The generic sentence in english and vietnamese

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The Generic Sentence

in English and Vietnamese

Phan Thanh Xuan

Class: 4C-06

University of Pedagogy


The aim of this paper is to discuss the linguistic recognition of generic sentences from the structure of sentences to the markers of extra and intra-clausal level such as disjuncts, adjuncts, subjuncts and tense markers. The result is qualitatively explained as a foundation for identification of generic sentences for Vietnamese learners of English and vice versa.

In this paper, I just focus on discussing the issue of identifying forms of some common types of generic sentences. Also, I try my efforts to answer the following question: How are the syntactical signals of a generic sentence realized in terms of a sentence structure, grammatical points and vocabulary?

About the method to do this paper, this is a qualitative research paper of which the final product is different syntactical features of different syntactical levels in generic sentences. Materials for this paper are sentences with generic meaning in some genres of writing text.


Speaking of syntax and semantic features of types of sentences, linguists usually focus on types of questions, negations and some uncommon types of sentences. In the field of semantics, few people pay attention to a special type of sentence called “Generic sentences”, which are used a lot in daily communication contexts and academic works. The majority of our speeches to reflect reality and facts and to generalize those are called generic sentences.

Actually, in our everyday conversations, we can happen to find the following sentences:

  • A woman always remembers her first lover with affection.

Người đàn bà luôn luôn nhớ thương người tình đầu tiên của mình.

  • A man always blames the woman who fooled him. In the same way he blames the door he walks into in the dark

Đàn ông luôn đổ lỗi cho người đàn bà đã lừa phỉnh anh ta cũng giống như cách anh ta đổ lỗi cho cánh cửa dẫn anh ta vào bóng tối.

In the process of explanation, we sometimes ask ourselves whether such sentences are true for all women, whether all those who belong to the set of “women” or “men” possess such characteristic or not.

Besides, does the listener in a conversation have a tendency to think that she is an implied subject falling into such kind of women? Also, does the speaker want to indicate the listener is among them?

Generic sentences are not simply a unit of language that expresses the general properties of a typical entity of a group. This is a complicated phenomenon concerning semantics and applied linguistics. According to some researches and observations, generic sentences with all, every, any, whatever, he that…causes a lot of difficulties for Vietnamese learners of English in regard to form recognition and semantics explanation.

Generic sentences and some related definitions

So what is “Generic sentence”? According to Hurford (2001), generic sentences are statements about a whole group in general not any specific individual in that group.

  • Unlike the lion, the tiger prefers to live alone.

Khác với sư tử, cọp thích sống một mình hơn.

  • Lions will reproduce any time of the year, and all females of reproductive maturity will breed at the same time.

Sư tử sinh sản vào mọi thời điểm trong năm, và những con cái trong độ tuổi trưởng thành sẽ sinh nở cùng lúc.

In sentences above, we do not indicate a specific whale or dog in a specific context at a specific time. Here in the sentences above, “the tiger” and “lions” stand for all the species of tigers and lions.

More specifically, Filip and Carlson (1997) state that generic sentences are sentences expressing frequent activities and events. (Filip & Carlson, 1997, p. 167).

In my opinion, I think that generic sentence is a special kind of sentence in which there are words grammatically arranged and special markers that help generalize features all individuals in some group have in common.

Similarities and differences in syntax of English and Vietnamese generic sentences

    1. Similarities

      1. Sentence pattern

It can be seen that generic sentences in English and in Vietnamese are simple sentences, complex sentences and compound ones. According to the data collected, verbs used in English and Vietnamese generic sentences belong to both categories: intensive and extensive. The most common type of generic sentences in English have the form: Subject + Be/Make. In Vietnamese, generic sentences with the form of affirmative declarative appear the most.

Generic sentence - a simple declarative

  • Marriage is the one subject on which women agree and men disagree.

Hôn nhân là chủ đề mà phụ nữ thì tán đồng còn đàn ông thì không.

Generic sentence – a complex sentence

  • A real friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.

Một người bạn đúng nghĩa là người bước đến bên bạn khi cả thế giới rời xa bạn.

Generic sentence – a compound sentence

  • Clever men are good, but they are not the best.

Người khôn ngoan thì tốt nhưng họ không phải những kẻ khôn ngoan nhất.

Generic sentence – an interogative:

  • Marriage is a wonderful institution, but who would want to live in an institution? (H. L. Mencken)

Generic sentence – an exclamative:

    • What a charming reconciler and peace - maker money is!

Đồng tiền quả là kẻ hòa giải và thiết lập hòa bình đáng gờm!


Clause structure and sentence type of English and Vietnamese generic sentences



Clause structure

sentence type





















      1. Pre-modifiers and post-modifiers

  • Pre-modifiers

In these cases, there exist quantifier elements preceding a noun phrase to help modify the characteristics of the representative in the central noun.

