Chinese Grammar 101: Ultimate Guide for Overwhelmed Beginners
If you are looking to build a solid foundation in Mandarin Chinese grammar, or simply want to have a basic understanding of how the Chinese language works, you’ve come to the right place.
As one of the world’s biggest websites about learning Chinese, we’ve helped thousands of people improve their grammatical skills, and speak better Chinese. And today, we’re going to help you.
In this detailed, easy-to-digest guide:
We’ll walk you through every basic Chinese grammar point you need to know as a beginner, answer some most common questions, and give you resources that’ll put you on the path to mastering Chinese.
Here’s the good news to start with.
Chinese grammar starts out pretty easily. In fact, the basic grammatical patterns you’ll pick up in this guide are powerful enough to be used in most daily situations – this is unlike other languages that require you to memorize large numbers of tenses, genders, cases, etc.
And once you get these basic patterns down (and some core vocabulary words), you’ll be able to get out there and speak Chinese already!
Let’s dive right in!
Table of Contents
Basic Chinese Sentence Structure
In general, there are two basic sentence structures in Mandarin Chinese: “S-V-O” and “Topic-Comment”. They are both simple and straightforward. Let’s have a look at each one in turn.
In English, the basic sentence order is subject-verb-object, AKA “S-V-O”.
I drink tea.
“I” is the subject, “drink” is the verb, and “tea” is the object.
The basic sentence order in Chinese is the same, which means you should get used to this structure right away.
Wǒ hē chá.
I drink tea.
Let’s see some more examples.
Wǒ ài nǐ.
I love you.
Niú chī cǎo.
Cow eats grass.
Wǒmen shuō Zhōngwén.
We speak Chinese.
Just as in English, the basic subject-verb-object structure in Chinese can at times be reduced to produce an even shorter sentence with just a subject and a verb (S-V).
The second structure is the “Topic-Comment”. It’s often the more natural-sounding way to express an idea in Chinese.
“Topic” means the subject matter you want to talk about, and “comment” is the information you give about the subject matter.
To arrange a Chinese sentence with this structure, you simply mention the topic you want to talk about at the beginning and then say what you have to say about it.
Nàge rén wǒ rènshi.
I know that guy.
Literally, “That guy, I know.”
Kāfēi wǒ bù xǐhuan.
I don’t like coffee.
Literally, “Coffee, I don’t like.”
Chá nǐ hē ma?
Do you drink tea?
Literally, “Tea, you drink?”
Like many other components of Chinese, the topic-comment structure may require a bit of practice to get used to. You don’t have to worry even if the structure confuses you now. It’s totally fine to stick with “S-V-O” when you start to learn Chinese.
But bear in mind this topic-comment structure is widely used in spoken Chinese, and you’ll want to start experimenting with it later when you have “S-V-O” under your belt. (You can find out more with our detailed article here on how to use the topic-comment structure)
Chinese Personal Pronouns
Personal pronouns in Mandarin Chinese are fairly simple to master.
They don’t change form according to whether they are the subject (performer of the action, e.g. “I”) or object (undergoer of the action, e.g. “me”).
Here’s the list.
There’s just one issue:
While “he”, “she”, “it” (or “him”, “her”, “it”) are represented by different characters, they are pronounced in exactly the same way, hence, they are written the same in Pinyin (Mandarin romanization). You will need to rely on the context to figure out whether someone is referring to the male “tā” or female “tā” during a conversation, or if you are reading Chinese through Pinyin.
(An interesting consequence is that native Chinese speakers, when learning English, often mistakenly use “he” instead of “she” or vice versa, simply because they’ve never had to think about the phonetic difference before.)
The plural pronouns in Chinese are formed with the simple addition of 们 (men) to the singular forms.
|你们||nǐmen||you (plural)||you (plural)|
|她们||tāmen||they (all female)||them|
Expressing Possession in Chinese
Expressing possession (the state of owning something) can’t be easier in Mandarin Chinese.
All you have to do is stick the particle 的 (de) on the end of the “owner”, before the “thing” that’s owned.
Let me guess, you are wondering what a “particle” is.
Simply put, it’s a function word that doesn’t have a concrete meaning on its own, but is used together with another word, phrase, or sentence to serve a grammatical purpose.
Take 的 (de), the most common particle in Chinese, for example, you can think of it as being similar to the apostrophe ’s in English. By placing 的 (de) between two nouns, you can indicate ownership. That is, the second noun belongs to the first.
guówáng de yǎnjiǎng
the king’s speech
māo de wěiba
the cat’s tail
Chǔmén de shìjiè
Yep, that’s the Chinese title for “The Truman Show (1998)”.
