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The Importance of Comma in Chinese text


agewisdom
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Dear All,

 

I came across a very interesting lesson on Du Chinese that really hit home the importance of the COMMA in Chinese text. Just a very simple sentence, which is:

" 我喜欢上一个人".

 

In the lesson, there were about 4 meanings in the sentence depending on the imaginary comma or emphasis on the words. One of which, if I interpret correctly is somewhat naughty. :P

 

" 我喜欢上一个人"

 

Click to find out!

Spoiler

 

1. First, 我喜欢上一个人

no comma... It just literally means "I started to like someone"

 

2. Secondly, 我喜欢上, 一个人

I started to like being alone, just by myself and not together with others.

 

3. Thirdly, 我喜欢, 上一个人

I still prefer my ex-girlfriend, not my current girlfriend.

 

4. Fourthly, 我喜欢, 上, 一个人

This is a somewhat naughty... so maybe I'll leave it to your imagination. Else, click at your own risk! :P

 

Spoiler

I like to have intimate relations with someone.

 

 

Where the imaginary comma is placed, or whether if it was there at all could totally change the meaning of the sentence. Now, my questions as follows:

 

1. Is this a common problem with a lot of the Chinese text? Especially for older classical Chinese texts, how would one deal with the lack of comma in these texts? I imagine this could give rise to a lot of ambiguities.

 

2. Are there any good resources on how to deal with the issue of the comma? Mainly, how do we learn where this imaginary 'comma' exists to give meaning to the text? One could guess from the context of the entire paragraph but I was wondering whether there's a better way.

 

3. Does anyone have any humorous stories about misinterpretation of articles due to a lack of the comma?

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I always think Chinese lacks enough commas I remember certainly when I was studying many students seemed to have the same problem . 

As you get better you naturally insert them mentally. The problem does seem to fade away in time when you have enough exposure

To learn them I try read the sentence more fluidly and not stumble my way through it . If there are several unknown words, then once I have got the hang of them, I reread the sentence without pausing 

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1 minute ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

I always think Chinese lacks enough commas

And yet there are other times when run-on sentence separated by a comma follows run-on sentence separated by a comma and why oh why didn't they just use a fullstop.

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32 minutes ago, DavyJonesLocker said:

As you get better you naturally insert them mentally. The problem does seem to fade away in time when you have enough exposure

 

Interesting. But if it's the case of my example above, wouldn't it be a problem if you do not have enough context to guess where the comma should be placed? Or is this really not an issue most of the time?

 

I haven't actually started reading any heavy text yet, so just thought I'd ask your opinions.

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42 minutes ago, Shelley said:

Are you aware there are 2 types of comma? The one we are use to for separating related clauses (comma) and the one that is used to separate items in a list (enumerated comma)

 

This explained it simply and clearly for me https://chinese4kids.net/chinese-punctuation-marks/

 

Nope. No idea whatsoever. Thanks for the useful link :)

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21 hours ago, agewisdom said:

Especially for older classical Chinese texts, how would one deal with the lack of comma in these texts?

 

Back in the day, readers would often annotate a text with punctuation as they read it. This was also a good way for a teacher to quickly see if their students understood a text. 

 

In very early texts, like the surviving bamboo strips found in tombs, it is not clear whether the scribe put these comma-style punctuation marks as he wrote the text, or whether a later reader added them. But they're there nonetheless.

 

21 hours ago, agewisdom said:

I imagine this could give rise to a lot of ambiguities.

 

Scholars still debate over correct punctuation, especially for classical (pre-Qin) texts. If you pick up different modern editions you'll find they're often punctuated differently. E.g. the  second line of Laozi 1 is sometimes written: 

 

無,名天地之始;有,名萬物之母 

 

which is quite different to 

 

無名,天地之始;有名,萬物之母

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@mouse Many thanks for your insights. Your explanation is exactly what I was wondering about. Especially when I was reading some English translation of certain texts like Dao De Jing where the translators were mentioning some difficulties in translating certain passages as the interpretation could be vastly different, depending on where one mentally places the comma.

 

Are there any books or lessons that teaches native learners where to place the comma? Is it more of something acquired over time and done by instinct?

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@SunnySideUp

 

" 我喜欢上一个人"

 

1. First, 我喜欢上一个人

no comma... It just literally means "I started to like someone"

 

2. Secondly, 我喜欢上, 一个人

I started to like being alone, just by myself and not together with others.

 

3. Thirdly, 我喜欢, 上一个人

I still prefer my ex-girlfriend, not my current girlfriend.