  • A good wife always forgives her husband when she’s wrong. (Obama)

Người vợ tốt là người luôn tha thứ cho chồng mình khi cô ta sai.

  • For every beauty there is an eye somewhere to see it.

  • For every truth there is an ear somewhere to hear it.

  • For every love there is a heart somewhere to receive it. (Ivan Panin)

Mọi vẻ đẹp rồi cũng được chiêm ngưỡng

Mọi sự thật rồi cũng được lắng nghe

Mọi tình yêu rồi cũng được đáp trả

  • No man is worth your tears, but once you find one that is, he won't make you cry

Không người nào đáng để làm bạn phải khóc, nhưng một khi bạn tìm được người như thế thì người đó sẽ không làm bạn khóc.

  • Behind every great man there's a great woman.

Sau lưng người đàn ông thành đạt là một người phụ nữ tuyệt vời.

  • Post-modifiers

  • The man who has no inner life is a slave to his surroundings.

Người không có đời sống nội tâm là nô lệ cho những người xung quanh.

Một nụ hôn thiếu cái ôm ghì cũng giống như một bông hoa không hương thơm.
In Vietnamese, different grammar structures functioning as modifiers typify the generic noun phrases. Although pre- and post-modifiers both contribute to helping readers and listeners identify the representative of a group and the generic meaning of the whole sentence, it is the post-modifiers of noun phrases that help most.

Table 2

The syntactical change of English and Vietnamese generic noun phrases


Syntactical structure



Noun phrases with no article

- Ø Mass Noun

- Ø Singular Noun

- Ø Plural Noun

- Ø Mass Noun

Noun phrases with varying pre-modifiers

- Article A + Singular Noun

- Article A + Adj + Singular Noun

- Every + Singular Noun

- Each + Singular Noun

- All + Plural Noun

- No + Noun

- “Một” + Noun

- “Mọi”+ Noun

- “Mỗi” + Noun

- “Tất cả” + Noun

- “Những” + Noun

- “Các” + Noun

- “Không” + Noun

Noun phrases with varying post-modifiers

- Ø post-modifying noun

- Article A + post-modifying noun such as adjective phrase, relative clause or prepositional phrase.

- Ø post-modifying plural nouns such as adjective phrases, relative clauses, prepositional phrases

- Ø post-modifying noun

- “Một” + post-modifying noun such as adjective phrase, relative clause, prepositional phrase.

- Ø post-modifying noun such as adjective phrase, relative clause, prepositional phrase.

      1. Structure of verb phrase in generic sentence

In English, the structure of verb phrase in a generic sentence often includes the verb “BE” or “MAKE”. In Vietnamese, the verbs “LÀ” and “LÀM” are the two compatible ones to “BE” and “MAKE” in English, which are used most in generic sentences.

Người bạn khi cần thiết người bạn thật sự.

  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

Xa cách làm tình yêu thêm bền chặt.

  • A friendship founded on business is better than a business founded on friendship.

(John D. Rockefeller (1874-1960))

  • A kiss makes the heart young again and wipes out the years.

Nụ hôn làm con tim trẻ lại và làm tan biến dĩ vãng.

The syntactical change of English and Vietnamese generic verb phrases

      1. Internal varieties

In these cases, there appear elements that accompany the main verb such as auxiliary, adjunct, subjuncts and tense markers. The use of these elements in verb phrase helps reflect the generic meaning of the whole sentence. Speaking of syntactical function, they function as modifiers reflecting the generic meaning in frequency of the action.


  • Men marry women with the hope they will never change. Women marry men with the hope they will change. And they are both disappointed.

  • The friendship that can cease has never been real.


  • He must have a truly romantic nature, for he weeps when there is nothing at all to weep about.

  • No road is long with good company.


  • Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

Table 3

The internal and external varying forms of verb phrase in English and Vietnamese generic sentences



Type of verbs

- Linking verb BE

- Causal verb MAKE

- Linking verb LÀ

- Causal verb LÀM

Internal varying forms

- Adverbs of frequency

+ always, usually, never, sometimes, rarely

- Adverbs of generalization

+ characteristically, typically, generally

- Modal verbs

+ Will, can, may, must

- Modifying clauses

+ Adverbial clause, If clause

- Adverbs of frequency

+ luôn luôn, thông thường, không bao giờ, đôi khi, hiếm khi

- Adverbs of generalization

+ vốn, lúc nào cũng, tiêu biểu

- Modal verbs

+ sẽ, có thể, phải

- Modifying clauses

+ Khi…, nếu…

    1. Differences

      1. Tense markers in main clause

In English, tense is considered a marker indicating the time of the action in the main clause.