And it gets better…
With this versatile system, you don’t need separate words for “my”, “your”, “his” etc, all you need is to add 的 (de) to the corresponding personal pronoun.
nǐ de gē
Yep, it’s that easy.
Nouns, Genders, Plurals in Chinese
If you’ve ever learned Spanish, French, German, or just about any European language except English, you just breathed a huge sigh of relief.
Mandarin Chinese has no concept of “feminine” or “masculine” words. You simply learn the word as it is, without any need for extra memorization.
As if that’s not enough, Chinese nouns (and adjectives, too) don’t have plural forms! They always stay the same. So you don’t have to worry about forgetting to stick an “s” or “es” on the end of words, not to mention the trouble of memorizing irregular ones.
person → 人 (rén)
people → 人 (rén)
If you need to be specific, just slap a numeral or quantifier in front of the noun, like
yí gè rén
shí gè rén
hěn duō rén
Easy, isn’t it?
‘A’, ‘The’ – Articles in Chinese
In case you haven’t noticed from the earlier examples, here’s another easy part of Mandarin Chinese: there are no articles at all!
You won’t have to bother about the equivalents for the English articles “a/an” and “the” when putting together a Chinese sentence. They simply don’t exist.
Why is that?
Well, if you think about it, it’s actually not that important whether you are talking about “a/an” something or “the” something. It’s usually obvious from the context which one you mean. Far easier to just do away with them completely, which is what Chinese does.
Trust me, you can tell from the context whether something is indefinite or definite in Chinese.
‘This’, ‘That’ – Demonstratives in Chinese
Demonstratives or demonstrative pronouns are the words used to point things out (e.g. “this”, “that”, “those” in English).
The demonstratives in Mandarin Chinese are equally simple as their English counterparts.
How to Use Adjectives in Chinese
Just as in English, descriptive words, AKA adjectives, typically come before the noun in Mandarin Chinese.
If an adjective consists of more than one syllable (character), then usually the particle 的 (de) needs to be placed between the adjective and the noun that it describes.
hēisè de yīfu
hěn dà de píngguǒ
piàoliang de nǚhái
a pretty girl
Here, the particle 的 (de) does not mark actual possession, but rather attaches an attribute (a quality or feature) to the noun. In other words, it connects the description to the noun.
Take the first sentence, for example, you could think of it as literally saying “black’s clothes”, or “clothes that belong to the black category”. This is the standard way of linking adjectives to nouns in Chinese grammar.
If, however, an adjective consists of only one syllable (character), then generally you shouldn’t put 的 (de) after it.
The words above are more like compound nouns that function as individual units. There’s no need to separate them with 的 (de). Think of “beautiful woman” as “belle” and you’ll understand what I mean.
Chinese Verb Conjugation?
Anyone who’s studied a European language might still remember going through conjugation tables in class so often until getting sick of them.
To speak one of those languages, you have to learn five or six different verb endings for the present tense alone, even to say something as simple as the word “eat”.
The technical term for the modification of verbs is inflection. English isn’t t nearly as inflective as other European languages, but we still do it to some extent.
For example, the word “eat” can inflect to “eats”, “eating”, “ate”, or “eaten” to agree with the person and tense.
Or maybe you’ve learned Japanese or Korean before, where there are virtually unlimited ways you can attach endings to a sentence, and each carries a very, very specific nuance.
Now, here is the good news.
The notion of “conjugation” doesn’t exist in Mandarin Chinese. No verb ever changes its form in any context.
Learn the word 吃 (chī) – “eat”, and you’ll instantly know how to say “eat” in all contexts for all speakers: I 吃, you 吃, he 吃, she 吃, we 吃, you all 吃, and they 吃.
Isn’t that great?
That’s dozens, if not hundreds of hours of work saved compared to learning almost any European language.
‘Be’ in Chinese
This is when things seemingly start to get trickier.
In Mandarin Chinese, three words correspond to the English verb “to be”: 是 (shì), 很 (hěn), and 在 (zài). There are used on different occasions.
Sounds complicated, huh?
But don’t stop reading now, because it just takes two minutes to sort out when to use which, once and for all!
Let’s look at the three “be”s in Chinese in turn.
1. Use 是 (shì) with Nouns
是 (shì) is considered the standard “be” in Mandarin Chinese, however, it’s not used in quite the same way as in English.
The verb 是 (shì) is only ever used with a noun (or a noun phrase), as in these sentences.
Wǒ shì xuéshēng.
Zhè shì wǒ de lǎoshī.
This is my teacher.
Essentially, the structure is equivalent to “sb/sth is (equal to) that noun” in English.
2. Use 很 (hěn) with Adjectives
Linking nouns with adjectives in Mandarin Chinese is a completely different story.
