Separable verbs get their name from their ability to "separate" into two parts (a verb part and an object part), with other words in between. In fact, you could also simply call separable verbs "verb-object phrases." In Chinese, these are called 离合词 (líhécí), and sometimes they are also referred to as verb-object phrases.
What Are Separable Verbs?
Separable verbs consist of two characters: the first is the verb, and the second is the object. Very often, these two will appear together, seemingly acting as a single verb, as in 吃饭, "to eat," 见面, "to meet," or 睡觉, "to sleep." But the two can also separate, and the verb can also be used without the object.
Verb + Object
Verb... [Other Stuff]... Object
Typical Learner Mistake
Let's look at a typical example in Chinese, using the verb 见面, meaning "to meet." 见 is the verb; 面 is the object, which literally means "face," but is never translated as such. The mistake everyone makes is to put an object after 见面. You can't do this, though, because 见面 already has its own object.
Wǒ méiyǒu shíjiān jiànmiàn.
I don't have time to meet.
[Note: It may seem like it has no object, but 面 is the object.]
Wǒ méiyǒu shíjiān jiàn nǐ.
I don't have time to meet you.
[Note: Here, 见 is the verb and 你 is the object.]
- 我没有时间见面你。<<< BAD EXAMPLE, Never say it this way!
Wǒ méiyǒu shíjiān jiànmiàn nǐ.
I don't have time to meet you.
[Note: 面 is the object, so adding 你 after it is wrong.]
Key Features of Separable Verbs
Many separable verbs can't be easily translated into other languages in a way that makes both the verb and the object part clear. For instance, 见面 ("to meet"), 睡觉 ("to sleep"), and 游泳 ("to swim") are such examples. In these examples, it's just not easy to think of the objects as a separate word.
The relationship between the verb and the object in a separable verb pair is very close; adding the object to the verb is sort of the "default form" of the verb, even if the verb part can be used without the object.
Separable verbs are a source of frequent errors from learners of Chinese because you can't add an object after a separable verb. Many learners don't know if a verb is a regular two-character verb like 工作 or a verb-object construct like 开会. If you don't know, you're sure to use it wrong.
The key to using separable verbs correctly is to remember that they are "Verb + Object" constructs. The verb alone must be treated as a verb, and the object cannot be treated as part of the verb.
How to Use Separable Verbs
The first step in mastering separable verbs is knowing which verbs are actually separable verbs.
Some of the more common separable verbs are as follows:
"to eat a meal"
"to go on a business trip"
"to read a book"
"to celebrate the new year"
"to drive a car"
"to have a meeting"
"to see the doctor"
"to get angry"
"to have a discussion"
"to have a bath"
"to have a swim"
Slightly less common separable verbs that are still useful for intermediate learners include:
"to help out"
"to split up"
"to get married"
"to take a vacation"
"to get a divorce"
"to go for a run"
"to talk a walk"
"to line up"
Perhaps the most common examples of separable verbs that beginners first struggle with are 见面 and 睡觉. What makes them especially hard is that the "object" part of each word have no obvious translation equivalent counterpart in English. "Meet face?" "Sleep a sleep?" It all feels very odd.
Below are introductions for a few separable verbs in more detail, with more examples, and also more specific cases which can trip up learners.
Using 跟 with Separable Verbs
A few verbs allow you to effectively add an additional object by using a 跟 (“with”) or 和 (“and”) phrase before the verb.
跟 + Person + Verb + Object
In this pattern, the verb-object construct remains unseparated.
Wǒ míngtiān gēn tā jiànmiàn.
I'll meet him tomorrow.
Wǒ bùyào gēn tā jiéhūn.
I don't want to marry her.
Nǐ hái méiyǒu 跟 wǒ dàoqiàn.
You still haven't apologized to me.
You'll have to learn which separable verbs allow this pattern on a case-by-case basis.
Where to put 了, 过, 着 with Separable Verbs
Hint: they go after the verb, not the object.
Verb + 了 / 过 / 着 + Object
Tā zuótiān lái wǒ jiā le, hái chī le fàn.
He came to my house yesterday and he ate a meal with us.
Tā chī guo fàn le ma?
Has he eaten yet?
Tā zhèng chī zhe fàn ne.
He's eating a meal right now.
Wǒmen zuótiān jiàn le miàn.
We met yesterday.
[Note: Here, the verb and object are separated, and 了 is inserted.]
Wǒmen jiàn guo miàn.
[Note: Here, the verb and object are separated, and 过 is inserted.]
Wǒmen zǎoshang kāi le huì.