  • When a woman loves a man
    A woman loves a man
    She does what she can do
    He does the best he can (“A woman loves a man”)

The major difference in morphology and syntax between English and Vietnamese is tense markers in the main clause, generic noun phrases in English and the absence of tense markers as an obligatory form of morphology. The above sentences do not indicate any specific situation of any specific individual in any specific context. Instead, they generalize all the similarities in characteristics and actions of women that are always true in the past, at present and in the future.

    1. The article “THE” – a signal of generalization

The second difference is the use of the article THE in front of the noun in a noun phrase in English to imply generic meaning.

  • The ultimate leader is one who is willing to develop people to the point that they eventually surpass him or her in knowledge and ability.

  • The tiger can not change its stripes.

(Một/Những) Con hổ không thể thay đổi những đường vằn trên mình nó.

  • The leopard can not change its spots.

(Một/Những) Con báo không thể thay đổi được các đốm của nó.
English THE + Noun phrase


Vietnamese Ø/ Những/ Một + Noun phrase

        1. Sentence pattern “HE THAT”

The pattern “HE THAT” is often used to express a generic meaning in English. Actually, the pronoun HE here does not refer to any specific man or woman but all human beings. Therefore, it would be a complete failure if you translate the pattern as “NGƯỜI ĐÀN ÔNG NÀO MÀ …THÌ …”.

          • By my troth, I care not; a man can die but once: We owe God a death and let it go which way it will, he that dies this year is quit for the next.

… con người ta chỉ chết một lần. Chúng ta mắc nợ Thượng Đế món nợ đó và sẽ phải trả nó không bằng cách này cũng bằng cách khác, người nào chết năm nay thì khỏi chết năm tới.

          • He that fears you present will hate you absent.

Kẻ tỏ ra sợ sệt trước mặt bạn lại ghét bạn sau lưng.

English HE THAT clause Main clause

Noun phrase + that + Verb phrase Verb phrase

­¯ ­¯


Tiếng Việt Ø Verb phrase Verb phrase


First and foremost, this paper is carried out to point out the problems generic sentences may cause for Vietnamese learners of English and vice versa. As we can see above Vietnamese learners of English are very likely to find generic sentences difficult to comprehend or to create. For instance, “The tiger can not change its stripes” or “The leopard can not change its spots” may be misunderstood as “Con hổ đó không thể thay đổi những đường vằn trên mình nó” hay “Con báo đó không thể thay đổi các vết đốm của nó”. Why do they tend to translate those sentences like this? It is simply because Vietnamese learners are taught whenever there is the article “the”, the noun following is a definite one. As a result, they tend to associate “the” with the equivalent “đó” in Vietnamese to inply a specific entity, hence the ruin of generic meaning in a generic sentence. Another example is when Vietnamese learners of English happen to deal with generic sentences like “He must have a truly romantic nature, for he weeps when there is nothing at all to weep about”, they will translate the pronoun “he” into “anh ta/ anh ấy” because they are taught at the very beginning of their learning that “he” is equal to “anh ấy/anh ta”. Instead, “he” here refers to the whole mankind and their innate characteristics. Also, the sentence pattern “he that” also causes quite many troubles for learners. For example, “He that fears you present will hate you absent” can be interpreted like this “Hắn ta người mà tỏ ra sợ bạn trước mặt nhưng lại ghét bạn sau lưng”. The main difficulty for learners when coming to understand this sentence is the problem with the relative pronoun “that”. Actually, the sentence above contains the relative clause with a “that” relative pronoun; therefore, it is misunderstood as a reference to a specific case of a specific man. How can we-teachers identify the problems generic sentences bring about for our learners? Any suggestions for improving those problems? In my opinion, we should focus our learners’ attention on the generic noun like “man” which is used to refer to all human beings not any specific male person; “he that” in these sentences does not mean “anh ta/ hắn ta người mà…”. We should give them many examples of this type of sentence for them to get a better understanding of generic sentences. In our teaching whenever we run into a generic sentence, we must explain its special form to students, noticing articles “a” or “the” or relative clause “he that” or “man”.

There are some similarities between English and Vietnamese generic sentences such as the use of noun phrase with definite words, the internal varieties of verb phrases. The main difference noticed is the tense markers in English and the lack of this element in Vietnamese. Also, the plural form of noun phrase and the use of article in noun phrase are not found in a Vietnamese generic sentence. Besides, the use of the pattern HE THAT in English is also a very interesting point to be considered.

On accomplishing the paper, I hope that the learners of English and Vietnamese will find this useful for them when they run into a generic sentence in communication or in translation, especially on the respect of expressing generic meaning or conclusion about any set of subjects observed or investigated.


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Hurford, James R. & Brendan Heasley (2001), Semantics-A coursebook, Young Press.

Lion. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2009, from

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Tiger. (n.d.). Retrieved December 20, 2009, from

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