Common mistakes with 把 (bǎ) in Chinese grammar
The 把 structure in Chinese is common and important, but quite difficult to get right. It’s a big issue and there’s a lot to learn, but have a look at this quick list of common 把 mistakes. It might save you some time if you iron these out before they become habits!
✗ Don't use 把 when there's no disposal
When you fist learn about the 把 structure, the hardest thing to grasp is the idea of disposal. Disposal simply means that something happened to the object and it was affected.
The structure 把 is used to talk about this ‘disposal’. If there’s no disposal, then you can’t use 把. Have a look at the following tips to get a better understanding of when to use 把.
✔ Use 把 to talk about things being put in places
One of the most common uses of 把 is to talk about things being put in places. This is done with the verb 放 (fàng). In fact, the 把 structure is so perfect for describing this that you pretty much have to use 把 in these situations. Here are some example sentences with 把 and 放:
In both these situations, the 把 structure really is the best way to describe the situation. The object (the bag or the things) are being put somewhere, and that’s their disposal.
✔ Use 把 to talk about things being changed
If the object gets changed or altered in some way, you should probably use 把. This is especially true if the objects gets changed into something else. Let’s have a look at some examples:
In each of these cases, something has been changed. Notice how it doesn’t have to be a physical object or a physical change - translations and mistakes count as ‘changes’ that work very well with 把.
✔ Use 把 to talk about things being finished or used up
Another common use of the 把 construction is to describe things being finished or used up. This works because the object has been directly affected - there’s less of it now (at least figuratively). Some examples:
Notice that the structure for this is:
把 [object] [verb] 完
The 完 at the end completes the structure and shows the disposal of the object. The need for the 把 structure to be complete in this way is explained further below.
✔ Use 把 to talk about things being damaged or destroyed
The 把 structure is very good for talking about the object being damaged or destroyed, as that’s a very direct effect! When used in this way, 把 often appears with the verb 弄 (nòng). Here some some examples:
These situations are perfect for 把 because they all involve the disposal of the object - something happened to it and it was affected.
✗ Don't use 把 with an indefinite object
As well as the disposal of the object, another requirement for 把 is that the object is specific. That means that the speaker and listener both know exactly what the object is. The object should be definite.
In English, this often means that the object will be preceded by “the” or a possessive such as “your” or “his”. In Chinese, it often means that there will be words like 那个 or a possessive like 你的 before the object. In Chinese, definite objects can also be unmarked. I.e., there is nothing before the object - just the object itself is enough to make it clear what the speaker is talking about.
✔ Give a definite quantity (or no quantity at all)
If you can put “一个” in front of the object, it’s not a definite object and probably shouldn’t be used with 把. Indefinite objects are often marked with “a” in English. Only use definite objects with 把. Some examples:
Notice how in each of these situations there could a quantity, but it isn’t be specified in the 把 construction. However, you can give a definite quantity in a 把 construction. This would make the above sentences look like this:
Hopefully the above examples show how the object has to be definite when using 把. The point is that the object is a specific one that is clear in context.
✔ Use an object the listener already knows about
The main point of this section is that the object has to be one the listener knows about. It has to be definite, or specific. Here are some more general examples:
As mentioned above, definite objects in English are often marked with ‘the’, ‘that’, ‘this’, or a possessive such as ‘your’ or ‘theirs’. These are the sort of objects you should use with 把.
✗ Not finishing off the 把 construction
You might have noticed in the examples and explanations above that there is always something after the verb in a 把 construction. This is to show the disposal of the object. In other words, you can’t just leave the verb hanging when you use 把. Finish it off with some sort of result or emphasis.
✔ Use 了 (le)
把 very often appears with 了, because 了 marks a completed action (i.e., disposal!). Have a look at some examples:
Without 了, the above sentences wouldn’t be valid 把 constructions, because the disposal of the object hasn’t been completed without 了 capping off the sentence.
✔ Double-up the verb
Another way to complete a 把 construction is to double-up (reduplicate) the verb. This indicates that the action is completed and that something has happened to the object. A couple of examples:
Note that reduplicating the verb in this way is the same as adding 一 in between (e.g. 看一看), or 了 (e.g. 看了看).
✔ Use a second object
You can also complete a 把 structure by adding a second object with 给 (gěi). Have a look at the examples below to get a feel for this:
The verb 给 (literally ‘to give’) is often used in Chinese as a preposition like ‘to’ or ‘for’ in English. It’s used to mark second objects in sentences, as shown above.
✔ Use verb + 成 + second object
Another way to add a second object is to use 成 (chéng) with 把. As mentioned above, if the object is changed into something else, it often makes a good candidate for a 把 sentence. Have a look at some examples:
This 把 + 成 structure is another very common use of 把.
✔ Use a descriptive complement
You may be interested to know that you can also use 把 to get a little bit more descriptive and interesting than the standard things being moved around, changed, affected etc. This is commonly done with a descriptive complement. This just means that some extra description comes right after the verb.
Have a look at these examples:
Notice the [verb] + 得 + [description] in the sentences above. These sentences work well with 把 because the verb has a clear result or conclusion.
✔ Use a direction complement
And finally, you can also use 把 with another kind of verbal complement: the direction complement. As the name suggests, this complement is used to describe the direction the action of the verb follows. Some examples:
That rounds up this (rather long) list of 把 mistakes and correct usages. If you have any questions or suggestions, please share them in the comments below!
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