Zai and ba Constructions in Child Mandarin
Center for Research in Language, UCSD
This paper investigates the semantic functions associated with zai and ba
constructions and children's acquisition of these functions. In adult
Chinese, the zai and the ba construction interact with verb semantics and
aspect markers when functioning as a locative preposition and the object
marker, respectively. An elicited production experiment with children from
ages 3 to 6 shows that Chinese-speaking children are sensitive to the semantic
constraints between the position of the construction, the verb meaning, and
the aspect marker in the sentence. Their acquisition performance with these two
constructions is discussed with respect to Slobin's (1985) hypothesis on the
semantic space of the Basic Child Grammar. An alternative hypothesis invoking
the role of input as proposed by Bowerman (1985, 1989) is also discussed with
reference to the present results.
Chinese is well-known for its impoverished system of grammatical morphology.
However, there are a number of devices that are important in the assignment
of syntactic roles to sentence constituents. These devices include word order,
semantic factors of nouns, and the use of free-standing morphemes such as the
passive marker bei (Li, MacWhinney, & Bates, 1991). The locative preposition
zai and the object marker ba are two such important grammatical devices in
Mandarin Chinese. Previous studies have provided us with detailed analyses of
their grammatical functions (Chao, 1968; Li & Thompson, 1981). In this paper,
I will take a different perspective to look at these two constructions.
Specifically, I will examine zai and ba with respect to the aspectual meaning
of the sentence. I will then examine Chinese-speaking children's use of these
constructions in data from an elicited production experiment. Extrapolating
from these data, I will discuss two alternative hypotheses concerning the
acquisition of semantics, as advocated by Slobin (1985) and Bowerman (1985,
1989). (footnote )1
2.0 The functions of zai and ba
2.1 The zai construction
Consider the following pair of sentences in German:
(1) Sie pflanzen die Blumen auf dem Feld.
They plant the flowers in the field.
(2) Sie pflanzen die Blumen auf das Feld.
They plant the flowers into the field.
Two properties in these sentences are immediately noticeable. Formally,
these sentences differ with respect to case marking: the first one takes the
dative case, whereas the second one takes the accusative case. Semantically,
they differ in their locative meaning: the first indicates a static location
where the situation takes place, while the second indicates a locative goal
toward which the activity is directed; in the second case, it does not matter
for the speaker whether Sie ('they') are actually planting in the field or
outside. In English, this semantic contrast is represented by the use of
different prepositions, e.g., in vs. into, as shown in the English
translations of sentences (1) and (2), and on vs. onto in other contexts.
But this contrast is not a systematic one in English. In and on can also be
used to convey a directional locative meaning, as in examples (3) and (4).
(3) Bill put the fish in the water.
(4) John spread the paint on the wall.
In Chinese, the semantic contrast between (1) and (2) is systematically
represented by the use of the zai construction at the pre-verbal vs. post-
Pre-verbal vs. post-verbal. The morpheme zai in Mandarin Chinese conveys
a locative meaning. It can be a verb as well as a preposition. (footnote 2)
Sentence (5) is an example where zai functions as a verb, in contrast to
sentence (6), where zai is a preposition and the main verb is zhan 'stand'.
As preposition, zai is a generic locative marker indicating that NP1
(xiaohouzi 'monkey', in this case) is located with reference to NP2 (zhuozi
'table'). The specific location of NP1 is indicated by locative nouns that
are attached to the end of NP2, e.g., qian 'front', hou 'back', shang 'top',
(5) Beizi zai zhuozi-shang.
cup at table-top
The cup is on the table.
(6) Xiao houzi zai zhuozi-shang zhan -zhe.
little monkey at table-top stand-DUR
The little monkey is standing on the table.
In these examples, zai occurs pre-verbally and the construction indicates a static locative meaning. Note, however, that the pre-verbal zai has another
form that is associated with aspectual meaning and serves as a progressive
aspect marker (Li, 1990). The progressive aspect marker zai and the locative
zai are closely related, both diachronically and synchronically, as discussed
in previous studies (Chao, 1968; Chen, 1978). In some cases, zai can actually
perform both functions simultaneously. Chao (1968) has proposed that the
construction "zai+V" (the common progressive form) is a contracted form of
"zai+LOC+V"; the locative object is left out in the former, as in example (7b).
