The Chinese counterfactual (subjunctive, irrealis mood)
Updated August 2018
About five years ago I wrote this article comparing counterfactual thought and grammar in Chinese and English. In that time it’s received a good amount of traffic from Google from related search terms. I’ve had several people, including academics or PHD students working in or thinking about this area comment below with some good suggestions and ideas. Based on those, and these years of further thought on this subject, I have updated and revised the content of the article.
I am a Chinese hobbyist. I have studied Mandarin Chinese for almost ten years now and taught it for several years. I have attended academic classes and participated in Chinese competitions before, but I am not formally qualified in Chinese. I do not have a PHD in Chinese language or similar, so please consider these views in that context. There are definitely people more qualified to talk on this subject, and yet, perhaps it is my lack of super-fancy credentials that makes this article more digestible to a more general audience.
I have taken every effort to make this article as accurate as possible. However, people have made constructive suggestions in the comments in the past which have helped me improve the quality. Feel free to make comments, and, as always, take the below as “one person’s opinion”.
And now to the article…
What is the counterfactual?
Let’s start with the basics – what is the counterfactual?
The “counterfactual” is a mood or inflection of language that signals a departure from reality and an entry into the realm of hypothesis.
Instead of speaking about what is we speak about what might be or non-real statements.
A quick example: note the grammar in: “If I were you…” — were is the past tense of is, so how does this grammar make sense? – I am not you. I will never be you. Me being you makes no sense, because you are you, and yet the grammar use in the sentence “if I were you” seamlessly allows us to leave reality behind and talk about something hypothetical, that will never be real.
Some quick definitions
The counterfactual is the name of this area of language use — the area marking the departure from reality into hypothesis.
The subjunctive is the name of the grammar usage in English (and other languages) that is used to indicate counterfactual statements (above example “if I were you”).
The indicative is the opposite of the subjunctive. Indicative statements are factual and “plain” (Example: “I am a hard worker”).
The irrealis mood is a higher-level set of grammatical rules, all indicating departure from reality of which the subjunctive is one.
The realis mood is the opposite of the irrealis mood.
(I won’t be mentioning the irrealis mood again aside from that).
The Chinese counterfactual
OK, to the meat of the article.
It appears to be (or have been in the past) a genuine academic debate whether the Chinese language contains clear markers and / or a counterfactual structure.
In Alfred Bloom’s book the linguistic shaping of thought Bloom argues that Chinese does not have clear counterfactual markers, and as a result Chinese speakers suffer a lack of ability to think strongly outside of reality.
Bloom’s work has been criticised and the debate has moved on since that book. I agree with some of the criticism of Bloom, but I do think there is definitely something about the Chinese counterfactual that makes it a bit more tricky and a bit less obvious than in English.
Position of this article
The position of this article, in short, is that Chinese does have ways to indicate a departure from reality (counterfactual markers), but that these are not as clear or obvious as in English. Concrete examples of both markers and counterfactual sentences will follow.
First, let’s be specific. I am referring to Mandarin Chinese (the language I’ve learned). Mandarin is the lingua franca of China and the most popular Chinese dialect. However, it is not all of Chinese. Chinese has hundreds of local “topolects” (local dialect) — for which I cannot speak and almost no-one can. (Who knows — did some local region of China evolve strong counterfactual markers where Mandarin did not? It seems unlikely but we cannot say for sure without speaking many of them).
Let’s start with the structure of the English counterfactual for comparison, then move on to explain the Chinese one.
The English counterfactual structure
In English, we enter into counterfactual thought through the use of two things:
- Specific counterfactual markers (like “if”)
- Verb inflections (like “were” instead of “is/am/are”)
- These are the “subjunctive” grammatical markers
*In all of the examples below in the article, I will underline markers and italicise inflections.
Basic example: factual vs. counterfactual
Example of indicative (factual) sentence: I am a doctor, I can help you.
Example of subjunctive (counterfactual) sentence: If I were a doctor, I could help you.
(were and could are the inflected versions of is and can)
A verb inflection means a change in the form of a verb to indicate a change of its function. Specifically, in the subjunctive, verbs take on their “past tense” versions. I use quotations around “past tense”, because the were in If I were you is not actually past tense, but it’s the same verb itself.