Instead of 是 (shì), you need to use 很 (hěn) between the noun and adjective.
Tā hěn hǎo.
He is good.
Wǒ hěn gāoxìng.
I am happy.
Technically, 很 (hěn) does not mean “to be”. In fact, it’s not even a verb, but rather an adverb (a word that modifies a verb or adjective). The literal meaning of 很 (hěn) is “very”.
And yes, the above sentences can be translated as “he’s very good” and “I am very happy”, but more often 很 (hěn) is just the default connecting word to link a noun to an adjective. The literal meaning of 很 (hěn) – “very” is very weak in such cases.
If you actually want to stress the meaning of “very” in a sentence, you could use other adverbs instead. One common choice would be 非常 (fēicháng), a stronger “very”.
Wǒ fēicháng gāoxìng.
I am very happy.
3. Use 在 (zài) with Locations
When it comes to expressing presence in a location, you need to use the third “to be” in Mandarin Chinese: 在 (zài).
Simply stick this word before the name of the place in the sentence.
Wǒ zài Zhōngguó.
I am in China.
Tā zài jiā.
She is at home.
Lǎoshī zài xué xiào.
The teacher is at school.
This is similar to how we say “to be in” or “to be at” in English.
As 在 (zài) covers both the role of the verb (to be) and the preposition (in/at), it’s the only word you need to indicate your whereabouts.
‘Have’ in Chinese
To express that you own or possess something in Mandarin Chinese, simply use the verb 有 (yǒu).
It’s pretty much like saying “have” in English. You’ll get the hang of it right away!
Wǒ yǒu shíjiān.
I have time.
Tā yǒu nǚ péngyou.
He has a girlfriend.
Saying “don’t have”, however, does require a bit more attention, as the verb 有 (yǒu) is negated differently than all the other words in Chinese. We’ll get to that part in a moment.
’Want’ in Chinese
The verb 要 (yào) is a rough equivalent of “to want” in Mandarin Chinese, although it has a slightly stronger connotation than its English counterpart, implying that your mind has been made up (or almost made up).
You can think of 要 (yào) as the mixture of “want” and “will”. This word is particularly useful when you are buying something in a shop or ordering in a restaurant.
Wǒ yào zhège.
I’ll take this. (literally, “I want this.”)
Wǒ yào kāfēi.
I’ll have a coffee. (literally, “I want coffee.”)
Yep, as direct as that! And it doesn’t sound rude at all in Chinese. (there is no conditional verb like “would like” in Chinese anyway).
‘Go’ in Chinese
Saying “to go” in Mandarin Chinese is quite simple as there is one verb that directly translates to this English word: 去 (qù).
You can follow up 去 (qù) with the place directly. No preposition like the English “to” is needed.
Wǒ qù gōngsī.
I go to the office.
Wǒmen qù Běijīng.
We go to Beijing.
There is just one thing to note.
You can’t say “go home” with 去 (qù) in Chinese. Instead, you need to use a different verb: 回 (huí), meaning “go back”.
You must be wondering why.
Well, let’s just say home is the most important place in Chinese culture, as everything springs from there. Therefore, it’s considered to be the starting point in life that one can only go back to. (as a comparison, 去 qù, is used for destinations away from where you’re at or where you’re from)
Wǒ huí jiā.
I go (back) home.
There is no problem going to other people’s homes, though.
Wǒ qù tā de jiā.
I go to her home.
‘Can’ in Chinese
You might be surprised to learn that there are three words that correspond to the English modal verb “can” in Mandarin Chinese.
But it shouldn’t be hard to figure out when to use which at the beginner level if we take a look at their differences.
1. Expressing “know how to” with 会 (huì)
The Chinese verb 会 (huì) is used to describe an ability you possess or a skill you have acquired after learning.
You can think of 会 (huì) as “know how to”.
Wǒ huì yóuyǒng.
I can swim. (I know how to swim)
Wǒ huì zuò zhōngguó cài.
He can make Chinese food. (He knows how to make Chinese food).
2. Expressing “possibility” with 能 (néng)
The verb 能 (néng) is used to show possibility or an “ability” that’s not gained through conscious learning.
Wǒ néng shuì yì zhěng tiān.
I can sleep all day. (It’s possible for me)
Píngguǒ shǒujī néng zìdòng gēngxīn yìngyòng.
iPhone can automatically update apps. (it’s possible for iPhone)
3. Expressing “permission” or “suggestion” with 可以 (kěyǐ)
The third “can” in Chinese – 可以 (kěyǐ) is mostly associated with permission. You can think of it as “may”.
Nǐ kěyǐ zǒu le.
You may go now. (You are permitted)
Nǐ kěyǐ jìnlái.