(7) a. Zhangsan zai he-li youyong.
Zhangsan at river-inside swim
Zhangsan is swimming in the river.
b. Zhangsan zai youyong.
Zhangsan at swim
Zhangsan is swimming.
Both Chen (1978) and Li (1990) have discussed some of the difficulties of
Chao's argument with regard to the dual function of zai as locative prepostion
and aspect marker in modern Chinese, although progressive aspect and locative
meaning are intimately related, as Comrie (1976) and Vlach (1981) have also
noted for English and many other languages. We will return to the aspect marker zai later.
In contrast to the complexity of the pre-verbal zai, the post-verbal zai
is much simpler. Sentences (8) and (9) are examples with the zai construction
(8) Qingwa tiao zai yezi-shang -le.
frog jump at leave-top -LE
The frog jumped onto the leave.
(9) Laoshu pa zai chuang-dixia -le.
mouse crawl at bed-top -LE
The mouse crawled (to) under the bed.
Unlike sentences with the pre-verbal zai, these sentences are associated
with a dynamic locative meaning. The zai construction in these examples
indicates the locative goal of the action, i.e., the location denoted by the
noun phrase serves as the endpoint of the activity, in contrast to the location
where the situation takes place as indicated by the pre-verbal zai construction.
The sentence structure of (6) and (7) differs from that of (8) and (9) only with
respect to the position of the zai construction, but the locative meanings
associated with them are quite different. Thus, the meaning contrast between
(1) and (2) in German as represented by different case markings is represented
in Chinese by different word order relations.
Aspect, aktionsart, and the zai construction. However, word order does not
always make a difference to the locative meaning of the sentences that contain
the zai construction. There is a strong interaction between the kinds of
meaning conveyed and the types of verb used in these sentences. Compare
sentences (6) (repeated here as (10) for convenience) and (11).
(10) Xiao houzi zai zhuo-shang zhan -zhe.
little monkey at table-top stand -DUR
The little monkey is standing on the table.
(11) Xiao houzi zhan zai zhuo-shang.
little monkey stand at table-top
The little monkey is standing on the table.
Although the zai construction is pre-verbal in (10) and post-verbal in (11),
the locative meaning of these sentences is essentially the same. Both sentences indicate a static location of the subject, i.e., houzi 'monkey'. Why is there
a difference between these sentences and sentences like (7) and (8) in terms of their locative meaning? Comparison reveals that it is the kind of verbs in
these sentences that makes the difference. The verb zhan 'stand' differs from
youyong 'swim' with respect to aktionsart, a notion that refers to patterns of
verb meanings defined in terms of inherent temporal properties of situations.
According to Vendler (1967), Comrie (1976) and a number of other authors,
verbs and verb phrases can be classified into different types with respect to
their aktionsart features. (footnote 4) One common classification is to divide verbs into process vs. stative, telic vs. atelic, and punctual vs. durative
(see Li, 1990 for discussion). These types of verbs are characterized by
different syntactic and semantic behaviors. For example, in English, process
verbs can take -ing, whereas stative verbs cannot. Thus, sentence (12) is
grammatical but (13) is not, due to the nature of the verbs involved in the
application of the progressive marker.
(12) The man is walking down the street.
(13) *The man is knowing the story.
To discuss all the different classes of verbs with respect to aktionsart
is beyond the scope of this paper. Relevant here is the distinction between
process and stative verbs. Process verbs encode situations as dynamic, having
distinct successive stages, whereas stative verbs depict situations as
homogeneous and undifferentiated. According to this criterion, youyong 'swim'
in (7) is a process verb whereas zhan 'stand' in (10) and (11) is a stative
verb. This distinction explains the discrepancy between the locative meaning of
the sentence and the position of the zai construction: for process verbs, the
pre-verbal vs. the post-verbal position of zai results in the meaning differencebetween a static location and a locative goal, whereas for stative verbs, the
position of the zai construction does not affect the locative meaning of the
The zai construction not only affects the locative meaning of the sentence,
but also contributes to the aktionsart of the verb phrase. When the verb in
question is a process verb, the position of zai makes a difference to the
semantic type of the verb. For example, since the post-verbal zai construction
indicates a locative goal of the action, its presence marks an endpoint for the
situation and thus renders the verb phrase telic; it implies a boundary beyond
which the same activity can no longer continue. In contrast, the presence of
the pre-verbal zai construction does not affect the aktionsart of the verb
because it indicates the location where the activity takes place; no endpoint ismarked in this case.
