How to Use Topic-Comment Structure in Chinese (Clear Explanation with Examples)
Knowing how to use the topic-comment structure in Chinese is incredibly important. The structure has many more uses than most people give it credit for, even if it is already considered to be one of the most basic principles to follow when forming Chinese sentences.
And today you’re going to learn all about it. This article will explain to you what exactly is the topic-comment structure, when and how to use it in Chinese, and help you sound like a native speaker!
Without further ado, let’s get right into it!
What is the Topic-Comment Structure?
The topic-comment structure is one of the two most basic sentence structures in Chinese. And it’s often the most natural way of expressing an idea in a Chinese conversation.
In the topic-comment structure, “topic” means the subject matter you want to talk about, and “comment” is the information you give about the subject matter.
Take a look at the below example:
Kāfēi wǒ xǐhuan.
I like coffee.
Literally, “Coffee, I like.”
In this sentence, “coffee” is the topic – the thing you want to talk about, and “I like” is the comment – the information you give about the topic.
Topic-Comment vs S-V-O: What Are the Differences?
If you’ve ever done a few Chinese lessons, you’ve probably learned how to form basic Chinese sentences using the subject-verb-subject structure (S-V-O), just like how you would do it in English.
Wǒ xǐhuan kāfēi.
I like coffee.
In this sentence, “I” is the subject (the person or thing performing the action of the verb), “like” is the verb, and “coffee” is the object (the thing that’s being acted upon by the person or thing).
As you can see, in an S-V-O structured sentence, the subject goes before the verb, and the object goes behind the verb. This word order is fixed. If you reverse it, the sentence won’t make sense.
subject + verb + object
Since the Chinese S-V-O structure is similar to the normal English word order, most people would feel more comfortable using it (that’s why it’s always taught earlier in Chinese learning). However, S-V-O is not always the most natural, convincing way to express oneself in Chinese – it often sounds clunky with too many words. Native speakers prefer to use the topic-comment structure in a casual conversation for its simplicity and directness.
In the topic-comment structure, the object can often be used as the topic. This means you can easily change a Chinese sentence structure from S-V-O to topic-comment by moving the object to the beginning of the sentence.
Topic-Comment Pattern (Mostly)
object + (subject) + verb
Let’s take a look at a few examples:
Wǒ xǐhuan kāfēi.
I like coffee.
Kāfēi wǒ xǐhuan.
Coffee, I like.
Wǒ jiàn guò nàge rén.
I’ve met that guy.
Nàge rén wǒ jiàn guò.
That guy, I’ve met.
Wǒ méi qù guò zhōngguó.
I haven’t been to China.
Zhōngguó wǒ méi qù guò.
China, I haven’t been to.
Nǐ dài qián le ma?
Did you bring money?
Qián nǐ dài le ma?
Money, did you bring?
Nǐ huì niàn zhège Hànzì ma?
Can you read this Chinese character?
Zhège Hànzì nǐ huì niàn ma?
This Chinese character, can you read?
In a topic-comment structured sentence, you can drop the subject when it’s obvious. This is particularly common in casual conversations.
你带了吗？Qián nǐdài le ma?
→钱带了吗？Qián dài le ma?
Did you bring money?
Literally, “Money, brought?”
你会念吗？Zhège Hànzì nǐhuì niàn ma?
→这个汉字会念吗？Zhège Hànzì huì niàn ma?
Can you read this Chinese character?
Literally, “This Chinese character, can read?”
Since it’s clear that you are the person I’m addressing the questions to, there is no real need to say “you” in these sentences.
How to Use the Topic-Comment Structure in Daily Chinese?
To build a sentence with the topic-comment structure in Chinese, simply mention the topic you want to talk about first, and then say what you have to say about it. You can put a comma after the topic to separate it from the comment when writing down the sentence, this practice, however, is totally optional.
In the below sentence examples, we use coffee-咖啡(kāfēi) as the “topic” and then add various “comments” directly to it.
Kāfēi (nǐ) yào hē ma?
