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A Discourse Approach to the Functions of Major Chinese Grammatical Constructions and Their Alternations in Conversation


Given alternative grammatical options, how do native speakers make the choice in a given communicative context? Drawing data from 300 videotaped conversations from a spontaneous talk show in Mandarin Chinese (100 hours; one-million words), this study is the first to use a discourse adjacent alternation method to investigate how real-life speakers in a single conversation use alternative grammatical constructions to describe the same event.

This study proposes the concept of LENS as speakers’ subjective evaluation of reality, especially their attitudes towards an event. This study reveals four lenses that can influence Chinese native speakers’ linguistic choice-making in conversational discourse, as well as the prototypical functions of four major Chinese grammatical constructions: 1) Significance: highly consequential, challenging, or important. The ba-construction is a significance marker that can present a transitive event as highly consequential, highly important, or highly challenging. 2) Factuality: a fact or a truth. The unmarked passive construction is a factuality marker that can present the result of a transitive event as a fact or a truth. 3) Uncontrollability: Participants having little control over the occurrence of the event. The rang-construction is an uncontrollability marker that can present the affectee of a transitive event as having little control over the situation, be it an emotional or perceptual reaction, a passive consequence, a beneficial result, or a requested action. 4) Adversity: undesirable for the affectee or speaker sympathizing with the affectee. The bei-passive construction is an adversity categorizer that can categorize the nature of a transitive event as adverse for the affectee.

A theoretical contribution of this study is the proposal of “lens” as a new aspect of construal. The findings raise questions as to how other languages encode these lenses and what other lenses may exist. A methodological contribution is the outline of the discourse adjacent alternation method. The analysis provides valuable material for future research in Chinese linguistics. The findings also carry implications for utilizing authentic materials for language teaching and for teaching Chinese as a second language. In all, this study sheds light on the pragmatic factors in linguistic choice-making during social interaction.

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