Turning now to the aspect markers associated with the zai construction, we
find that there is a strong correlation between the use of aspect markers and
the position of zai in the sentence. In examples (8) and (9), where zai is
post-verbal, the perfective aspect marker -le is used. In examples where zai is pre-verbal, only imperfective aspect is used, as indicated by -zhe with stative verbs in (6), and zai with process verbs in (7a). Note that zai acts as an
aspect marker as well as a preposition in (7a) since there is no other marker
in the sentence indicating imperfective aspect.
2.2 The ba construction
The ba construction has received much discussion in the literature. Traditionalgrammars have termed the ba construction the disposal construction (Wang, 1957),due to the original meaning of ba as a verb ("take hold of", "grasp"). Although this meaning is very weak or nonexistent and the main function of ba in modern
Chinese is to mark the direct object of a sentence, the trace of the 'disposal' meaning can still be seen in that ba requires an object that is highly affected by the activity denoted by the verb. Structurally, the ba construction is
associated with SOV sentences. Ba cannot be used to mark the object in an SVO
sentence. Unlike the zai construction which can occur both pre-verbally and
post-verbally, the ba construction can occur only pre-verbally.
Two features of the ba construction have been widely noted (Chao, 1968).
First, the object noun phrase must be definite or specific; in contrast, the
object in canonical SVO sentences is normally indefinite, where there is no ba
preceding it. Second, the verb phrase in the sentences with ba must be
structurally complex (Ding, 1961). Single monosyllabic verbs cannot occur with
the ba construction. Compare the following examples:
(14) Lisi ba neixie yu diao-qilai -le.
Lisi BA those fish hook-up -LE
Lisi caught those fish.
(15) *Lisi ba yixie yu diao-qilai -le.
Lisi BA some fish hook-up -LE
Lisi caught some fish.
(16) *Lisi ba neixie yu diao -le.
Lisi BA those fish hook -LE
Lisi caught those fish.
While (14) has both a definite object and a complex verb form, (15) has
an indefinite object and (16) has a simple verb form. These latter two are
ungrammatical sentences. Notice that in addition to the structural difference
between the grammatical (14) and the ungrammatical (16), there is also a
semantic difference. The verb compound in sentence (14) indicates a resultative
meaning whereas the single verb in (16) indicates a durative process without
an endpoint or end result. The ba construction requires the verb or verb phrase to be highly transitive and resultative (Li, 1990; Sun, 1991). Although simple
forms of resultative verbs can occasionally occur with ba, e.g., sha in example (17), process or stative verbs cannot occur with it even if they are
structurally complex, as in (18). This shows that the semantic criterion
(resultativity of verb meanings) is more prominent than the syntactic one
(complexity of verb forms) in the use of the ba construction.
(17) Zhangsan ba laohu sha -le.
Zhangsan BA tiger kill -LE
Zhangsan killed the tiger.
*Zhangsan ba ta gege xiang-ji -le.
Zhangsan BA he brother resemble-very -LE
Zhangsan looked extremely like his brother.
With respect to aspect, these sentences are exclusively associated with the perfective marker -le, as shown in the above examples. The imperfective marker
zai is not compatible with the ba construction. Thus, there is a perfect
association between the perfective aspect and the resultative verb in sentences with ba. The incompatibility of the aspect marker zai with ba follows from the
fact that the verbs in ba sentences always incorporate resultative meaning,
and that resultative verbs never occur with imperfective aspect (see Li, 1990
for detailed discussion).
