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“帮助他(bāngzhù tā) is Correct, but 帮忙他(bāngmáng tā) is Not?” 离合词(Separable words): A Special Kind of Chinese Verbs


The word “help” can be translated as either “帮助” (bāngzhù) or “帮忙”(bāngmáng) in Chinese. But when you want to say “help him”, you will be corrected by your Chinese teacher if you say 帮忙他 (bāngmáng tā). There is a reason why you can only say 帮助他 (help him) although帮助” (bāngzhù) and “帮忙”(bāngmáng) have the same meaning. Even more advanced students of Chinese may find this confusing.

There are a special group of verbs in Chinese called “separable words”, or 离合词 (lí hé cí). They are different from general verbs, and may seem like one of the most difficult aspects of the Chinese language. The word “帮忙” (bang máng) belongs to this category of verbs. I will illustrate for you what separable words are, how to use them in sentences, and explain the contrasts between separable words and general verbs. (Besides the detailed explanation about the Separable Words, you can also check more HSK grammar tutorial videos at here.)

离合词 (lí hé cí)

“离” (lí) means separate, “合” (hé) means unite. Thus, “离合词” (lí hé cí), as the name implies, means that this kind of words can be used as a single word or as a phrase.

Take “帮忙” (bāngmáng) as an example. This word consists of two characters “帮” (bāng) and “忙” (máng) . These two characters can be used together, such as:

他有困难,我们应该帮忙。 (Tā yǒu kùnnán, wŏmen yīnggāi bāngmáng.)
He has difficulties, we should do (him) a favor. (the “him” is implied)

Yet, the two characters can also be used separately, such as:

他有困难,我们应该他的。(Tā yǒu kùnnán, wǒmen yīnggāi bāng tā de máng.)
He has difficulties, we should do him a favor.

General verbs cannot be separated under any circumstances. For example, if you put the general verb “帮助” in a sentence, these two characters cannot be separated. Notice, however, you can use only one of the characters, such as:

我要他。 (wǒ yào bāng tā.)
I want to help him.

This is another situation that is not covered in this article.

But how do you judge whether a word is separable or not? Here is a trick: The first character of a separable word often indicates an action, and the second character is often a noun which is affected by the action word in front. For example:

  • 见面(jiànmiàn) meet,
  • 握手(wòshǒu) shake hands,
  • 跳舞(tiàowǔ) dance

These all belong to separable words. “见”(jiàn), “握”(wò) and “跳”(tiào) are all verbs. “面”(miàn), “手”(shǒu) and “舞”(wǔ) are all nouns. But this trick does not work for all separable words. It must still be said that the most effective way to know separate words is through experience and daily learning.

The common usages of separable words

(1) We often place modifiers between the two characters that make up a separable word, such as dynamic auxiliary words like “着 (zhe), 了(le), 过(guò)”; complement words of momentum like “次”(cì); quantifier complements like “一个小时(yí ge xiǎoshí) and 三天(sān tiān)”; directional complement words like “起来(qǐlái), or 下去(xiàqü)”. Here are some examples:

我们。(Wǒmen jiàn guò miàn.)
We have met each other.

过两次。(Tā jié guò liǎng cì hūn.)
She has been married two times.

了一个小时。(Tā kàn le yí ge xiǎoshí shū.)
He read the book for an hour.

听到这个消息,她来。(tīng dào zhè ge xiāoxi, tā shēng qǐ qì lái.)
Hearing this news, she got angry.

But the two characters of general words cannot be separated. Instead, we can put modifiers behind or after the general verbs. Some examples:

研究过这个问题。(Tā yánjiū guò zhè ge wèntí.)
He has studied this problem.

这篇文章我修改了三次。 (Zhè piān wénzhāng wǒ xiūgǎi le sān cì.)
I revised this article three times.

这个问题我们商量了一上午。(Zhè ge wèntí wǒmen shāngliang le yí shàngwǔ.)
We discussed this item for a whole morning.

我们不能再合作下去了。(Wǒmen bù néng zài hézuòxiàqü le.)
We cannot keep cooperating anymore.

