Volume 300, March 2024, 103677

Three-layered hierarchical structure of Mandarin Chinese aspectual projections

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  • Mandarin aspects reside in three syntactic spaces (i.e., CP, TP and vP layers).

  • Mandarin evidence supports and refines Cinque’s universal pattern.

  • The domain below VoiceP is enriched through location tests in -constructions.

  • Certain viewpoint aspects have positions both in inner and outer aspect domains.

  • Mandarin data tackle three undetermined relations between the aspect and adverbs.


This study explores the hierarchical structures of Mandarin Chinese aspectual projections with a cartographic approach. We firstly revisit Mandarin aspectual expressions across three domains within a sentence, including preverbal aspectual adverbs, postverbal suffixes and sentence-final aspectual particles. Then we demonstrate that Mandarin aspectual projections are distributed in three zones (i.e., vP, TP and CP layers) by using appropriate position tests: transitivity tests for adverbs, the affixation order for verb suffixes, and location tests in the construction for both adverbs and suffixes. Finally, a three-layered topography of Mandarin aspectual projections is provided, which largely conforms to the universal hierarchy. The list of syntactic heads is expanded with the consideration of Mandarin data, especially for aspectual heads in the domain below VoiceP.


Since the appearance of Rizzi’s (1997) split-CP hypothesis and Cinque’s (1999) clausal hierarchy of adverbs and functional projections, the “syntactic cartography” has been one of the main research programs in the generative exploration of natural languages. The main concern of cartographic research has been the description and analysis of the complexity of functional structures (Rizzi and Cinque, 2016, Shlonsky and Bocci, 2019).

Aspect, as a main functional category in syntax, is composed of dozens of various subcategories (e.g., the habitual aspect, the retrospective aspect, and the progressive aspect etc.). Cinque (1999), in his influential universal hierarchy of clausal projections, has shown that aspects are ordered in a rigid structure and reside in two syntactic domains: the domain above VoiceP up to TP (defined as the TP layer in this paper) and the domain between VoiceP and VP (the vP layer). The universal pattern was constructed through a comprehensive analysis of cross-linguistic evidence, with a particular emphasis on Italian and French data. It has significantly expanded the scope of comparative syntax, which serves as an essential reference for scholars who intend to study the syntactic structure of one or more particular languages. Mandarin Chinese (henceforth Mandarin), as an aspect-prominent language, is known for its rich system of aspect-related lexicon. Our concern is whether the aspects attested in the universal map are available in Mandarin and how Mandarin data contributes to the universal grammar (UG).

According to their syntactic distribution in a sentence, Mandarin aspectual expressions can be divided into three classes: preverbal ones (e.g., the progressive marker zài 在 (1a)1 and the frequentative adverb chángcháng ‘often’ (1b)), postverbal ones (e.g., the durative marker -zhe (1c) and the telic morpheme wán (1d)) and sentence-final ones (e.g., the particle ne (1e)). Perhaps postverbal suffixes have received the most intensive discussion in the generative literature on aspect (Aoun and Li, 1993, Gu, 1995, Huang et al., 2009, Sybesma, 2017, Tsai, 2008) and recent cartographic research has taken the sentence-final aspectual particles (SFAPs) into consideration (Erlewine, 2017, Pan, 2015, Pan, 2018, Pan, 2019, Paul, 2014, Paul, 2015). Cinque (1999: 39–41) has also examined some Mandarin aspectual adverbs in his investigation, but their number and types have not been completely elaborated. Although extensive works have been carried out on Mandarin aspects, they tend to focus on one particular type of these aspect elements, and very few exist which comprehensively describe the whole map of Mandarin aspects and discuss how various aspectual expressions integrate in the syntactic structure. Accordingly, the main purpose of this study is to draw the syntactic topography of Mandarin aspects and examine the universal cartography of aspects using Mandarin evidence. We will show that Mandarin aspects present a three-layered distribution and Mandarin data support, refine and expand the universal hierarchy, especially for the domain below VoiceP based on the data from location tests in the -construction.This paper presents the universal hierarchy of aspects proposed by Cinque, 1999, Cinque, 2006, Cinque, 2013 in section 2, with some discussion on the vagueness of the map. Then we explore the inventory of Mandarin aspectual elements and their syntactic properties in section 3. Based on the discoveries in section 3, section 4 identifies the hierarchy of aspects in three syntactic layers using appropriate diagnostic tests. In the last part of section 4, we present the whole hierarchy of Mandarin aspects and compare it with the universal structure. Section 5 is the conclusion which also argues for the relevance of our cartographic work with UG pursuit.

Section snippets

The universal hierarchy of aspects

The orderings of adverbs, free functional morphemes (“particles” and auxiliaries), and bound functional morphemes (affixes) are main sources of evidence for determining the hierarchical sequence of functional projections in Cinque’s (1999) cross-linguistic investigation. Cinque’s heuristic procedure is as follows: the linear order of grammatical morphemes (i.e., functional particles and affixes) is used to determine the hierarchical structure of functional heads, as they are presumed to

Mandarin aspectual elements

To start our discussion on the architecture of Mandarin aspects, let’s firstly determine which elements can express an aspectual reading (either viewpoint or situation aspect) in Mandarin. In Smith, 1991, Smith, 1997 two component theory, the term “aspect” breaks down into viewpoint aspect and situation aspect. The former expresses speakers’ “different ways of viewing the internal temporal constituency of a situation” (Comrie, 1976: 3) and the latter describes the internal temporal structure of

The cartography of Mandarin aspects

The focus of this section is to contextualize a cartographic investigation in Mandarin aspects. We will discuss the syntactic representation of aspects located in three areas sequentially by using appropriate diagnostic tests and finally draw the hierarchical map of various aspectual projections.


This survey is a refinement and extension of Cinque’s hierarchy of clausal projections based on Mandarin data. It has elaborated the elements related to particular aspectual interpretations in Mandarin and the hierarchy of Mandarin aspectual projections with a Cartographic approach. Different position tests (e.g., linear comparison among adverbs and verb suffixes, placements of aspect-related lexicon in the -construction) are employed to determine their specific locations. The hierarchical


This research is supported by the National Social Science Fund of China (Number: 23BYY047).

CRediT authorship contribution statement

Miaocai Yan: Writing – original draft, Methodology, Investigation, Formal analysis, Data curation, Conceptualization. Ye Yuan: Writing – review & editing, Supervision, Funding acquisition.

Declaration of competing interest

The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.


We sincerely thank the three anonymous reviewers. Their professional and insightful comments and queries have significantly helped us improve the manuscript.

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