Do you want to drink coffee?
Literally, “Coffee, (you) want to drink?”
Kāfēi (wǒ) hē wán le.
I finished the coffee.
Literally, “Coffee, (I) finished.”
Kāfēi duōshǎo qián?
How much is the coffee?
Literally, “Coffee, how much?”
Kāfēi mài guāng le.
The coffee is sold out.
Literally, “Coffee, sold out”.
Kāfēi wèidào zhēn búcuò.
The taste of the coffee is really good.
Literally: “Coffee, taste (is) really good”.
I make better coffee than Starbucks.
Literally: “Coffee, I make better than Starbucks”.
Kāfēi wǒ zuò de bǐ Xīngbākè hái hǎo.
As you can see, the topic word in a sentence doesn’t always have to be the object, it can easily be the subject as well (as in examples 3-5). Truth is: it doesn’t matter what grammatical role the “topic word” plays in a sentence, it is just the “theme” you intend to focus on before saying anything else. All you have to is establish the “theme” in the very beginning, and then start talking about it.
When to Use the Topic-Comment Structure in Chinese?
Let me guess…you are wondering how often Chinese people actually use the topic-comment structure in their day-to-day life.
The answer? All the time!
Though most people don’t give it much thought, the topic-comment structure is a surprisingly rich part of the Chinese language. If you spend some time with native speakers, you’ll soon notice that this sentence pattern is prevalent across all contexts.
Here’s why it’s used so commonly: the topic-sentence structure allows people to speak more concisely using fewer words.
Let me elaborate with an example.
First, say “he has lots of money” the conventional way using the S-V-O.
Now, try saying it again with the topic-comment structure instead.
Tā qián hěn duō.
Literally, “He, money many (much).”
Isn’t it more concise and straightforward?
Not convincing enough? Let’s expand the sentence to “he has lots of money, but little leisure time” and compare the two versions in Chinese.
Tā yǒu hěn duō qián, dàn zhǐ yǒu hěn shǎo de kōng.
Tā qián hěn duō , dàn kōng hěn shǎo.
Literally: He, money many (much), but leisure time little.
Now you see my point, right?
On top of being concise, you can also use the topic-comment structure to express emphasis, especially when you’re comparing or contrasting different things.
Zhōngguó de chéngshì wǒ zuì xǐhuan Shànghǎi.
As for the cities in China, I like Shanghai the most.
Literally, “China’s city, I most like Shanghai.”
Kōngqì zhìliàng Běijīng bù rú Shànghǎi.
When it comes to air quality, Beijing is not as good as Shanghai.
Literally, “Air quality, Beijing is not as good as Shanghai.”
Clearly, using the topic-comment structure helps the “theme” to stand out from the rest of the sentence components, and that’s what native speakers would normally do when they want to stress a point.
Bottom line: if you want to sound like a Chinese native when speaking Chinese, you should definitely get used to using the topic-comment structure, and use it as often as possible.
Get Started on the Topic-Comment Structure
There seems to be just one problem…
Like many other components of Chinese, the topic-comment structure may require a bit of practice to get used to. After all, it doesn’t sound all that natural when you translate it directly into English.
Fortunately for you, we’ve come up with some great sentence examples to help you get started on using this structure. Hopefully soon, you’ll be able to use it with great ease.
1. Use It for Greetings and Wishes
The easiest thing you can do is work on the fixed expressions that Chinese people use when they greet each other in daily life or on special occasions. In the below examples, the topic is marked in bold, followed by the comment.
Fàn chī le ma?
Have you eaten?
Literally, “Meal, have (you) eaten?”
Asking “Have you eaten?” is a very traditional way of how people greet each other in China. It’s not an invitation to lunch or dinner, but it shows that you care about their well-being. Try using it with your friends, neighbors, and people you are familiar with.
How have you been lately?
Literally, “Lately, how (are you)?”
Xīn nián kuàilè!
Happy new year!
Literally, “New year, happy!”
Literally, “Birthday, happy!”
