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Using colors as adjectives


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I know that you can use red and some other colors as adjectives. For example, 他的脸很红 (his face is very red). Can I always remove the 色 from any color and do this? I feel like it might not work with, for example, purple.  For example, is it okay to say 你的衣服很紫 (your clothes are very purple)?

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To my knowledge, all colors work the same. You are misunderstanding the etymology here a bit, I think.


These words are +[色].  色's meaning is, roughly, "quality; qualia".


So 紫 is "purple" and 紫色 is "the quality of being purple" -- it is a noun (which may be used as an adjective, but principally it is a noun -- on its own is only ever an adjective). That's why the following sentence must use a 是/的 construction, and can't use a word like 很/非常/超级:




Or here is another example:




For you example, I personally would reword it entirely. 你的衣服很紫 sounds extremely awkward to me -- although I would love to be corrected if wrong, so more advanced speakers please step in if that is the case.


I would say:



As far as I know, you cannot say 很 the same way you could say "very " in English.



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I think "很紫" would just about be considered grammatical, but a kind of unusual, and may not even be easily understood in speech. The 很/好【color】 construction is usually used with 红、蓝、绿、黑、白:


  • 他的脸很红
  • 天好蓝呀
  • 草木很绿
  • 天已经很黑了
  • 皮肤好白啊


These are the same color words that can also be used as single characters (without 色) in other types of construction:


  • 小红书
  • 蓝领
  • 绿卡
  • 黑板
  • 小白鼠


Other color words almost always have -色.


On 9/9/2021 at 3:18 PM, 黄有光 said:

These words are +[色].  色's meaning is, roughly, "quality; qualia".


No, it just means "color", either literally or figuratively.


Edit: actually can add "黄" to the list of 很-able and sans-色-able color words, with the caveat that 很黄 usually has the figurative meaning of "pornographic", as in 很黄很暴力. But it can also have the literal meaning, as in this article about what to do if your urine is very yellow and smells weird: https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/41803500. 黄 also occurs without 色in other constructions, as in 小黄人 (Minions from the Despicable Me franchise).

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OK gonna post this as a new reply as the one above is getting pretty long.


I tried out some example sentences on my girlfriend (native Chinese speaker) to see how grammatically acceptable she found them. She said sentences with 很红、很紫、很粉 etc were all equally acceptable, but she thought 很橙 didn't sound right (but 很橘 sounded OK; 橙 and 橘 both mean orange). So that pretty conclusively disproved my initial hypothesis that there's a relatively set list of color words you can use this construction with.


To get more data, I scraped Google result numbers for the following queries:



"_的" -"色"

"很_" -"色"



In each case, _ is substituted for the base color; " wraps exact results; - means exclude that word (character) from the results.


I ran the queries with various color words in turn. Results below, expressed as a percentage of the total results for all constructions for a given color:


        base         _色的                 _的                 很_                 很_色                
70.16% 26.54% 3.15% 0.14%
66.03% 31.92% 2.04% 0.01%
49.63% 47.30% 2.96% 0.11%
绿 84.06% 14.95% 0.60% 0.39%
85.11% 13.74% 0.95% 0.20%
57.70% 37.20% 4.74% 0.36%
69.20% 30.42% 0.31% 0.07%
94.59% 5.26% 0.11% 0.04%
90.48% 9.40% 0.04% 0.07%
32.36% 66.53% 1.09% 0.01%
粉红 83.58% 16.05% 0.09% 0.27%
橘黄 77.28% 22.66% 0.01% 0.04%
71.81% 27.71% 0.47% 0.01%
30.48% 60.76% 8.69% 0.06%
69.97% 29.06% 0.77% 0.20%
37.75% 61.87% 0.35% 0.03%
59.49% 40.20% 0.25% 0.06%

As you can see, there are definite differences in how common the bare _的 vs _色的 forms are, as well as how common the 很_ forms are. The 很_色 form is almost universally very uncommon, which is what I expected, but there are weird anomalies there like 粉红, where the 很_色 form is more common.