3.0 The production experiment
The properties of the zai and ba constructions in Chinese raise some
particularly interesting questions from an acquisition point of view.
There exist strong interactions among the position of a construction, the
type of the verb (aktionsart), and the aspect marker in the sentence, as
discussed above. The zai construction can occur both pre-verbally and
post-verbally, while the ba construction can occur only pre-verbally. The
position of zai may or may not make a difference to the locative meaning
of the sentence, depending on the type of the verb with which it coocurs.
Different types of verbs can occur in sentences with zai, but only verbs
encoding an endpoint or result may occur in sentences with ba. In acquiring
sentences that contain these constructions, would the child appreciate the
distributional cooccurrence contraints between different components of the
sentence? If not, would we find that the child uses different aspect markers
and different verb types that are incompatible with ba and zai constructions
and with each other? A production experiment was designed to investigate these
question by eliciting children's productive speech in an experimental setting.
Subjects 99 subjects from the kindergartens of Beijing University and
Qinghua University participated in this experiment. The experiment was part of
a larger project that investigated the interaction between aspect markers and
aktionsart in child Mandarin. Subjects were divided into four age groups:
(1) 3-year-olds, ranging from 2;9 to 3;6, mean age 3;2; (2) 4-year-olds,
ranging from 3;8 to 4;4; mean age 4;1; (3) 5-year-olds, ranging from 4;11
to 5;4, mean age 5;1; and (4) 6-year-olds, ranging from 5;11 to 6;4, mean
age 6;1. Each age group originally comprised 25 children, but one
3-year- old child's data were missing due to facility breakdown during the
test. Half of the subjects were boys and half were girls. To maximize the
differences between age groups, subjects were selected near the mean age with
a variation of about three months.
Material and procedures. A collection of toys was used to elicit
children's productive speech. These included two dolls, a duck, a rabbit,
a turtle, a monkey, a pig, a fish, a penguin with a staircase, a train, a car,
a canoe, a bridge, a tree, a pot, a bowl, a garage, a bed, a table, and two
Two experimenters, E1 and E2, played with the child in front of the toys.
Different types of situations were arranged and acted out with these toys, and
the child was asked to describe the enacted situation. To make the experiment
more natural to the child, one of the experimenters was blindfolded and the
child's task was to tell the blindfolded person what happened. After each
situation was acted out, E1 said to the child in Chinese: "gaosu shushu/ayi,
X zenme la?" (tell that uncle/auntie, what happened to X, i.e., the major toy
in the enacted situation). Then E2 repeated immediately, "gaosu wo, X zenme
la?" (tell me, what happened to X?) Subjects practiced with this procedure and
it was made sure that they understood the task before the testing began. For
each subject there were 18 enacted situations to describe. These situations
involved either an action, e.g., a duck was swimming, or a state, e.g., a
monkey was standing on a table. The whole testing session took about 15
minutes. Children's descriptions were audio-taped for later analysis.
Data from the experiment were transcribed and coded by the author and
double-checked by the author and James Liang of Leiden University. The coding
followed the CHAT format of the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES,
see MacWhinney & Snow, 1985; MacWhinney, 1990). Computational analysis of the
data was performed using the CLAN programs designed for CHILDES data
The children in this study in general have a very good command of the
use of zai and ba constructions and made few errors involving incompatible
verbs or aspect markers. Across different age groups, subjects produced
appropriate sentences with both zai and ba constructions. Some examples of
sentences with zai are given in (19) to (22). The zai construction is pre-verbalin (19) and (20), and post-verbal in (21) and (22). These examples represent
the most common utterances that children used in describing the enacted
(19) Xiao baitu zai di-shang pao. (HEP,5 3;0)
little rabbit ZAI ground-top run
The little rabbit is running on the ground.
(20) Huoche zai guidao-shang kai. (SHG, 4;11).
train ZAI track-top run
The train is running on the track.
Xiao qiche zuan zai nei xiao wuzi-li qu -le.
little car move ZAI that small room-in go -LE
The little car moved into that small room.
