Accessible Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton July 11, 2019

Ways of expressing counterfactual conditionals in Mandarin Chinese

Yan Jiang ORCID logo
From the journal Linguistics Vanguard


This paper discusses the ways in which Mandarin Chinese expresses counterfactual conditionals, and endeavours to motivate and theorize the use of such strategies. I aim to give an overall picture of Mandarin Chinese counterfactual conditionals, a topic which has hitherto not been covered in the Chinese linguistic literature. The strategies identified are the use of special lexicalized chunks to directly encode counterfactual meaning; the creation of tense mismatch and the accompanying counterfactual meaning, either through the use of relative tense pointing toward a hypothetical past event, or through the use of some special time adverbs; and the use of pure inference over conditionals with impossible or absurd antecedents. Overlaying these strategies is the presence of context-dependent simplifications, which may prompt the language user to omit the defining features of a given strategy.


My thanks go to Dr. Mingya Liu for her great efforts in organizing the workshop on conditionals where this paper was presented in its initial form and for her work in editing this volume. Thanks also go to the two anonymous reviewers whose comments led to substantive revisions and improvements. Finally, great thanks go to Angela Terrill, the copy-editor, for her expert comments on the content and for her skilful work in improving on the English language.


Bloom, Alfred H. 1981. The linguistic shaping of thought: A study in the impact of language on thinking in China and the West. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. New print by NY, NY & East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press, 2014. Search in Google Scholar

Chen, Guohua. 1988. Yīng hàn jiashè tiáojiàn jù bijiào [A comparison between English and Chinese hypothetical conditionals]. Foreign Language Teaching and Research 73. 10–19. Search in Google Scholar

Comrie, Bernard. 1985. Tense. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Ippolito, Michela & Julia Su. 2014. Counterfactuals, negation and polarity. In Luka Crnič & Uli Sauerland (eds.), The art and craft of semantics: A festschrift for Irene Heim, 70. 225–243. Vol. 1, MIT working papers in linguistics. Search in Google Scholar

Jiang, Yan. 2000. Hànyǔ tiáojiàn jù de wéishí jiěshì [On the counterfactual reading of Chinese conditionals]. In Bojiang Zhang (ed.), Studies and investigations on Chinese grammar, 257–279. Beijing: The Commercial Press. Search in Google Scholar

Jiang, Yan. 2019. Chinese and counterfactual reasoning. In Chu-Ren Huang, Zhuo Jing-Schmidt & Barbara Meiserernst (eds.), The Routledge handbook of Chinese applied linguistics, 276–293. Abingdon, Oxford & New York: Routledge. Search in Google Scholar

Jiang, Yan & Yuying Wang 2016. Counterfactual subjunctive assertions in Shanghai dialect. In Andy C.-O. Chin, Bit-chee Kwok & Benjamin K. Tsou (eds.) Commemorative essays for Professor Yuen Ren Chao: Father of modern Chinese linguistics, 193–201. Taipei: The Crane Publishing. Search in Google Scholar

Jing-Schmidt, Zhuo. 2017. What are they good for? A constructionist account of counterfactuals in ordinary Chinese. Journal of Pragmatics 113. 30–52. Search in Google Scholar

Karawani, Hadil. 2014. The real, the fake, and the fake fake: In counterfactual conditionals, crosslinguistically. Utrecht: LOT. Search in Google Scholar

Lin, Jo-wang. 2012. Tenselessness. In Robert I. Binnick (ed.) The Oxford handbook of tense and aspect, 669–695. Oxford University Press. Search in Google Scholar

Wang, Yuying. 2013. The ingredients of counterfactuality in Mandarin Chinese. Beijing: China Social Science Press. Search in Google Scholar

Wang, Yuying & Yan Jiang. 2011. Hànyǔ wéishí yì de gòuchéng yīnsù [The ingredients of counterfactuality in Chinese]. In Yan Jiang (ed.) Approaching formal pragmatics, 366–412. Shanghai Educational Publishing House. Search in Google Scholar

Yong, Qian. 2016. A corpus-based study of counterfactuals in Mandarin. Language and Linguistics 17(6). 891–915. Search in Google Scholar

Received: 2018-05-25
Accepted: 2019-04-03
Published Online: 2019-07-11

©2019 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston