How Chinese marks counterfactuality, syntactically

This is an ongoing project.

Faculty Researcher: Haiyong Liu

Contact Details

Haiyong Liu


Many languages resort to past tense to mark counterfactuality (e.g. I wish I WERE an astronaut) and some languages have specialized conditional clause for counterfactuality (e.g. if not for your helping me, I would have failed). But how does Chinese do this? Chinese doesn't have tense. I argue that past-time reference, instead of past tense, is a way Chinese uses to create counterfactuality. And the specialized lexical item yaobushi (if-not-be: if not for) works similarly to English 'if not for'. I am curious also why yaobushi requires a double negative in the consequent clause when used with the adverb cai 'not until'.


With basic training in linguistics, know the Chinese language fairly well.

Project Timeline

To be completed by the end of Summer 2014


I need to read the literature on counterfactuality in general and in Chinese particularly. I need to have a better understanding what past tense and past time reference are. I need to understand why modal verbs show up frequently in counterfactuality. I have to look at other languages to see how they realize counterfactuality. Also, I will do a corpus search to see if there are patterns that I haven't thought about or if the patterns I generalize run into counter examples.

Last Updated

March 21, 2014