Example: past tense verb usage vs. subjunctive verb usage.
*In all of the examples below, I will bold past tense usage of verbs.
Example of past tense verb usage: He specified how to operate the equipment, so I can operate it.
This sentence is past tense, indicative.
Example of subjunctive verb usage: If he had specified how to operate the equipment, I would be able to operate it.
This sentence is subjunctive, it does not have a time component, but the verbs are inflected to indicate counterfactual usage.
In English, when we wish to express a counterfactual argument or hypothetical situation, we use the subjunctive to clearly mark our departure from normal “factual” speech into the realm of “what if” or “possibilities”. It is this structure that allows counterfactual argument in English to be easier and more naturally identified. With both inflected verbs and other markers, English hypothetical thought is quite clear to identify.
Other English counterfactual examples
Example: I wish you had come to my party.
— note the past tense of the word “have” (had), note that when you say this sentence it implies that the listener did not come, hence a departure from reality. Technically wish is a subjunctive marker here, because the subjunctive in English can also be used for wishes.
Example: If I were you, I would not pursue dancing as a career.
— note the past tense of the verb “to be” (were) and the past tense of the word “will” (would)
Example: Babies need to change orientation in the womb in the final few weeks, otherwise their feet would be facing out first instead of their head.
— note the past tense of the verb “to be” (would) as an indication that this is a counterfactual statement. Otherwise functions here as a marker.
The Chinese counterfactual structure
In Chinese however things are different.
Counterfactual sentences/thought are definitely possible in Chinese, but they are not expressed in the way we usually refer to as the “subjunctive” because in Chinese there are no verb inflections.
Whereas in English, we have both markers and verb inflections to indicate counterfactual thought, in Chinese we only have markers. This means all Chinese counterfactual sentences are in the indicative tense — meaning they have some closeness in grammar to their non-counterfactual counterparts, hence, they lack some clarity (this leads to certain problems, which I will share later on). However, in some contexts, some Chinese words “join the fray” so to say, to become additional markers that make sentence meaning lean closer to counterfactual.
Chinese counterfactual markers
In Chinese there are several markers we can consider when talking about the counterfactual. We will go over these one by one with examples. To confuse things further, some Chinese counterfactual sentences don’t involve any of these markers anyway! – and these will be illustrated later in the examples.
1. 如果rúguǒ…就jiù — “If… Then” as generic markers (factual and counterfactual)
如果rúguǒ is translated to “if” in English. 就jiù is often translated (when used together with 如果rúguǒ in a pair) to “then”.
In English the words “if … then” are associated both with factual counterfactual thought. In Chinese this is the same, the structure 如果rúguǒ…就jiù is used for both factual and counterfactual thought.
Example 1.1 factual
English: If it rains today, we will not be going to the beach.
— indicative, factual, indicates a future plan.
Chinese translation: 如果今天下雨，我们不会去海边 rúguǒ jīntiān xià yǔ, wǒmen bù huì qù hǎibiān
Direct translation of Chinese translation: if today rain, we not will go beach
Example 1.2 counterfactual
English: If it had rained today, we would not have gone to the beach
— subjunctive, counterfactual, notice that this implies that we did indeed go to the beach, hence it is departing from reality.
Chinese translation: 如果今天有下雨，我们不会去海边 rúguǒ jīntiān yǒu xià yǔ, Wǒmen bù huì qù hǎibiān
Direct translation of Chinese translation: if today have rain, we just not will come beach
Note how this example exposes the slight weakness of the Chinese structure. In English, the verb inflections clearly distinguish factual from counterfactual, where the “if/then” marker does not do that on its own. In Chinese, without verb inflections, things become much less clear. However, we were able to rescue the counterfactual feeling by the use of one additional word 有yǒu. Note that the only difference between those two Chinese sentences is the presence of 有yǒu. In a sense, that 有yǒu is like had (and indeed 有yǒu means “have” – but it did not inflect and cannot inflect in Chinese).
Note that the function of 就jiù in this situation can sometimes be replaced by other similar words like 并bìng or 才cái depending on the inflection of the sentence.