We had a meeting in the morning.
Nǐmen kāi guo huì le ma?
Have you had the meeting yet?
Wǒmen zhèng kāi zhe huì ne.
We're having a meeting right now.
Unlike the particles 过 and 着, the particle 了 is especially tricky, and it can also appear after the object. So it can be correct in multiple places.
Where to Put Measure Words with Separable Verbs
You guessed it: they go after the verb, not the object.
Verb + [Measure Word Phrase] + Object
Wǒmen yīqǐ chī guo jǐ cì fàn.
We've had several meals together.
Lǎobǎn qǐng dàjiā chī le yī dùn fàn.
The boss treated everyone to dinner.
Wǒmen jiàn gè miàn ba.
Wǒmen jiàn guo jǐ cì miàn.
We've met a few times.
Wǎn'ān! Shuì gè hǎo jiào.
Good night! I hope you have a good sleep.
Zuówǎn wǒ zhǐ shuì le liǎng gè xiǎoshí jiào.
I only slept two hours last night.
How to Reduplicate Separable Verbs
Reduplication is a way to express the casual nature of a verb or that it happens only briefly. When it comes to separable verbs, only the verb part reduplicates.
Verb + Verb + Object
Note that you can't put 一下 after separable verbs to express that it happened briefly.
- 见面一下 <<< BAD EXAMPLE, never say it this way!
Common Examples and Common Mistakes with Separable Verbs
帮忙 (bāngmáng) to help; to do a favor. 帮 is the verb; 忙 is the object, meaning "a favor."
- 我们可以帮忙你。 <<< BAD EXAMPLE, never say it this way!
Wǒmen kěyǐ bāngmáng nǐ.
- 我们可以帮你。<<< GOOD EXAMPLE
Wǒmen kěyǐ bāng nǐ.
We can help you.
- 我们可以帮忙。<<< GOOD EXAMPLE
Wǒmen kěyǐ bāngmáng.
We can do (you) this favor.
If you want to ask someone to do you a favor, check this out:
Nǐ kěyǐ bāng wǒ yī gè máng ma?
Can you do me a favor?
结婚 (jiéhūn) to get married. 结 is the verb; 婚 acts as the object, meaning "marriage." However, 婚 cannot typically be used as a noun by itself.
- 我想结婚她。<<< BAD EXAMPLE, never say it this way!
Wǒ xiǎng jiéhūn tā.
Wǒ xiǎng gēn tā jiéhūn.
I want to get married to her.
[Note: The prepositional phrase, literally "with her," comes before the verb.]
聊天 (liáotiān) to chat; to talk (about things in general). 聊 is the verb; 天 acts as the object.
- 他很喜欢聊天女生。<<< BAD EXAMPLE, never say it this way!
Tā hěn xǐhuan liáotiān nǚshēng.
Tā hěn xǐhuan liáotiān nǚshēng.
He loves talking about girls.
Tā hěn xǐhuan gēn nǚshēng liáotiān.
He loves talking with girls.
[Note: The prepositional phrase, literally "with you," comes before the verb.]
Literally, 天 means something like “all day long”. The object needs to be something specific if you mean to be clear.
- 爸爸不喜欢聊天他的工作。<<< BAD EXAMPLE, never say it this way!
Bàba bù xǐhuan liáotiān tā de gōngzuò.
Bàba bù xǐhuan liáo tā de gōngzuò.
My father doesn't like to talk about his work.
Why Use Them
If separable verbs are simply verb-object phrases, then why the special name? It's because there are some special features of Chinese verb-object phrases worth special attention, and the name "separable verbs" helps call attention to this. Mastering separable verbs can be a little tricky and is an essential objective of the intermediate level learner of Chinese. You don't really need to master this point until second- or third-semester Chinese, so don't worry about it too much in CHN101.
Separable verbs are just one of those things you can't avoid. Many extremely common verbs, such as "to sleep" (睡觉) or "to meet" (见面) are separable verbs, and until you understand which verbs are separable verbs and how they work, you'll forever be making mistakes with these words, even in very basic sentences. In addition, you will continue to encounter new separable verbs, and being already familiar with the concept makes mastering new words much easier.
There is some debate as to how useful the concept of separable verbs really is. For our purposes, we're only concerned with whether or not separable verbs are a useful concept for the student of Mandarin Chinese. Many learners do, in fact, find the concept to be quite useful in helping them speak more natural Chinese.
[adapted from AllSet Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki, Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA 3.0]
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If you have any questions about this grammar point, please ask in the class forums!