Putting Elephants in the Refrigerator

The other day in Chinese class, I was learning about a grammar form that allows you to emphasize the object of a sentence rather than the subject. In Mandarin, the object comes later in the sentence and, without certain grammar tricks (like the one I learned the other day), you can’t put the object first to emphasize it without messing up your grammar.

What I am still giggling about is the example dialogue used to present this grammar form. Here it is below in Chinese:

A: 如果你把大象放在冰箱,要几步?
B: 我想想。。。我不知道。
A: 三步。
B: 三步? 为什么?
A: 地一步,开冰箱门, 地二步,把大象放在冰箱里边,地三步,关冰箱门。
B: …..

I am pretty sure we have a similar joke in the US. Here’s the translation:

How many steps does it take to put an elephant in the refrigerator?
Um… I dunno.
3 steps.
3 steps? Why?
Step 1, open the refrigerator door, Step 2, put the elephant in the refrigerator, Step 3, close the refrigerator door.

The point of the Chinese grammar lesson was to utilize a “ba (把) sentence”, which lets you put the object first. In Chinese, if you were to just say “put the elephant in the refrigerator” you might say something like, “in the refrigerator, put the elephant”. That doesn’t quite give the term elephant enough emphasis. The “ba sentence” lets me rearrange so the object is first, e.g. “把 elephant put refrigerator inside” (‘inside’ comes after ‘refrigerator’ in Mandarin, ‘where’ is often used like a suffix to a noun-phrase).

I guess the moral of this story is that being able to understand a joke, regardless of how juvenile, in a foreign language is an amazing feeling and makes all of the time spent studying the boring stuff feel completely worth it.

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