Mandarin reciprocals

In this project (with Keely New, Mary Dalrymple & Dag Haug), we explain why Mandarin sentences like (1) with a reciprocal like hùxiāng have two readings.


Luómìōu hé Zhūlìyè rènwéi [tāmen hùxiāng xǐhuān].
Romeo and Juliet think they HUXIANG like
(a) ‘Romeo and Juliet each think: “We like each other.”
(b) ‘Romeo thinks: “I like Juliet” and Juliet thinks: “I like Romeo”.’

The mismatch between structure and meaning in sentences like (1) sheds light on the interface between syntax and semantics.

What are reciprocals?

Reciprocals are elements that express a reciprocal relation, e.g., the reciprocal pronoun each other in English.


Romeo and Juliet like each other.

The sentence in (2) means that:

  • Romeo likes Juliet and
  • Juliet likes Romeo.

What are reciprocals in Mandarin?

Like English, Mandarin Chinese has a pronominal reciprocal bǐcǐ (彼此) that behaves like English each other. (Note: not all Mandarin speakers have this reciprocal pronoun in their variety of Mandarin.)


Luómìōu hé Zhūlìyè xǐhuān bǐcǐ.
Romeo and Juliet like BICI
‘Romeo and Juliet like each other.’

But unlike English, Mandarin Chinese also has adverbial reciprocals like hùxiāng (互相) – along with related variants like xiānghù (相互) and adverbial bǐcǐ (彼此) – which also express reciprocal meaning.


Luómìōu hé Zhūlìyè hùxiāng xǐhuān.
Romeo and Juliet HUXIANG like
‘Romeo and Juliet like each other.’

What is reciprocal scope?

Informally speaking, reciprocal scope can be thought of as the point in a sentence at which a reciprocal is interpreted. Let me explain.

Consider the English sentence in (5).


Romeo and Juliet think [they like each other].

This sentence has two readings.

The first is a narrow scope reading: Romeo and Juliet think they each like the other.

  • Romeo thinks, “I like Juliet and Juliet likes me.”
  • Juliet thinks, “I like Romeo and Romeo likes me.”

The second is a wide scope reading: Romeo and Juliet each think s/he likes the other.

  • Romeo thinks, “I like Juliet.”
  • Juliet thinks, “I like Romeo.”

The existence of these two readings is referred to as reciprocal scope ambiguity.

Does Mandarin have reciprocal scope ambiguity?

In English sentences like (5), the reciprocal pronoun each other can only appear as the object of the embedded clause.

But in Mandarin, a reciprocal can appear not only as a pronoun in the object position of the embedded clause, but also as an adverb in the main clause or the embedded clause.


Luómìōu hé Zhūlìyè {hùxiāng} rènwéi tāmen {hùxiāng} xǐhuān bǐcǐ.
Romeo and Juliet HUXIANG think they HUXIANG like BICI
‘Romeo and Juliet think they like each other.’

In our research, we’ve found that Mandarin sentences like (6) exhibit reciprocal scope ambiguity, i.e., both narrow and wide scope readings are available. The wide scope reading is tricky to get, but is more easily accessible in certain contexts and is attested by many speakers.

What is the explanation for reciprocal scope ambiguity?

Reciprocal scope ambiguity has traditionally been explained by assuming that reciprocals introduce a silent operator like EACH that moves to the position where it is interpreted (see for instance Heim et al. 1991).


Romeo and Juliet think [they love each other].

Narrow scope reading: Romeo and Juliet think [they EACH love the other].

Wide scope reading: Romeo and Juliet EACH think [they love the other].

This operator-based explanation runs into problems with Mandarin reciprocals. In Mandarin, a sentence can contain multiple reciprocals, and all of them can specify the same reciprocal relation.

How do we explain reciprocal scope ambiguity in Mandarin?

We propose that reciprocals introduce reciprocal relations which are more flexible than an operator like EACH.

By adopting the relational account of reciprocals set out in Haug and Dalrymple (2020), we can explain the reciprocal scope ambiguity in Mandarin sentences with both reciprocal pronouns and adverbs.

How can I find out more?

You can read more about our work here:


  • Wenkai Tay, Keely New, Mary Dalrymple & Dag Haug. Reciprocal scope in Mandarin. Proceedings of NELS 51. [paper]


  • Wenkai Tay, Keely New, Mary Dalrymple & Dag Haug. Reciprocal scope in Mandarin. NELS 51, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), 6-8 Nov 2020. [abstract] [handout]

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions, comments or suggestions.