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Difficulties with Pulleyblank's 可 and 可以

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Hi everyone,


I've been studying 文言文 for a little while now, and recently I started reading through Pulleyblank's Outline of Classical Chinese Grammar


Before Pulleyblank, I thought I had the distinction between 可 and 可以 down, but his explanation has confused me a bit.  The following concerns p.42-4, if you want to look it up.

He gives the examples...


Noun  Verb = Passive

 王殺 (the king can be killed)

 天下運於掌  (.... The world may be revolved in the palm of your hand.)

 久則變 (Having lasted a long time, it was difficult to change)


Noun 可以 Verb (+ Object )  = active

 刀可以殺(人)  (a knife can kill a man)


Noun 可使 Verb  or  Noun 可謂 noun  = passive

 (民)可使制梃(以撻秦楚之堅甲利兵矣)They may be made to fashion clubs with which to strike the hard armor and sharp weapons of Qin and Chu


 (是)可謂孝矣   (It/This may be called filial)


Ok, no problems so far.


But then he adds another form (p.43), which he calls an active construction:


可 + active verb + 之(object)

He says, the object 之 refers to something that came earlier in the discourse


 何如斯可謂之士矣 (What must one be like before it is possible to call him on the gentry?)

 以不忍直心,行不忍之政,治天下可運之掌上 (With a merciful heart practicing merciful government, ruling the world [as if] it was possible to turn it in the palm of one's hand)


My question is, what is the difference between 可+ active verb + object  = active   on the one hand, and 可+ active verb on the other?

In other words, what is the difference between (此)可謂孝矣 / (子)可謂士矣 / (天下)可運於掌  and  (此)可謂孝矣 / (子)可謂士矣 / (天下)可運於掌  ? 

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I don't think there is one, as far as I can tell. Objects like 之 are often omitted anyway. After looking at a few examples, it seems like the 之 might be included where the 可 occurs at the middle of a clause rather than at the beginning, but I can't think of how it would change the actual meaning. 



I think this is clearest in a passage from Xunzi 哀公, where the interlocutor 哀公 asks a series of questions that are all in more or less the same form: 何如斯可謂...







Is there a significant difference between #3 and the rest? I don't think so. This is where strict grammatical interpretations of 文言 can be problematic. I think you would be tempted in this case to say that the 之 here is "meaningless," but that's not exactly right: it's not meaningless, it is playing the role of verb object, it's just that the 之 in this case is not strictly necessary--the question still makes perfect sense without it. 

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I also find no meaningful difference between the two sets of expressions in OP's question.


On the other hand, I find some of the examples questionable in the so-far-so-good section leading up to the question.


1) 刀可以殺(人)  (a knife can kill a man)

We know that classical Chinese is largely monosyllabic. I'm not saying it's always the case but more often than not 可以 should be read as two words: 可 (=可以) + 以 (=用來). 他山之石,可以攻玉 = 別的山上的石頭,可以用來琢磨玉器. A more accurate translation of 刀可以殺(人) would be "a knife can be used to kill a man" (passive and more idiomatic in English) or "as for a knife, one can use it to kill a man" (active and more faithful to the original Chinese).


2) (民)可使制梃以撻秦楚之堅甲利兵矣 They may be made to fashion clubs with which to strike the hard armor and sharp weapons of Qin and Chu

使 clearly marks a causative construction: 使 = to make (do), to let (do). 可使制梃以撻秦楚之堅甲利兵矣 = 可以讓他們操着木棍來打贏盔甲堅硬兵器銳利的秦楚軍隊了. (制 does not mean 'to fashion' by the way; it means 控、操 'to wield'.) And classifying 2) as passive directly contradicts the classification of 1) as active.


The problem with the author seems to be he's forcing classical Chinese, which is meaning-oriented but flexible in forms, into a neat active-passive / subject-verb-object English framework. For one thing, in Chinese, the object of a transitive verb is not required to appear at all. The best practice is probably, to borrow a chengyu, 得意忘形, get the meaning and forget the form.


可 signifies potentiality. It's not intrinsically active or passive. English verbs do not have a potential form but other languages may have. Is it still passive if I translate 根可食 as 'the root is edible' or 'the root you can eat' instead of 'the root can be eaten'?


以 marks a noun as instrumental 'with N', and the noun can be omitted if it's inferable.


使 marks a causative construction 'to cause X to do Y', and if X is inferable it can be omitted too.


謂 is a verb that means both 'speak' and 'be spoken of as'. Accept it and stop fixating on whether it's active or passive.

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On 2018/4/15 at 9:34 AM, Publius said:

(制 does not mean 'to fashion' by the way; it means 控、操 'to wield'.)

Just want to mention that 漢語大詞典 has that exact sentence as an example sentence for 制 with the meaning 造作.


I also can't find any mention of 制 being used in the manner you are suggesting. I found 手不制筆, but I feel like the usage can be explained by "to control" rather than by "to wield".

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I see, thank you for the clarification.

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