2. 有yǒu — “have” as past tense counterfactual
有yǒu is translated to “have” in English. It’s a common word frequently used. It can mean both “have” (to posses something, E.G “I have a watch”) and “have” (to have done something E.G “I have eaten already”) — the latter is sometimes used for counterfactuals.
As illustrated in section 1 above, 有yǒu can sometimes be used to indicate counterfactuality if we are talking about something in the past, and attempting to depart from that past reality in our arguments.
Example 2.1 counterfactual
English: If I hadn’t gone to that party, I wouldn’t have gotten drunk.
— counterfactual, but talking about the past in particular. Something has occurred in the past, and we are now reasoning counterfactually about what might have happened otherwise.
Chinese translation: 如果我没有参加那个聚会，我就不会喝醉了 rúguǒ wǒ méiyǒu cānjiā nàgè jùhuì, wǒ jiù bù huì hē zuìle
Direct translation of Chinese translation: if I have not attend that party, I (just) not will drunk.
3. 的话de huà — as a counterfactual marker (*sometimes).
的话de huà is an interesting and unique Chinese word. It’s kind of strange and somewhat hard to learn / pin down exactly what it means.
In its raw sense, it simply means “the words (of)”. For example, 听妈妈的话Tīng māmā dehuà means “listen to the words of mommy” (“listen to mommy”). But it has a different function that I believe has a lot to do with conditionals and counterfactuals.
If you look up 的话de huà in a dictionary, it will sometimes translate it to simply “if”. But it’s not “if” — “if” is 如果rúguǒ. Yet it functions somehow in this space.
I need to be clear here with my claim. I claim that 的话de huà is used sometimes to indicate a counterfactual. But this is not exclusive. Similar to point 2 above with 有yǒu, it seems as though 的话de huà has evolved to take on an additional counterfactual element beyond its normal usage.
Example 3.1 factual / indicative
This next example is a native Chinese sentence I picked up from a dictionary example. It is indicative, and uses 的话de huà, again illustrating that it’s a bit messy here with these markers.
Chinese: 如果你赞成他的意见的话，我们就开始吧 rúguǒ nǐ zànchéng tā de yìjiàn dehuà, wǒmen jiù kāishǐ ba
English translation: If you agree with his opinion, let’s get started.
Note both that 如果rúguǒ and 的话de huà are present in this example, and yet it is not counterfactual! Again showing the somewhat ambiguity and elusiveness of Chinese counterfactual markers.
Now we can turn to a counterfactual example with 的话de huà
Example 3.2 counterfactual
English: If I were you, I‘d look for a new husband
Chinese translation: 如果我是你的话，我回去找新的丈夫Rúguǒ wǒ shì nǐ dehuà, wǒ huíqù zhǎo xīn de zhàngfū
Notice in this case that “If I were you” is translated to “如果我是你的话 Rúguǒ wǒ shì nǐ dehuà”. Clearly, it has both 如果rúguǒ and 的话de huà, but this time it is clearly counterfactual. I am not you, hence it is departing from reality.
4. 要是yàoshi — also “If” but often counterfactual
要是yàoshi is another marker used for Chinese counterfactual statements (and indicative ones).
要是yàoshi can be translated to “if” or “suppose that”. It is often used for counterfactual statements, and also with 的话de huà together. But unlike 如果rúguǒ, it is often used after the subject of the sentence, not before.
Example 4.1 indicative
Again this is a natively picked up Chinese sentence, we will translate to English:
Chinese: 票要是卖完了，就算了 piào yàoshi mài wánle, jiùsuànle
English translation: If the tickets are sold out, forget it.
Example 4.2 counterfactual
Chinese: 我要是你的话，我不会嫁给他 wǒ yàoshi nǐ dehuà, wǒ bù huì jià gěi tā (的话 would also be optional)
English translation: If I were you, I wouldn’t marry him
Example 4.3 counterfactual
Chinese: 我要是有了他那么多钱，我也能自己创业 Wǒ yàoshi yǒule tā nàme duō qián, wǒ yě néng zìjǐ chuàngyè (他 could also be optional, depending on if you were talking about a person and they and their money were already established in context))
English translation: If I had that much money, I would be able to start my own company too)
Example 4.4 counterfactual
Chinese: 我要是一头猪你还会爱我吗？Wǒ yàoshi yītóu zhū nǐ hái huì ài wǒ ma?