(22) Wugui pa zai chuang-dixia qu -le. (LIY, 5;0)
turtle crawl ZAI bed-bottom go -LE
The turtle crawled (to) under the bed.
Examined together with the context in which these utterances were produced, it is clear that the children could distinguish the different functions
of the pre-verbal vs. post-verbal zai constructions, and the verbs and aspect
markers in these sentences were all used correctly. As discussed earlier, the
pre-verbal zai construction indicates the location where the situation takes
place, while the post-verbal zai construction indicates the locative goal of an activity. This meaning difference is also associated with the use of verb
types and aspect markers in the sentence. A clear association shows up in
children's utterances: the pre-verbal zai is used together with process verbs
and imperfective aspect, while the post-verbal zai is used together with telic
verbs and perfective aspect. The verbs pao and kai in (19) and (20) are process verbs that do not encode an endpoint of the situation, whereas zuan in (21) is
a telic verb that encodes a terminal point of the situation. Although the verb
pa (crawl) in (22) by itself is a process verb, when it is combined with the
post-verbal zai construction, the whole verb phrase turns into telic since the
zai construction serves the function of indicating a locative goal. Note
that zai in (19) and (20) plays the role of both the preposition and the
progressive marker, whereas in (21) and (22) it is purely a preposition and it
cooccurred with the perfective marker -le.
Recall that sentences with stative verbs do not alternate between the
different locative meanings associated with different positions of zai, as
shown in examples (10) and (11). However, the children in this study have
mostly used post-verbal zai constructions for sentences with stative
verbs, thus making it difficult to evaluate whether they would conform to the
adult standards in using zai at the pre-verbal position of a stative
sentence. One reason why the pre-verbal zai construction is rare in children's
descriptions of stative situaitons is that the children have not yet
acquired the use of the durative marker -zhe, which is obligatory for stative
sentences with a pre-verbal zai .
Let us now examine some examples of children's use of the ba construction.
(23) Qiche ba qiao gei zhuang-dao -le. (RAO, 3;3)
car BA bridge GEI bump-collapse -LE
The car knocked down the bridge.
Nei xiao wawa ba dengzi gei ti-dao -le
that small doll BA chair GEI kick-down -LE
The small doll kicked the chair over.
(25) Wawa ba yizi ti-xiaqu -le. (LIP, 4;11)
doll BA chair kick-down -LE
The doll kicked the chair over.
Xiaowawa ba douzi dou reng zai waimian -le
small doll BA beans all throw ZAI outside -LE
The small doll threw out all the beans.
In these utterances, children have mostly used resultative verb
constructions, as in (23) to (25). Sometimes they use a verb with a
post-verbal zai construction, as in (26). In fact, 90% of the children's
296 utterances in which ba constructions occurred contained resultative verbs.
This indicates a clear association between the use of the ba construction and
the resultative meaning in children's descriptions. Furthermore, unlike
sentences (19) to (22) in which aspect markers were contingent upon the
position of the prepositional construction, these utterances were all associatedwith the perfective marker -le. In the whole corpus there were only a few cases
involving the use of the progressive aspect marker zai, as in (27):
*Xiao wawa zai ba shu nong-qilai. (GAO, 4;4)
small doll ZAI BA tree do-up
The small doll is putting up the tree.
The almost perfect association between ba constructions, perfective aspect, and resultative verbs suggests that from age 3 on, Chinese- speaking children
are aware of the cooccurrence constraints inherent in these sentences.
Otherwise, we would have found that our subjects had used different verb types
and aspect markers in combination with the ba construction, since other
types of verbs and aspect markers were already available to the children of all ages of this study.
In a monograph on the cross-linguistic study of language acquisition,
Slobin (1985) proposes a 'Basic Child Grammar' (BCG) hypothesis to account for
phenomena embedded in a rich set of cross-linguistic data. This hypothesis
assumes that children come to the language acquisition task with a
pre-structured semantic space containing a universal, uniform set of
semantic notions. According to Slobin, these semantic notions are "priviledged" to be mapped onto grammatical forms of individual languages in the process of
children's acquisition. That is, prior to children's experience with specific
properties of the grammar, these notions strongly attract grammatical forms of
the input language in the form-meaning mapping processes. Two important
'temporal perspectives' in this semantic space are Process and Result. They
function early to define a semantic contrast in children's acquisition of
tense and aspect systems. Slobin emphasizes that Result is particularly salient and it provides an early mapping point for salient speech segments associated
with content words referring to actions.