You may enter. (You are permitted)
You can also use 可以 (kěyǐ) to make suggestions.
Nǐ kěyǐ dǎ 911.
You can call 911. (I suggest you call 911)
Wǒmen kěyǐ kàn diànyǐng.
We can watch a movie. (I suggest we watch a movie)
Now, I have to confess, when you get deeper into your Chinese studies, you will find the usage of 会 (huì), 能 (néng), 可以 (kěyǐ) overlap somewhat, which may complicate things a little bit.
That said, there is no need to get hung up on it if you can’t get a full picture now. You’ll cross that bridge when you come to it.
How to Connect Verbs in Chinese
What happens if there is more than one verb in a Chinese sentence? How to use them together in one sentence?
In English, you normally need to use a preposition or conjunction such as “to” or “and” to link different verbs (or verb phrases) in a sentence.
I want to go home.
I want to go home and sleep.
In Chinese, you can simply place one verb or verb phrase after another to describe actions in a row.
Here’s how you use multiple verbs in one sentence in Chinese.
Wǒ yào huí jiā.
Literally, “I want go home.”
Wǒ yào huí jiā shuìjiào.
Literally, “I want go home sleep.”
You see, the sequence of actions is already clear without the use of connecting words. Therefore, they are not needed in Chinese.
Tenses in Chinese?
First off, there is no so-called “tense” in Mandarin Chinese, because the verbs don’t conjugate. What it does have, is something called “aspect”. (we’ll get to that in a minute).
To indicate whether something happens in the present, past, or future, you need to stick an extra word before or after the verb, or in other positions in the sentence.
The most straightforward way to do so is to include a time word, like “yesterday”, “tomorrow”, or “an hour ago” at the beginning of the sentence.
Jīntiān wǒ zài jiā.
I am at home today.
Literally: “Today I be at home.”
Míngtiān wǒ zài jiā.
I will be at home tomorrow.
Literally: “Tomorrow I be at home.”
Zuótiān wǒ zài jiā.
I was at home yesterday.
Literally: “Yesterday I be at home.”
Yǐqián tā shì Bāxī rén.
He used to be Brazilian.
Literally: “Past, he be Brazilian.”
Xiànzài tā shì Zhōngguó rén.
Now, he is Chinese.
Literally, “Now, he be Chinese.”
The slightly trickier way is to add an aspect particle around the verb in the sentence to indicate the status of the action.
Unlike tense, the aspect isn’t about when an action happened, but whether or not it is completed in a timeframe. The aspect can be in the past, present, or future.
Take the most common aspect particle in Chinese 了 (le), for example. You can use it after a verb to indicate that the action is completed.
Without a context, it can usually be perceived as a marker of past action.
Wǒ qù le Zhōngguó.
I went to China.
Literally: “I go le China.” or “I completed the action of going to China.”
You can include a timeframe in the sentence to be more specific.
Qùnián wǒ qù le Zhōngguó.
I went to China last year.
Literally “Last year, I go le China.” or “I completed the action of going to China within the last year.”
Though 了 (le) often appears in sentences about the past, it can also appear with present or future actions.
We’re not going to get into that here, because it’s quite a complex topic. But know this is a grammar point you’ll want to come back to later when you get deeper into your studies.
Negation in Chinese
We have talked about the basic sentence structure in Chinese and a bunch of verbs. But how do you say you don’t do whatever the action is in the sentence?
To make a sentence negative in Mandarin Chinese, you have to use a negation word.
And you can do it pretty easily – just add 不 (bù), the equivalent to the English “not” or “don’t” before the verb!
Wǒ bù hē chá.
I don’t drink tea.
Wǒ bú qù Zhōngguó.
I am not going to China.
Wǒ bú yào huí jiā.
I don’t want to go home.
Wǒ bú shì xuéshēng.
I am not a student.
Literally: “I not be student.”
Wǒ bú huì yóuyǒng.
I can’t swim.
Literally: “I not can swim.”
You’ll find the pattern highly consistent.
In case you haven’t noticed, the tone of 不 (bù) varies between bù and bú in the above examples following the tone change rules, which is something you must learn to pronounce Chinese words correctly. Read this post if you are not familiar with this rule.
The use of 不 (bù) doesn’t stop there. It can negate adjectives as well.
Sounds easy, right?
There is just one exception in Chinese, though.
Remember I said that the verb 有 (yǒu), meaning “have”, is negated differently than all the other words in Chinese?
That’s right! It’s the only word you can’t negate with 不 (bù) in Chinese. You would have to use another negating word, namely 没 (méi), to negate 有 (yǒu).
Wǒ méiyǒu shíjiān.
I don’t have time.
Tā méiyǒu nǚ péngyou.
He doesn’t have a girlfriend.
