Leading to frustration

They are 使得(shǐde), 讓(ràng) and 令(lìng). They all seem to mean “lead to,” “induce,” “bring about.”

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Expressing causation is a core task in any language. Being able to link cause and effect is a huge part of what makes us human. But causation can be a complex thing. One might want to express partial causation, causation due to something natural, causation due to somebody’s intention, and one might want to emphasize the cause or the effect, or emphasize neither. If one wants to be neutral between the two, and merely express the relation, Chinese has that structure that every first-year student learns, 因為(yīnwèi) X 所以(suǒyǐ) Y, where X is the reason and Y is the result.

But sometimes the speaker wants to stress the outcome, and in that case, there are three words that I have always found hard to distinguish.

They are 使得(shǐde), (ràng) and (lìng). They all seem to mean “lead to,” “induce,” “bring about.” Years of listening experience and occasional conversations with Chinese teachers led me to believe the words had specific differences. As we shall see, not so much.

Until recently (even up until I wrote the first draft of this essay), what were my misconceptions? The first is not entirely a misconception, in that (I discovered), and 使得 also have this function. But , I thought, is the best word to use when one wishes to talk about “enabling” someone to do something positive or be in a positive state, or a good outcome to occur.  This is true almost to the extent that in English we would sometimes say “to help.” 謝謝您讓我成長(Xièxie nín ràng wǒ chéngzhǎng) might literally be translated as “Thank you for enabling/allowing me to grow up.” But a native speaker of English might avoid these words, especially the rather technical-sounding “enable.” The more natural way of saying it in English is often “Thank you for helping me grow up.”

is also used for emotional states, e.g. 這個讓我很高興。(Zhèige ràng wǒ hěn gāoxìng.), “This makes/made me very happy,” or 這個讓我很生氣。(Zhèige ràng wǒ hěn shēngqì.), “This makes/made me very angry.” It is often, I thought, the word to use when you are describing an emotional state. Not so. All three can usually be used here.

always seemed to be used to describe inducing a negative outcome. I did not think it could be used to describe a positive one; I thought no one would say, for example, 你這樣做令我很高興.Nǐ zhèyàng zuò lìng wǒ hěn gāoxìng, preferring instead to use or maybe 使得 instead of to express the idea ” Your doing that/doing so makes me very happy.” Alas, using either of these words instead of still makes for a perfectly acceptable Chinese sentence.

I also got the impression that is only used to describe human actions or reactions. and 使得, in contrast, can be followed by any outcome or action by an animate or inanimate object. One can say “China’s economic development has improved the standard of living of the common people a lot”— 中國經濟發展使得/讓老百姓的生活水準提高得多。(Zhōngguó jīngjì fāzhǎn shǐde/ràng lǎobǎixìng de shēnghuó shuǐzhǔn tígāo de duō. Yes, I am an economist by training.) I have read, but have no personal sensation, that is more oral/casual, while the other two are more formal. Although sometimes native speakers assert this, I feel like I have observed used this way in many higher-level writings. (It is true that in written Chinese, 使 is often used alone, without the .)

Also in the “true” file (and among the things I did not personally intuit, but which were directly told to me by other Chinese teachers), was that there are two other widely used words that have this meaning of “lead to” or “bring about” — 導致(dǎozhì) and 造成(zàochéng). The latter is easy to remember because it combines a common character for “create” () with the character for “become” (). (Why those two neutral characters would combine to form an exclusively negative word is a mystery to me.) But like 導致, it is only used with negative outcomes, and the outcome has to be a phrase and not a mere word — the outcome needs a subject, in other words. (Chēn lǎoshī confessed that she did not know that these two characters were exclusively used in a negative sense, but suddenly discovered upon reading my first draft that this is so.)

But any way you slice it, the format for all of these words is generally the same: X //使得/導致/造成 Y, where Y will be what in English is called a subordinate clause, with both a subject and an outcome, i.e. what the subject does or is now after X happens.

In the end, some things that I felt I had noticed were false. can in fact be use for positive outcomes, and with , and 使得 the subject  X can be nonhuman. And maybe all those things I claim to have noticed (the negative context of 導致 and 造成, which are universally acknowledged rules in Chinese, even if not necessarily always explicitly known to native speakers, aside) do not matter. A student of Chinese once asked on a website what the difference is between , and 使得. A native speaker replied, they are the same about 95% of the time. When asked for an example of the 5% in which they are not, the native speaker said he couldn’t think of any.  So I can only find out, and indeed have found out occasionally, by using one incorrectly. (In studying language, experience is often the best teacher.) Why was what I said incorrect?

Because, you know, it just doesn’t “sound right,” they “just don’t say that there.”


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Evan Osborne (歐思博) is a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio. He has studied Chinese off and on for almost 30 years. Once for three months in Taiwan he had Chen lǎoshī as a teacher, and considers her to be the best of the well over 30 teachers he has had in the various languages he has studied.

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