This is an empirical study of the Chinese modal particle a which occurs predominantly in sentence-final positions. It is one of the most frequently used sentence/modal particles and yet pragmatic and semantic descriptions of the particle in the literature are sketchy and inadequate.
In order to capture the uses and the underlying meanings of the particle, a large body of discourse data was obtained from the popular Chinese TV drama series Kewang ‘Expectations’. Out of the total of 50 episodes of the series, the first 20 (about 20 hours in length) were transcribed which yielded a data script of more than 142000 Chinese characters with a total of 1829 instances of the particle all used in meaningful conversational situations. Within these contexts of use, the particle occurrences were analysed and categorized and on this basis characterization of the particle was made in terms of its use and meaning.
Following this empirical and inductive approach, it is found that the particle is encoded with three basic modal meanings which are: volitive, exclamative, and surprisive. The volitive indexes the speaker’s strong wish that a situation will occur in a certain way and especially that the addressee will behave in a certain way towards what is said by the speaker. The use of the particle in the volitive adds an emphatic note to the utterance it is attached to. The particle in the exclamative conveys an intense state of the speaker’s strong emotion of one kind or another. The exclamative meaning usually makes its presence in exclamative sentences and in affirmative assertions and formulaic social expressions. The surprisive meaning indicates the speaker’s surprised feeling towards a given situation verbally presented or related to what is said by the speaker. The particle in the surprisive occurs with declaratives, imperatives and it helps form confirmation questions and rhetorical and reproach types of questions which take the form of a declarative sentence. Some of the utterances in the data are exclamatory also due to the presence of the particle used in its surprisive meaning.
This study is an attempt at achieving a better understanding of one of the most frequently used Mandarin modal items which are known for being notoriously elusive in their pragmatic and semantic functions. It is hoped that this study will provide inspirations for studies of similar kind on other modal items in the Chinese language.