As you can see, 没 (méi) and 有 (yǒu) can be written without any space in the Pinyin form, as if they were just one word, because of their exclusive connection.
Expressing Command in Chinese
Expressing command or giving instructions in Mandarin Chinese can’t be easier, all you have to do is say the verb as it is in a commanding tone. (there is no verb conjugation in Chinese, remember?)
To form a negative command, simply put 不要 (búyào) before the verb.
Alternatively, you can use 别 (bié), a shorter, more colloquial version of 不要 (búyào) to initiate a negative command.
We’ve written a detailed post on forming negative commands in Chinese, read here.
‘Let’ or ‘let’s’ in Chinese
If you don’t want to sound too harsh, you can use the particle 吧 (ba) to soften your tone. It can turn a pushy command or instruction into a polite request or suggestion.
Simply add 吧 (ba) to the end of your statement.
Wǒmen huí jiā ba.
Let’s go home.
Literally, “We go home ba.”
Wǒ bāng nǐ ba.
Let me help you.
Literally, “I help you ba.”
Forming Questions in Chinese
Asking questions in Mandarin Chinese is easier than you thought.
There are several ways you can do it, and here are the three most common ones.
1. Yes-No Question
The easiest way to form a question in Mandarin Chinese is to make a statement and simply add the particle 吗 (ma) to the ending.
This will work for questions that can be answered with “yes” or “no”, namely, yes-no questions.
Here’s an example of a yes-no question in English.
Do you like tea?
To form a yes-no question in Chinese, think of a statement and then add 吗 (ma) to it.
Nǐ xǐhuan chá.
You like tea.
Nǐ xǐhuan chá ma?
Do you like tea?
Literally, “you like tea ma?”
吗 (ma) is the most common way to turn a statement into a question. Therefore, a yes-no question is also called a “吗 (ma) question”.
In informal situations, though, you can drop the 吗 (ma), and just raise the intonation at the end of the sentence.
Nǐ xǐhuan chá?
You like tea?
Raise your intonation when you say it.
2. WH Question
If you are looking for specific information instead of a simple “yes” or “no”, you can then raise a WH question.
WH questions, refer to those questions using question words like “what”, “where”, “how”, etc.
These question words also exist in Mandarin Chinese.
Take a look.
The placement of questions words within a sentence in Chinese, however, is different from English.
In English, to convert a statement into a WH question, you need to rearrange the sentence order by putting the question word at the very beginning.
You are Nick.
→ Who are you?
That is a durian.
→ What is that?
The word order of a Chinese WH question is to keep the word order of the statement and then change the “asked part” to the corresponding question word.
Nǐ shì Níkè.
You are Nick.
Nǐ shì shéi?
Literally, “You are who?”
Nà shì liúlián.
That is a durian.
Nà shì shénme?
Literally, “That is what?”
As you can see, the word order of a WH question in Chinese stays in line with the basic Chinese structure we talked about at the very beginning of this guide: S-V-O.
3. 呢 (ne) Question
Another particle frequently used to form queries in Mandarin Chinese is 呢 (ne).
The structure is easy, just say what you want to know about (the “subject”), and add a 呢 (ne) right after it. This is equivalent to saying “what about…?” or “how about…?” in English.
Wǒ shì Yīngguó rén, nǐ ne?
I am British, what about you? (where are you from?)
Wǒ zài gōngsī, nǐmen ne?
I am at the office, what about you guys? (where are you guys?)
呢 (ne) can also be translated as “and…?”. It’s a simple and quick way to bounce back the question that you’ve just been asked in Chinese, that is, when someone asks you a question, and you return the question to them after answering it.
There are also other ways to form questions. We’ve written a detailed post here.
‘Yes’ and ‘No’ in Chinese
Fun fact: Mandarin Chinese doesn’t have specific words that correspond directly to “yes” and “no” in English.
“That’s impossible! How can I answer a yes-no question then?”
I can almost hear you thinking…
Well, the solution is simple. When someone asks you a question, repeat the main word (verb or adjective) used in the question if your answer is “yes”.
Nǐ xǐhuan chá ma?
Do you like tea?
Yes. (Literally, “Like.”)
Nǐ gāoxìng ma?
Are you happy?
Tā yǒu jiātíng ma?
Does he have a family?
If your answer is “no”, simply add the negation word 不 (bù) or 没 (méi) before the main word.
No. (Don’t like.)
No. (Not happy.)
No. (Don’t have.)
‘There is’ and ‘There are’ in Chinese
Remember the verb 有 (yǒu)? We just talked about how we can use it to express possession in Mandarin Chinese.
But that’s not all.
有 (yǒu) can also be used to describe existence.