2. Use It to Ask “Do you want…?” and “Do you have…?”
Native speakers use the topic-comment structure frequently in questions. Next time you want to ask “Do you want…?” or “Do you have…” in Chinese, slip in this structure.
Bǐnggān (nǐ) yào bu yào?
Do you want a cookie?
Literally, “Cookie, (you) want or not?”
It sounds so much more natural than the bookish “你要饼干吗？ (nǐ yào bǐnggān ma?)”, guaranteed!
Dàizi yào ma?
Do you want a bag?
Literally, “Bag, (you) want?”
You are bound to hear this question every time you check out at a supermarket in China. (plastic bags usually require an additional charge)
Chāzi yǒu ma?
Do you have a fork?
Literally, “Fork, (you) have?”
Cānjīnzhǐ yǒu méiyǒu?
Do you have a paper napkin?
Literally, “Paper napkin, (you) have or not?”
Don’t hesitate to use the topic-comment structure anytime you request something. It’s the most natural-sounding way!
3. Use It to Say “I do/did/have done/can…”
We encourage you to start using the topic-comment structure with basic verbs such as “do, go, eat, speak, can…” etc from now on. You can say it like this:
Zhōngwén wǒ huì shuō yìdiǎnr.
I can speak a little Chinese.
Literally, “Chinese, I can speak a little.”
Zhège cí wǒ rènshi.
I know this word.
Literally: “This word, I know.”
Miànbāo wǒ chī le.
I ate the bread.
Literally, “Bread, I ate.”
Xióngmāo wǒ yǐqián jiàn guò.
I’ve seen a panda before.
Literally, “Panda, I before have seen.”
4. Use It to Say “… is good, bad, big, small, many, few…etc”
Get started on saying “something is good, bad, big, small, too many, too few…” in Chinese with this structure. You’ll definitely appreciate the simplicity of the sentence structure once you get used to it.
Here’s how you can do it.
Yīfu yǒudiǎnr xiǎo.
The clothes are a bit small.
Literally: “Clothes, a bit small”
Rén tài duō le!
So many people!
Literally: “People, too many!”
Wǒmen de shíwù bú gòu.
We don’t have enough food.
Literally: “Our Food, not enough.”
Topic-Comment Structure Practice
Already learned all there is to learn? Time to challenge yourself and test your skills! See if you can rewrite the following sentences using the topic-comment structure. You’ll find the answers at the bottom of this chapter.
Wǒ cónglái méi chī guò shānzhú.
I’ve never eaten a mangosteen.
Wǒmen tiān tiān qù jiànshēnfáng.
We go to the gym every day.
Nǐ tīngshuō guò zhège gùshi ma?
Have you heard this story?
Tā yǒu hǎo jǐ tào fángzi.
He has many houses.
Nǐ juéde shéi huì yíng zhè cì Měiguó dàxuǎn?
Who do you think will win the US Election this time?
Shānzhú wǒ cónglái méi chī guò.
Literally, “Mangosteen, I’ve never eaten.”
Jiànshēnfáng wǒmen tiān tiān qù.
Literally, “Gym, we every day go.”
Zhège gùshi nǐ tīngshuō guò ma?
Literally, “This story, you have heard?”
Fángzi tā yǒu hǎo jǐ tào.
Literally: “House, he has many.”
Zhècì Měiguó dàxuǎn nǐ juéde shéi huì yíng?
Literally, “This (time) US Election, you think who will win?”
Quick Summary: Topic-Comment Structure in Chinese
One of the most basic principles in making Chinese sentences is to follow the topic-comment structure. In short, put the topic you want to focus on at the beginning of a sentence, and the comment you want to make about the topic right after.
The topic-comment structure helps you speak more concisely with fewer words and a clear, established theme. Though it doesn’t sound natural when you translate it directly into English, it’s often the most natural way of expressing an idea in conversational Chinese. Whether you’re a beginner learning how to arrange word order in Chinese or a more advanced learner who wants to impress native speakers, getting used to using this structure can be incredibly helpful.