 

4. Fourthly, 我喜欢, 上, 一个人

This is a somewhat naughty... so maybe I'll leave it to your imagination. Else, click at your own risk! :P

Spoiler

I like to have intimate relations with someone.

 

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I think the mental comma idea is a bit confusing, because it is a very different ‘thing’ from an actual comma. What you’re doing is delineating scope of the words in the sentence by using the mental comma, and I find square brackets to be more appealing personally, because then you can represent the relationships between all the words in terms of which word they’re most closely related to:

 

1. 我 [ 喜歡上 [ [ 一個 ] [ 人 ] ] ]

Where 喜歡上 can be seen as one phrasal unit that means “to take a liking to,” and 一個 is its own unit that counts the noun 人

 

2. 我 [ 喜歡上 [ 一個人 ] ]

Where 喜歡上 can be seen as one phrasal unit that means “to take a liking to,” but 一個 forms a compound with 人 to make 一個人  which means “alone, by oneself”

 

3. 我 [ 喜歡 [ [ 上一個 ] [ 人 ] ] ]

Where 喜歡 is the verb, and now 上 works with 一個 to make 上一個 meaning “the previous (one),” operating just like the 1st example now to refer to the noun 人

 

4. 我 [ 喜歡 [ 上 [ [ 一個 ] [ 人 ] ] ] ]

Where 喜歡 and 上 are both verbs, taking advantage of the fact that “like” can be used with noun phrase objects and with verb phrase objects and 上 can be understood as “to mount”

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3 hours ago, 陳德聰 said:

What you’re doing is delineating scope of the words in the sentence by using the mental comma, and I find square brackets to be more appealing personally, because then you can represent the relationships between all the words in terms of which word they’re most closely related to

 

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. In terms of grouping these characters using square brackets, how did you learn to do this when you learning Chinese? Was it more an instinctive process or were you formally taught this?

 

And I am curious as to how Chinese text actually denote these groupings as you mentioned? Do they actually use the commas? Or some other symbols? I'm still at a stage of using TCB and Du Chinese at elementary levels, so much of these problems doesn't arise.

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I appropriated it from my studies in linguistics.

 

As for how Chinese text actually denotes these groupings, it typically doesn’t. The symbols “,” and ”。” are mostly used for separating clauses, and not used to mark phrase boundaries, i.e. the type of separation you are creating when you add your mental commas above.

 

Part of learning to read and write Chinese is consuming enough material that you begin to naturally parse sentences into their proper composite parts. Intermediate learners and occasionally advanced ones still will run into parsing issues and it will cause misunderstanding. I think one mark of a precise writer is being able to notice these ambiguities and eliminate them before they reach the reader, but not everyone is that interested in making their writing easy to read.

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1 hour ago, 陳德聰 said:

The symbols “,” and ”。” are mostly used for separating clauses

Apologies, but could you elaborate on this further? Do you mean, they most use the above symbols to denote the end of a sentence, similar to a full stop in English? Or something else entirely?

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2 hours ago, 陳德聰 said:

I think one mark of a precise writer is being able to notice these ambiguities and eliminate them before they reach the reader, but not everyone is that interested in making their writing easy to read.

 

Interesting. How would a precise writer resolve these ambiguities, say in my above example? Through use of comma or another symbol? Or some other means?

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2 hours ago, agewisdom said:

Apologies, but could you elaborate on this further? Do you mean, they most use the above symbols to denote the end of a sentence, similar to a full stop in English? Or something else entirely?

 

。 is a full stop. It ends a sentence. ,is a pause that usually coincides with the end of a clause (the next unit smaller than a sentence), or in set spots like after a subject, after a verb, or after an adverb, but with few set rules on exactly how that should be carried out, so it’s often up to the writer to make those decisions.

 

As for your example, the only natural places I can see a , appearing are here:

 

我,喜歡上一個人 <- literally no different from the sentence without the comma, this is not a sentence that would ever necessitate the comma-after-subject comma.

 

我喜歡,上一個人 <- I like that previous person / I like to mount someone

 

我喜歡上,一個人 <- honestly this sounds like gibberish to me, as if 喜歡上 is a thing one can do alone, and I am saying “I’ll do it, alone” or weirder, that 上 is being used as a standalone verb and it’s like “I like to go up, alone” It is still not clear, even with the comma, that 一個人 means “alone” and not “someone.” So really it could also still mean “I’ve taken a liking to someone.”

 

That’s because 上 simply has multiple meanings, so if you put it in a place in a sentence where it could conceivably be either, you’re going to get ambiguity. The only way to make it clear is to provide context.

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