In English, it’s usually translated as “there is” or “there are”. (If you are a Spanish speaker, you’ll find it more like the word “hay”.)
Now, to say “something exists at someplace” in Chinese, you say “the place has something”, using the classic S-V-O sentence structure.
Shànghǎi yǒu hěn duō wàiguó gōngsī.
There are many foreign companies in Shanghai.
Literally, “Shanghai has many foreign companies.”
Need more examples? You can full our full guide to using 有 (yǒu) here.
Numbers in Mandarin Chinese are super easy to learn as the system is extremely regular.
In fact, if you know how to count to ten, then it shouldn’t take you more than two minutes to learn the rest.
In case you don’t, here is how you count from 1 to 10 in Chinese.
After ten, it’s just first-grade math.
11 is ten and one, hence 十一 (shí yī).
12 is ten and two, hence 十二 (shí èr).
Then there is 十三 (shí sān), 十四 (shí sì), 十五 (shí wǔ),…,十九 (shí jiǔ).
Multiple of tens are made by starting the multiple followed by 10.
For instance, 20 is literally “two ten” in Chinese – 二十 (èr shí).
30 is thus “three ten”: 三十 (sān shí), and 40 is “four ten”: 四十 (sì shí)…
You know where I’m going with this.
Now, for numbers like 25 and 36, you simply do the multiplication first, and then addition.
25 is “two ten” and five, hence, 二十五 (èr shí wǔ).
36 is “three then” and six – 三十六 (sān shí liù).
九十九 (jiǔ shí jiǔ) it is! (“nine ten” and nine)
Easy, isn’t it?
Well, I think you’ll agree with me when I say that the simplicity of Chinese number words supports efficient calculations, and that solves the mystery of why Chinese kids are good at math, eh?
How to Use Measure Words in Chinese
In Mandarin Chinese, when you talk about quantities of any noun, you have to put a measure word, AKA counter, between the number and the noun.
The concept of “measure words” might be alien to you, but it shouldn’t be hard to comprehend. After all, there are similar words in English too.
For example, we talk about “a cup of tea”, “a piece of news”, “a slice of bread”, “a pair of shoes”, etc.
These words are used to quantify the noun. They all have counterparts in Chinese.
yì bēi shuǐ
Literally, “one cup water”
yì tiáo xīnwén
Literally, “one piece news”
yí piàn miànbāo
Literally, “one slice bread”
yì shuāng xié
Literally, “one pair shoe”
It doesn’t stop there.
In Chinese, the system is more developed, and measure words must be used every time numbers are used with a noun, and I mean any noun.
Different measure words are designated for different kinds of things, according to their shape, feature, or the category to which they belong.
And the rule is based on Chinese logic.
Here’s what I mean.
The measure word for snake, river, pants, tie, and news, is the same: 条 (tiáo). Can you think of why?
Well, they are all considered “long”, and 条 (tiáo) is the measure word for long things.
Now, try this out.
umbrella, spoon, pistol, sword, teapot
Any idea what they have in common?
Well, they all have handles, therefore, they should be paired with 把 (bǎ), the measure word specifically for things with handles. (You may argue that an umbrella or sword is long too, but that’s not their primary feature based on Chinese logic)
You probably see where I’m going with this.
So, how many measure words are there in Mandarin Chinese?
Well, the number can be surprising. There are more than one hundred (dozens of them are used frequently).
Don’t be intimidated by the measure word system, though. It doesn’t need much attention at the beginner stage.
This is because you can get by for quite a while by just using the most common, general-purpose measure word 个 (gè). It may not be strictly correct (works like 1/3 of the time), but you’ll be understood (though you may find native speakers gently correct you).
So, if your Chinese teacher is constantly drilling you on all kinds of measure words when you just started learning Chinese, you know something is wrong.
It’s only natural to focus on language more central to basic communication first, and come back to this grammar point later when you get deeper into your studies.
One thing you do need to take note of now, however, is that when the number “2” is used before a measure word, you must read it as 两 (liǎng) instead of 二 (èr).
liǎng gè rén
liǎng bēi shuǐ
two cups of water
This is just one of those “special cases” that you have to deal with when learning Chinese.
Saying the Date in Chinese
The dates in Mandarin Chinese are quite different from the ones in English.
To start with, the elements of the date must be named in ascending order: year + month + day, that is, 年 (nián) + 月(yuè) + 日(rì).
2021 nián 5 yuè 10 rì
May 10th, 2021
Both months and days of the month are expressed using normal cardinal numbers, i.e. 一, 二, 一 (yī), 二 (èr), 三 (sān), … , 三十一 (sān shí yī).
shí èr yuè
2nd (of the month)
èr shí wǔ rì
25th (of the month)
The year, however, is said differently. You have to read each digit one at a time.
