1988) also mentions exceptional cases where bu co-occurs with le or manner phrases, as shown in (57) to (59).




To keep the proposal intact, Huang argues that in (57) and (58), modals and the copula be can serve as something similar to the do-support function in English, and bu is thus prevented from being attached to the main verb. In (59), with no overt modals, the sentence is grammatical because there is an invisible modal with future/volition meaning that prevents bu from being attached to the main verb.

Yet, Huang’s clitic approach of bu is not without problems, as argued in Lee and Pan (2001). Essentially, bu’s scope of negation does not have to be some adjacent element, as illustrated in (60), and there are still more examples where bu appears with le or manner phrases, which cannot be countenanced by Huang’s account, as exemplified in (61). In both (60) and (61), bu negates a focused constituent that is not adjacent to the morpheme, and in particular, for (61), it is impossible to postulate an empty modal with the future/volitional meaning.



As an alternative analysis, Lee and Pan (2001) pin down bu as a focus sensitive operator that can associate with non-adjacent constituents. For instance, (62) can be interpreted differently depending on which part of the sentence is in focus. If the verb ‘eat’ is in focus, then the sentence means ‘he’ does not eat the meal but it is possible that ‘he’ does something else with it since the focus on the verb can induce a set of alternative propositions. Similarly, if the object ‘rice’ is in focus, then the sentence can mean that ‘he’ does not eat rice but it is possible that ‘he’ eats something else.


Moreover, Lee and Pan (2001) argue that bu is an unselective binder of all the free variables in a sentence, including the variable over events. Once the event variable is bound by bu, it may not be accessible by the perfective le, which explains why le is many a time incompatible with bu. Similarly, the selectional restriction of manner phrases also requires a free event variable, which is in conflict with the unselective binding of bu. Thus, they conclude that bu tends to associate with focus and also the adjacent word. If there is a focused constituent to its right, then it will operate over this constituent; otherwise, it will negate the adjacent word. As a chain reaction, the focus-sensitive analysis of bu also prompts alternative syntactic analyses of the morpheme. Hu (2007) adopts the test of VP-ellipsis to verify that bu is a VP-adjunct which patterns like manner phrases. Chen et al. (2013), however, do not treat bu as a clitic or an adjunct; rather they argue that it is the head of a functional NEG-phrase. Interested readers may refer to their work for the syntax of bu.

Chen and Pan (2008), on the other hand, focus on the distributional difference between the two negation markers bu and mei in Mandarin Chinese. Essentially, they attribute the divergent behaviors of the two morphemes to their respective selectional criteria on the types of predicates, i.e., bu combines with states, while mei operates over stage-level predicates, which differs from Lin (2003), who claims that bu selects states while mei selects dynamic events. They argue that the contrast between states and events cannot countenance the difference between the two morphemes. In particular, some stative predicates like e ‘hungry’ can combine with both morphemes.

9. Topic Licensing Conditions

The crucial problem of topic-comment structures in Chinese is whether Chinese has dangling topics as opposed to topics related to a syntactic position in the comment clause. Chafe (1976) and Xu and Langendoen (1985), to name just a few, endorse the claim that Chinese has dangling topics which are not subcategorized by any element in the comment clause. However, the syntactic licensing approach initiated by Shi (2000) and further modified by Huang and Ting (2006) denies the existence of dangling topics in Chinese and argues that the classic example of Chinese-style dangling topics are either moved topics, subjects, or sentential adverbials.

If topics are not syntactically licensed, then they must be constrained by semantic and pragmatic factors. The aboutness relation initiated by Li and Thompson (1976) is disfavored by some linguists as being too vague a notion. Moreover, in some cases, aboutness simply cannot explain the difference of acceptability in certain sentences. For instance, in (63a) and (63b), the comments are about the topic, as they are related to the topic, yet they vary in the degree of acceptability.


Under this context, Pan and Hu (2008) endeavor to approach the licensing condition from a formal perspective. Essentially, they argue that in Chinese, a topic can be licensed if (i) there is a set Z induced by a semantic variable x in the comment and (ii) the set Z thus generated does not produce an empty set when intersecting with the set T denoted by the topic. For instance, in (64), for it to be grammatical, the set induced by the wh-phrase shei ‘who’, when intersecting with the set generated by tamen ‘they’, needs to produce a non-empty set.


The semantic licensing approach has the following advantages: (i) there is no need to make a distinction between non-gapped topics and topics corresponding to syntactic gaps and (ii) the relation between the topic and the comment is given a more explicit characterization.

Aside from the licensing condition, Hu and Pan (2009) also note that a well-formed topic structure needs to be properly interpreted. Compare the sentences in (65).


They argue that a dangling topic X is properly interpreted if it forms a subject-predicate relationship with some element Y in the comment clause. The subject-predicate relationship needs to be attributive, i.e., X denotes a property, an attribute, or Y. For (65a), the set of apples and that of bananas cannot form such a relation, while being fruits is a property of the elements in the set apples, which thus explains the grammaticality of (65b). From a syntactic perspective, the dangling topic in (65b) can be treated as a reduced prepositional phrase, meaning ‘among fruits.’ However, one still needs to resort to semantic factors to explain the contrast between (65a) and (65b).

10. Concluding Remarks

This article is a brief review of the major issues in the semantic study of Chinese, including bare noun denotation, quantification, degree semantics, polarity items, conditionals and binding strategies, tense and aspect, long-distance reflexives, negation, as well as topic licensing. Some of the issues are interrelated, for instance, the licensing environments of polarity items involve quantificational forces and the interpretation of conditionals is also formulated with a tri-partite quantificational structure. The research on semantics also interacts actively with syntax and pragmatics. Some morphemes like the Mandarin dou are argued to express universal force in the semantic sense as well as the level of conversational implicature, which belongs to the module of pragmatics. As to the analysis of the long-distance reflexive ziji, linguists are divided into the syntactic camp and the semantic-pragmatic camp. Also worth mentioning is that semantic studies can also interact with phonology, for instance, Hara et al. (2014) explains the enhancing of bias by the final stress in Mandarin Chinese with theoretical tools like focus semantics and updates on mutual beliefs of discourse participants.

This brief review of Chinese semantics cannot exhaust all the interesting topics; however, it is evident by now that the field enchants linguists with many puzzles that may have the potential to change the paradigm of semantic studies in the future.


This work was supported by the Research Grant Council of Hong Kong (Grant No. GRF 11601315) and the China National Social Science Fund (Grant No. 16CYY001).

Further Reading

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  • 1. See Partee (2011) for a more detailed review of the issues and history of semantic studies.

  • 2. Chierchia (1998) fits the Chinese data into the cross-linguistic picture and further points out that the situation in Romance languages is the reverse, that is, nouns are basically predicational and cannot directly serve as arguments. In English, mass nouns are kind-denoting and can occupy argument positions, while bare plurals are basically predicational and can be shifted to the kind denotation via an up operator or to the existential interpretation via a rule called ‘derived kind predication (DKP).’

  • 3. G-specificity is a semantic notion determined by two parameters, i.e., induction of scope-dependency and scope-dependency on other noun phrases.

  • 4. Temporal interpretation in Chinese is also closely related to the differences of various discourse modes. Readers may refer to Wuyun (2016) for discussion in this respect.