Modal Adverbs

Modal Adverbs – Chinese Adverbs

Chinese Lesson - How to Express Tone of Voice w/ Adverbs

There are 6 types of adverbs and this post will focus on modal adverbs.

In our tagging system of The Mandarin Blueprint Method Foundation Course, we refer to adverbs as “How Does What,” because that’s how they function. Adverbs tell you how an individual action takes place. We divide the sentences that contain adverbs into the following categories:

1. Deny 否定 (fǒudìng) – An adverb that denies or negates the action also called a negative adverb

2. How Often 频率 (pínlǜ) – An adverb that shows the frequency of action also called adverb of frequency

3. In What Range 范围 (fànwéi) – An adverb that specifies the range of action or also called scope adverb

4. Time 时间 (shíjiān) – An adverb that adds context to the amount of time that relates to action can also be named adverb of time

5. To What Degree 程度 (chéngdù) – An adverb that specifies the degree of action or adverb of degree

6. Tone of Voice 语气 (yǔqì) – An adverb that influences the tone of voice surrounding the action can also be called adverb of mood or modal adverb

The Chinese word for “adverb” is 副词 fùcí, which translates to “‘auxiliary’ or ‘subsidiary’ word.” Considering that you can’t use adverbs alone and must attach them to action, “subsidiary” is an apt description.

Modal Adverbs

Several Chinese adverbs serve to indicate how the speaker feels about the action. In other words, they show the tone of voice. Does the speaker feel exasperated? Do they want to get to the bottom of a problem? Do they think they have no choice? Let’s explore.

Sentence 1:

你最好坐车。- Level 19
Nǐ zuìhǎo zuòchē.
You’d better go by bus/train.

By throwing 最好 (zuìhǎo) in before 坐车 (zuòchē), the speaker carries a tone of giving advice. After all, “had better” sure does sound as though the speaker is wagging their finger at you!

NOTE: 坐车 (zuòchē) could mean “take the bus,” “take the train” or “take a car as a passenger.” It doesn’t mean “drive,” because that would be 开车 (kāichē).

Sentence 2 – Modal Adverbs:

我还是想坐飞机。- Level 14
Wǒ háishì xiǎng zuò fēijī.
I still want to go by plane.

This sentence could be the response to 你最好坐车 (Nǐ zuìhǎo zuòchē) because the speaker must have a reason for adding 还是 (háishì). Despite your suggestion that ‘they’d better go by bus,’ the speaker is nonetheless sticking to their plan to go by plane.

Sentence 3:

天啊,你到底什么意思?- Level 18
Tiāna, nǐ dàodǐ shénme yìsi?
Geez, what on earth do you mean?

到底 (dàodǐ) literally means “arrive at the bottom,” so if you want to “get to the bottom” of something, you’ll skip formalities and say “到底 (dàodǐ)“ to indicate you want to cut through the bull—er…nonsense. 

In the above sentence, there are a couple of contexts where they might say 你到底什么意思 (Nǐ dàodǐ shénme yìsi). The first would be if they were potentially offended. Perhaps you said something uncouth about his/her mother, and they want to get to the bottom of what you mean. 

Alternatively, perhaps you were beating around the bush about what you want. Frustrated with your lack of clarity, the speaker wants you to cut the crap and say what you mean.

Sentences 4 & 5 – Modal Adverbs:

你们总算回来了。- Level 18
Nǐmen zǒngsuàn huílái le.
You all finally returned.

今天终于有空了。- Level 24
Jīntiān zhōngyú yǒukòng le.
I finally have free time today.

Both 总算 (zǒngsuàn) & 终于 (zhōngyú) mean “finally.” The characters 总 (zǒng) & 算 (suàn) translate “total – computation.” 终 (zhōng) & 于 (yú) translate as “final – concerning.” You can use them interchangeably when you feel that something “finally” happened. The reason it indicates ‘tone of voice’ is that the idea that something has ‘finally’ taken place is all about the perception of the speaker. 

Sentence 6:

我只好同意。- Level 19
Wǒ zhǐ hǎo tóngyì.
I’ve no choice but to agree.

只好 (zhǐ hǎo) is a fascinating word because it means ‘to have no choice but…’ In other words, the ‘only 只 (zhǐ)‘ way to have a ‘good 好 (hǎo)’ outcome. If you just said “我同意 (Wǒ tóngyì)” there’s no particular indication as to why, but “我只好同意 (Wǒ zhǐ hǎo tóngyì)” shows that the speaker doesn’t necessarily want to agree, they just can’t see an alternative.

Sentence 7 – Modal Adverbs:

反正我不喜欢吃米饭。- Level 23
Fǎnzhèng wǒ bù xǐhuan chī mǐfàn.
Regardless, I don’t like to eat rice.

反正 (fǎnzhèng) is an excellent word to use as a beginning learner. Why? Because sometimes you’re not exactly sure how to explain yourself, but you know the point of what you’re trying to say. Let’s imagine the context of the above sentence.

Suppose you’re trying out the Ketogenic Diet, which requires less than 50 grams of carbs per day. You’re trying to explain this to your Chinese friend, but you’re not exactly sure how to express the complexity of the diet yet with your limited vocabulary. You decide it’s not worth trying to continue, so you say, “Regardless 反正  (fǎnzhèng), I don’t like rice.” The point is that you don’t want to eat rice, so all the extra explanation is ultimately unnecessary. 

In our journeys to fluency, 反正 (fǎnzhèng) has come in handy all the time, and we’re sure it will work for you as well. 

Sentence 8:

我的想法正好相反。- Level 23
Wǒde xiǎngfǎ zhènghǎo xiāngfǎn
My opinion happens to be the opposite.

You’ll find that 正好 (zhènghǎo) comes in handy whenever you want to create a tone of coincidence. You could just say, “I have the opposite opinion,” but by adding ‘正好 (zhènghǎo),’ the listener knows you find the situation to be happenstance. 

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