èr líng èr yī nián
Literally, “two zero two one year”
èr líng sān líng nián
Literally, “two zero three zero year”
Now, you should be able to say “May 10th, 2021” in Chinese.
èr líng èr yī nián wǔ yuè shí rì
In spoken Chinese, you can also use 号 (hào), a more colloquial version of 日 (rì) to express the day.
èr líng èr yī nián wǔ yuè shí hào
Day of the Week
The names for the days of the week in Mandarin Chinese are based on the word “星期 (xīngqī)”, meaning “week” and a number indicating the day.
Monday is literally “week one”, Tuesday is “week two”, Wednesday is “week three”, etc. (In China, the first day of the week is not Sunday, but Monday, as the name indicates)
The only exception is Sunday. Instead of a number, 日 (rì) or 天 (tiān), both meaning “day” (日 rì is somewhat more formal) are used. Sunday thus becomes “week day”, literally.
Besides 星期 (xīngqī) “X”, there are two other ways of saying days of the week in Chinese, read here.
Telling the Time in Chinese
Telling the time in Chinese is rather simple. Just as in English, you state the hour first, and then the minute, by the corresponding cardinal number.
To “connect” the hour and minute, however, you always need to use the word 点 (diǎn), meaning “o’clock”.
sān diǎn èr shí
shí èr diǎn sì shí
You would also need the 点 (diǎn) to tell the time on the hour in Chinese, like
China generally uses the 12-hour system. The two periods are marked 上午 (shàngwǔ), meaning “morning”, and 下午 (xiàwǔ), meaning “afternoon”.
You can think of 上午 (shàngwǔ) and下午 (xiàwǔ) as “a.m.” and “p.m.” Unlike in English, these words must be placed before the time.
shàngwǔ jiǔ diǎn
9: 00 a.m.
xiàwǔ sān diǎn èr shí
Besides 上午 (shàngwǔ) and 下午 (xiàwǔ), Chinese speakers use words like 早上 (zǎo shàng), 中午 (zhōngwǔ), 晚上 (wǎnshàng), etc, to depict the period more accurately.
These words too should be mentioned before the time.
zǎoshàng wǔ diǎn
Literally, “early morning 5:00”
zhōngwǔ shí èr diǎn sān shí
Literally, “noon 12:30”
wǎnshàng shí diǎn
Literally, “evening 10:00”
How to Use Adverbs in Chinese
An adverb (or an adverb phrase) is a word or expression that, among other things, describes a verb within any sentence.
Adverbs crop up everywhere. Take English, for example,
I will go to Shanghai tomorrow.
My train leaves at 7:00 p.m.
“Tomorrow” and “at 7:00 p.m.” are adverb/adverb phrase of time, which tells you when the verb is carried out.
We met there.
I work at home.
“There” and “at home” are adverb/adverb phrase of place. They tell you where the verb happens.
Let’s go together.
I’ll go by train.
“Together” and “train” are adverb/adverb phrase of manner. They explain how something is done.
In English, these adverbs usually go end position, though they sometimes can go in the front position for the sake of emphasis.
Today, I am going to clean the house.
Together we will succeed.
They all came.
Now, this is important.
Unlike in English, the position of adverbs in a Mandarin Chinese sentence is always fixed. They must go before the verb (the main verb of the sentence).
Under this grammar rule, the example sentences will look like this in Chinese.
I tomorrow will go to Shanghai.
My train at 7:00 p.m. leaves.
We there met.
I at home work.
Let’s together go.
I’ll by train go.
As you can see, the pattern is highly consistent in Chinese. It doesn’t matter when, where, and how the verb is carried out, the modifications have to go first.
Basic Word Order in Chinese
So far, we’ve talked about the basic Chinese structure involving a subject, a verb, and an object (S-V-O).
Wǒ kàn shū.
I read books.
We’ve also established the ground rule that adverbs go before the verb.
Adverb of Time
Wǒ wǎnshàng kàn shū.
I read books in the evening.
Literally, “I evening read books.”
Adverb of Place
Wǒ zài jiā kàn shū.
I read books at home.
Literally: “I at home read books.”
Adverb of Manner
Wǒ yí gè rén kàn shū.
I read books alone.
Literally: “I alone read books.”
But what happens if we need to use more than one adverb in a sentence, like “I read books alone at home.” or “I read books in the evening at home”?
Unlike in English, where you can put them all over the place depending on the situation, in Chinese, the word order of adverbs is highly strict.
You have to do it in the following sequence: Time, manner, place.
Needless to say, all the adverbs must go before the verb.
Let’s take a look at the example:
Wǒ wǎnshàng yí gè rén zài jiā kàn shū.