Our results from Chinese-speaking children's productive speech are consistent
with the predictions of Slobin's hypothesis that the two temporal perspectives, Process and Result, play an important role in children's acquisition. In
describing the enacted situations, children tend to associate pre-verbal zai
constructions with process verbs, and associate post-verbal zai with telic
verbs. Furthermore, the pre-verbal zai coocurs with imperfective aspect,
whereas the post-verbal zai coocurs with perfective aspect. In contrast,
children associate ba constructions exclusively with resultative verbs and
perfective aspect. These patterns of association between positions of the
preposition, aspect markers, and verb meanings seem to suggest that the kinds
of temporal perspectives proposed by Slobin are acting as organizing principles in helping the child find out the cooccurrence contraints on the sentences with
zai and ba constructions.
The semantic space in Slobin's Basic Child Grammar assigns a significant
role to the child's innate knowledge, since it assumes that children are
sensitive to semantic notions such as Process and Result prior to their
experience with specific properties of the target grammar. However, the
extent to which Chinese children's speech conforms to the patterns in the
adult language implies another equally plausible explanation without invoking
innate semantic categories. Bowerman (1985, 1989) argues that children are
sensitive to the characteristics of the input patterns from early on, and they
observe the distribution of grammatical forms in the speech they are exposed to.Bowerman points out that, before appealing to pre-linguistic categories as
explanations of child language data, one needs to explore the patterns displayedin the target language and consider how the input might influence the child's
linguistic inferences. Often, on suitable reanalysis, phenomena that have been
proposed as evidence for innate categories are better seen as the result of
children's observational analysis. For example, German children sometimes
confuse the locative meaning of zu 'to' with a possessive meaning. Slobin
interprets this confusion as stemming from children's inherent tendency to
conflate possession and location. However, as Bowerman notes, in adult German,
there are contexts in which zu marks a possessive-like rather than a strictly
locative meaning. The child's errors may stem from his observation of this
input pattern and his overly productive application of the pattern in his
Bowerman's argument seeks explanation for child language data with
reference to the input rather than by invoking a priori conceptual structures.
A few cross-linguistic studies (e.g., Stepheny, 1981, in Modern Greek and
de Lemos, 1981, in Brazilian Portuguese) provide strong support to her
argument in the domain of the acquisition of tense and aspect. The present
findings are consistent with this argument. In adult Chinese, the resultative
verb construction is used particularly to encode events with an end result, and it clearly reflects the importance of the resultative meaning. Moreover, as
discussed earlier, there are structural constraints between positions of the
construction, verb types, and aspect markers. These constraints show up most
clearly as the correlation between process and imperfective aspect and between
result and perfective aspect. Chinese children's sensitivity to the distinction between process and result in their acquisition of sentences with zai and ba
constructions may well reflect their analysis of these properties in the target language, rather than the guidance of pre-structured semantic categories.
However, since the present study has not directly examined the relationship
between children's speech and the input, more detailed study is needed before
decisive conclusions can be drawn on the role of input versus semantic
1. I would like to thank Melissa Bowerman, Wolfgang Klein, and Maya Hickmann
for insightful discussions on the material presented here. The writing of
this paper was made possible by a grant from the Human Frontier Science
2. Most Chinese prepositions are historically derived from their corresponding
verbs through a process that historical linguists call as xuehua
(grammaticalization). In this paper, I will be only concerned with the
morpheme's synchronic meaning.
3. There has been much confusion concerning the use of this term. In Li (1990), an effort was made to clarify the confusion for the proper use of this term.
4. These authors did not use the term aktionsart for this context. Their actual terms were 'time schemata' (Vendler) and 'situations' (Comrie).
5. The three capitalized letters are an abbreviation of the child's name.
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