The only 很_ forms above 1% are 黑、白、黄、粉、青, a slightly different list from mine.


Results for some combinations might be skewed, such as 很青 as 青 could be the first character of 青涩, or 橘的 as 橘 could be the last character of 金橘, etc.


So the overall takeaway is... language is messy. But that's what makes it fun, eh? 😄

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On 9/9/2021 at 7:17 PM, Demonic_Duck said:

No, it just means "color", either literally or figuratively.

Sorry, no, I am going to push back on this.











These are all words in which it makes the most sense to interpret 色s meaning as "quality; qualia", not as color.  



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I always think of the base meaning as "color", with the "quality" meaning being a figurative extension of that.


Outlier gives the original meaning as "facial expression, facial appearance", with "appearance, complexion" coming from that, followed by "color", and finally "quality, characteristic". So the "color" meaning didn't come first historically, but it did come before the "quality, characteristic" one, which is probably why I think of that as just being a figurative extension of "color".

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I suppose it has to do with gradability of adjectives (though I'm not sure as it's not my forte). Take 红 as an example. let's call it's original sense the sense0, and all other metaphorical senses (to some degrees) senseX.
Likely you've missed the nuances between sense0 and senseX, of which the former is likely not gradable syntactically. Let's discard technical details of type shifting for now and focus instead on the grading sense of 很 (or other adverbs).
    1a) 他脸有点红。
    1b) ?苹果很红。
    1c) ?苹果有点红
    2a) #衣服很红。(intended reading: 衣服是深红的)
    2b) #衣服有点红。(intended reading: 衣服有点偏红)
    3a) 衣服很红。(intended reading: 衣服很喜庆)
    3b) 衣服有点红。(intended reading: 衣服有点太喜庆了)

Not that (3a-b) respectively are more natural if they have different intended readings that are metaphorical.
Note also that "红" in (1a) doesn't denote the degree/amount of being red -- it's a typical metaphor. In the similar vein, "红" in (1b-c) is ambiguous in that it may denote either the sense0 or senseX (i.e. it denotes that "the apple is ripe/ripening")
A likely explanation may be that 红 in sense0 is categorical rather than interval/continuous. Thus if we intend to grade different degrees of brightness and saturation, we are actually grading degrees of brightness and saturation rather than the category of "red" per se. Syntactically, we use adjectives like深/浅 or nouns like 饱和度.Similarly, native English speakers would prefer "very dark" over "very red" (confirmation is needed as I'm not a native English speaker).

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On 9/12/2021 at 5:38 PM, Demonic_Duck said:

Outlier gives the original meaning as "facial expression, facial appearance",


Interestingly, one etymology of the English word "colour" says:


early 13c., "skin color, complexion," from Anglo-French culur, coulour, Old French color "color, complexion, appearance" (Modern French couleur), from Latin color "color of the skin; color in general, hue; appearance," from Old Latin colos, originally "a covering" (akin to celare "to hide, conceal"), from PIE root *kel- (1) "to cover, conceal, save." Old English words for "color" were hiw ("hue"), bleo. For sense evolution, compare Sanskrit varnah "covering, color," which is related to vrnoti "covers," and also see chroma.


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if you intend to say "his face is red", you could say 他的脸很红 or 他的脸是红色的

note that even though there is a 很 in the sentence, it doesn't always mean "very", it could simply mean that his face is red in colour. 

you could also say as 他的脸有点红


in this case, 色 shouldn't be interpreted separately from the colour character, since 色 could be used in many very different contexts meaning very different things, such as




and the many figurative usages stated above.


generally speaking 红 = 红色,however 红色 is more formal, and 红色couldn't replace 红in most of the set phrases involving 红,such as 红火,红灯笼,红楼梦 etc.


hopefully this could be helpful.



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