Literally: “I evening alone at home read books”.
You can also put the adverb of time at the very beginning of the sentence.
Wǎnshàng wǒ yí gè rén zài jiā kàn shū.
Literally: “Evening I alone at home read books”.
Yep, it sounds a bit weird in English, but that’s the word order rule you have to comply with when you are putting together a sentence in Chinese.
‘And’ in Chinese
In English, we often use “and” to connect phrases and sentences.
I will try and do what you say.
Keep trying and you will succeed.
It can be tempting to use “and” in the same way when you put together a Chinese sentence, but usually, that’s wrong.
The Chinese conjunction “和 (hé)”, which can be translated as “and”, is much less versatile.
It can only be used to connect nouns.
Wǒ hē kāfēi hé chá.
I drink coffee and tea.
You CAN’T use 和 (hé) to connect adjectives/adjective phrases in Chinese.
- × 她很聪明和很漂亮。
Tā hěn cōngmíng hé hěn piàoliàng.
Wrong way of saying “She is smart and pretty”.
Nor can you use 和 (hé) to connect verbs/verb phrases.
- × 我喝了一杯茶和吃了一个蛋糕。
Wǒ hē le yì bēi chá hé chī le yí gè dàngāo.
Wrong way of saying “I drank a cup of tea and ate a cake”.
And it certainly CAN’T be used to connect clauses or sentences.
- × 继续努力和你会成功。
Jìxù nǔlì hé nǐ huì chénggōng.
Wrong way of saying “Keep trying and you will succeed.”
So, what’s the correct way to connect words (other than nouns), phrases, and sentences in Mandarin Chinese?
Here are some simple solutions.
1. Use a comma
Drop the 和 (hé) and use a comma instead, or make a pause when you are speaking.
- 她很聪明, 很漂亮。
Tā hěn cōngmíng, hěn piàoliàng.
Literally: “She is smart, (is) pretty.”
- 我喝了一杯茶, 吃了一个蛋糕。
Wǒ hē le yì bēi chá, chī le yí gè dàngāo.
Literally: “I drank a cup of tea, ate a cake.”
Jìxù nǔlì, nǐ huì chénggōng.
Literally, “Keep trying, you will succeed.”
It’s almost like two short sentences packed into one without any conjunction, but it works in Chinese, most of the time.
2. Use Other Connecting Words
If you just feel too weird to build two sentences with no conjunction, then try some other connecting words.
For instance, the adverb 还 (hái) can be a good word to connect phrases in the sense of “also”.
- 她很聪明, 还很漂亮。
Tā hěn cōngmíng, hái hěn piàoliàng.
Literally: “She is smart, also (is) pretty.”
- 我喝了一杯茶, 还吃了一个蛋糕。
Wǒ hē le yì bēi chá, hái chī le yí gè dàngāo.
Literally: “I drank a cup of tea, also ate a cake.”
3. Use Fixed Grammar Patterns
If you’ve already taken a couple of Chinese lessons, you might’ve heard of the expression 太好了(tài hǎo le), which means “Great!” or “Awesome!”.
The literal meaning of 太好了 (tài hǎo le) is, however, “too good”. The expression is formed by two parts: the adjective 好 (hǎo), which can be replaced by whatever adjectives you want, and the word combination “太…了 (tài…le)” meaning “too…”.
This type of word combination is called a fixed grammar pattern in Chinese because…it’s fixed.
Now, there are a dozen fixed grammar patterns like “太…了 (tài…le)” that you can use in Chinese to make yourself sound more native and natural.
For instance, you can use 又 (yòu)…又 (yòu)… to attribute two qualities to a person.
Tā yòu cōngmíng yòu piàoliàng.
She’s both smart and pretty.
And you can use 只要 (zhǐyào)…就 (jiù)… to express “as long as”.
Zhǐyào jìxù nǔ lì, nǐ jiù huì chénggōng.
As long as you keep trying, you will succeed.
Your Next Step – Master Chinese Grammar
Congratulations! You’ve now known all the Chinese grammar needed as a beginner!
Having an understanding of these basic grammar rules will give you a good head start on learning Chinese. But it doesn’t mean you must spend heaps of time studying every single one of them to understand and form the language.
It’s also crucial that you get out there and make contact with the real language. Relate the grammar patterns we talked about here to things you already know and understand. Relate them to conversations you’ve had, certain moods, or various situations, and then go out and use them.
Grammar patterns will emerge naturally in conversation, and you’ll pick it up just as naturally if you force yourself to communicate and attempt to be understood. Challenge yourself to use new patterns, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Ask for feedback, and if you don’t understand something, be sure to ask for help.
Be creative, be fearless, and above all, use the language!