English translation: If I were a pig, would you still love me?
5. More examples
Now that we’ve spoken about several of the potential Chinese counterfactual markers, let’s turn to a bunch of additional examples to get more familiarity.
Example 5.1: counterfactual, wishful
English: I wish you had come to my party.
Chinese translation: 我希望你有来我的聚会 wǒ xīwàng nǐ yǒu lái wǒ de jùhuì
I believe this is a good counterfactual translation as this Chinese sentence does imply that you did not come to my party. Notice that this neither has “if, then” nor “如果rúguǒ…就jiù, nor does it have “的话” (De huà), yet it is still a counterfactural sentence, and features 有yǒu as discussed above — speaking of something after the event.
Example 5.2: counterfactual
English: If I were you, I would not pursue dancing as a career —
Chinese translation: 如果我是你的话, 我并不会把舞蹈作为我的职业 rúguǒ wǒ shì nǐ dehuà, wǒ bìng bú huì bǎ wǔdǎo zuòwéi wǒ de zhíyè
This is a great example of a counterfactual sentence in Chinese that conforms to a similar structure very often used English counterfactual (if I were you…), please note that in this instance I have chosen to use the word 并 (bìng) to accompany 如果 (Rúguǒ) for inflection purposes, but I could have easily substituted it for 就 (Jiù) or 才 (Cái) This sentence illustrates the power of 的话 (de huà) in adding a subjunctive inflection.
Example 5.3: counterfactual
English: Babies need to change orientation in the womb in the final few weeks of gestation, otherwise their feet would be facing out first instead of their head
Chinese translation: 在怀孕的最后几周里, 宝宝需要在子宫里转换体位, 否则的话, 他们就会脚先出来而不是头先出来 Zài huáiyùn de zuìhòu jǐ zhōu lǐ, bǎobǎo xūyào zài zǐgōng lǐ zhuǎnhuàn tǐwèi, fǒuzé dehuà, tāmen jiù huì jiǎo xiān chūlái ér bùshì tóu xiān chūlái
This is another solid example of the counterfactual in Chinese, I chose this sentence because the first part of the sentence (babies … gestation) is not counterfactual but merely a statement of necessity, and then the conjunctive adverb “otherwise” is used to switch the mood of the sentence into a subjunctive / counterfactural one, which is reinforced by the presence of “would”. in Chinese, 否则的话 (fǒuzé de huà) plays exactly the same role in switching the mood or inflection of the sentence into a counterfactual one, note the presence of “的话” (de huà), and later on you can also see another marker “就” (jiù) present as well.
Example 5.4: counterfactual, but no markers!
Years ago, in a Chinese TV show called 非诚勿扰 fēichéngwùrǎo female guests to the show get to interact with male contestants to see if they are interested in potentially dating in the future. In this episode, a girl danced with a guy on stage. This particular dance opened a discussion with the rest of the female guests in the show. After one of them spoke, the host said the following:
Chinese: 你在想象一下， 刚才跳舞的人不是17号, 是你, 你会怎样？Nǐ zài xiǎngxiàng yīxià, gāngcái tiàowǔ de rén bùshì 17 hào, shì nǐ, nǐ huì zěnyàng?
English direct translation: you again imagine a moment, just now dancing person is not number 17, is you, you will what way?
English proper translation: Just imagine this again, if the girl who just danced were not number 17 but were you, what would you do?
The original Chinese sentence did not contain a “如果” (Rúguǒ) or any of the other markers I just talked about! Yet this sentence is clearly a counterfactural sentence because the event spoken of (the dance that had just occurred) was not with the girl this comment is addressed to. In other words, this sentence departs from reality.
I hope this article has served to clarify the Chinese counterfactual. As you can tell, Chinese has several markers that are all used in counterfactual sentences, but also in factual ones! This makes it a bit tricky, as while it proves the Chinese language can reason counterfactually, it adds layers of ambiguity that can be difficult to tease out.
Thanks for reading!