(2) As for the overlapping form of separable words, we only need to repeat the verb, which is the first character. For example, if the separable word is “AB”, its overlapping form is “AAB”:

我想和你聊聊天儿。(Wǒ xiǎng hé nǐ liáo liáotiānr.)
I want to have a chat with you.

晚饭后我们出去散散步吧。(Wǎnfàn hòu wǒmen chūqü sàn sànbù ba.)
Let’s go for a walk after dinner.

But if “AB” is a general word, its overlapping form should be “ABAB”. For example:

下课了,大家休息休息吧!(Xiàkè le, dàjiā xiūxi xiūxiba.)
Class is over and you can all can have a rest.

这个问题很复杂,我们需要讨论讨论再做决定。(Zhè ge wèntí hěn fùzá, wǒmen xǖyào tǎolùn tǎolùn zài zuò juédìng.)

It’s such a complicated problem that we need further discussion before making the decision.

(3) When there is a complement of momentum or quantifier complement to modify the separable word, you can put the modifier between the two characters. You can also repeat the verb in front. For example:

我们了半个小时。(Wǒmen zhào le bàn ge xiǎoshíxiàng.)
We spent half an hour taking photos.

我们照相照了半个小时。(Wǒmen zhàoxiàng zhào le
bàn ge xiǎoshí.)
We spent half an hour taking photos.

他一辈子了三次。(Tā yíbèizi jié le sān cì hūn.)
He got married three times in his whole life.

他一辈子结婚结了三次。(Tā yíbèizi jiéhūn jié le sān cì.)
He got married three times in his whole life.

Note that if there is a state complement, you can`t put it between the two characters any more. The only usage is to repeat the first character of the separable word. For example:

听课听得快睡着了。(Tā tīngkè tīng de kuài shuì zháo le.)
While he was listening to lesson, he nearly fell asleep.

跑步跑得满头是汗。(Wǒ pǎobù pǎo de mǎn tóu shì hàn.)
I ran with sweat all over my face.

These two usages are not applicable for the general verbs. Instead, you can place all kinds of complements behind the general verbs. For example:

他们商量了一个小时。(Tāmen shāngliang le yí gè xiǎo shí.)
They discussed for an hour.

我们讨论得很热闹。(Wǒmen tǎolùn de hěn rènao.)
We were in a quite a lively discussion.

(4) You can`t add an object directly after the separable word. Instead, the object can be introduced in the sentence by preposition or pronoun. For example:

我今天下午和他见面。(Wǒ jīntiān xiàwǔ hé tā jiànmiàn.)
I will meet him this afternoon.

你应该向他道歉。(Nǐ yīnggāi xiàng tā dàoqiàn.)
You should make an apology to him.

你好像她的了。(Nǐ hǎoxiàng shēng tā de qì le.)
It seems that you are angry with her.

Of course, the general verbs are not restricted by this rule. Any object can be added directly, if needed. For example:

晚上8点我要收看一个电视节目。(Wǎnshang bā diǎn wǒ yào shōukàn yí ge diànshì jiémù.)
I will watch a TV program at 8 o’clock in the evening.

我给你介绍一个新朋友吧。(Wǒ gěi nǐ jièshào yí ge xīn péngyou ba.)
Let me introduce a new friend to you.

Separable words list

Here is a list of some common separable words and common general verbs for your study.

Separable words:


General verbs:


In this article, we have learned the conception and usage of 离合词(líhé cí). It is indeed a difficult part of Chinese grammar. You may feel a bit confused at first, but practice and study will lead to understanding and mastery of离合词(líhé cí). This is part of the journey toward speaking and understanding authentic Chinese, and to have better communication with native Chinese speakers.

Spring Zhang

Spring Zhang (张云梦) earned her Master' s Degree from Beijing Language and Culture University in 2016. A 7- year studying experience majoring in Teaching Chinese as an International Language provided her with a solid and professional foundation as a Chinese teacher. During her time as a student, she also had 4-year experience teaching overseas students in universities, which makes her understand her students' difficulties better. She now lives in Singapore and she devotes herself to Chinese Language education.

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