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Chinese: Sentence Structures & Exceptions

In Chinese the sentence words order is especially important, partly as a consequence of its lack of case endings for nouns. There are no special endings of noun in Chinese to indicate adjectives, adverbs and etc. like in English.

Although Chinese is not the only language where the sentence words order is important, it is extremely important to take care of the right Chinese Sentence order. A slight difference in the words order may result in a completely different sentence and meaning. For example:

Some person/people have come

来人了

lái rén Le

 

The person/people (we expecting to) have come

人来了

rén lái Le

 

The meanings are different in the two sentences. Also, the Chinese sentence words order is very different from English, like this example:

English: who are you?

Chinese: 你是谁?(nǐ shì shéi?

 

So a word-by-word translation from English to Chinese would result in meaningless sentences in Chinese. There is no way to make sense of the Chinese words order from English. The aim of this article is to explain clearly and intuitively the rules of the Chinese sentence structure and point out some important exceptions. Let’s take a look.

 

The basic sentence pattern in Chinese is similar to English and it follows this:

Subject + Verb + Object (S-V-O)

 

Here is an example of what this would look like:

He read Chinese book.

他        看               中文书

tā       kàn         zhōng wén shū

S          V                    O

 

If there is also an indirect object, it always precedes the direct object. It will look like this structure followed by good sentence examples.

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object (S-V-O-O)

He bought me a dog.

他    给我         买了       一只狗

tā    gěi wǒ    mǎi Le    yī zhī gǒu

S        IO            V                O

 

He smiled to me.

他   对我       笑了       一笑

tā   duì wǒ  xiào le    yī xiào

S       IO           V             O

 

He send me a book.

他   送           我          

tā   sòng       wǒ          yī běn shū

S     V             IO                O  

 

Differences from Chinese and English:

The Location of Prepositions

Now we will look into differences in the Chinese grammar compared to English. Prepositions (介词) are words that come before nouns and pronouns to expressing time, place, direction, objective, reason, means, dependence, passivity, comparison, etc. Common prepositions in Chinese are:

 

在zài (in/on), 从còng (from),向xiàng(towards),跟gēn(with),往wǎng(to, towards),到dào (to a place, until a certain time),对duì(for),给gěi (to, for),对于duìyú(regarding ),关于guānyú(concerning ,about),把bǎ(to hold),被bèi(by),比bǐ(particle used for comparison ), 根据gēnjù (based on),为了wèile (in order to ),除了chúle (except for)……

 

Preposition always occur right before the verb and its objects:

Subject + preposition + verb + direct object

 

Here are a couple examples of preposition in Chinese:

Add milk to the flour.

往               面粉里                 加             牛奶

wǎng       miàn fěn lǐ           jiā            niú nǎi

Prep.            Place                 V                O

 

A flight from Beijing to Chengdu takes 2.5 hours.

从           北京        到           成都             坐飞机      要           个半小时

Cóng   běi jīng    dào       chéng dū    zuòfēi jī   yào  liǎng gè bàn xiǎoshí                                            

Prep     Place      Prep         Place          

 

The Adverb Placement

Adverbs (describes the verb) in Chinese typically occur at the beginning of the predicate before an adjective, verb and preposition. Here are examples of adverbs:

只zhǐ(only),才cái (only ,only then),都dōu (all),肯定kěn dìng (sure), 一定yīdìng (surely, certainly), 很hěn (very),太tài (too much, very),够gòu(enough),非常fēicháng (extremely), 已经yǐjīng (already),经常jīng cháng(frequently), 将要jiāngyào(will, shall), 最后zuìhòu(finally),当初dāng chū(at that time / originally),可能kěnéng (maybe), 大概dàgài(approximate), 或许huòxǔ(perhaps , maybe),几乎jīhū(almost)

Here are a few ways of how it would be used in Chinese:

They all can speak Japanese.

他们            都            会说             日语

tāmen       dōu        huìshuō         rì yǔ

S                 Adv           V                   O

 

That tall man goes away in a hurry.

那个很高的男人                          匆匆地                     走了

nàgè hěn gāo de nán rén        cōng cōng de           zǒu Le

S                                                      Adv                            V

 

He likes the cat very much.

他      非常             喜欢             猫。      

Tā    fēicháng    xǐhuān        māo.  

S         Adv               V                 O

 

The Location Word

The location word almost always occurs before the verb in Chinese. There are exceptions we will discuss them in a next lesson. Here is the structure frame and an example of how it is used.

Subject + location + verb

 

I work in Beijing.

我     在           北京             工作

wǒ    zài        běi jīng      gōng zuò

S      prep       place               V

 

If the description of the place contents several places, then the order in Chinese is always from the biggest place to the smallest. It would look like the following sequence.

 

China,                      Beijing University,        Department of Mathematic

中国                                北京 大学                          数学

zhōng guó                 běi jīng dà xué                   shù xué xì

the biggest place      smaller place                the smallest place

The Placement of ‘time when’

Unlike English, a word that indicates the ‘time when’ a situation in Chinese is placed at the beginning of the predicate.

Subject + time when + predicate

 

For a few examples:

I had a dinner yesterday.

我      昨天                 吃了晚饭

wǒ   zuótiān           chīle wǎn fàn

S      time when            predicate

 

I will go to Shanghai tomorrow.

我         明天         要去上海。

Wǒ   míngtiān     yào qù shànghǎi.

S     time when      predicate

 

I will send it via email this afternoon.

我          今天下午             用电邮发。

Wǒ       jīntiān xiàwǔ       yóng  diànyóu fā.

S          time when            predicate

 

With time and location, which comes first?

When a sentence includes both a ‘time when’ and a location, ‘time when’ generally occurs before location. Both of them will come before the verb in the sentence frame like the examples given.

Subject + time when + location + verb

 

I swim in swimming pool every day.

我       每天         在              游泳池                  游泳                                                     

wǒ   měi tiān    zài           yóu yǒng chí        yóuyǒng

S     Time         Prep          Place                         V

 

I eat in the cafeteria at school every day.

我      天        在         堂              吃饭

wǒ   měi tiān    zài     xué xiào shí tang     chīfàn

S         Time                    Place                           V

 

The Time Duration Words

Duration of time word indicates the length of time that an action occurs. Time duration directly follow the verb. Unlike English no preposition is associated with it. See the following structure and examples

Subject + verb + time duration

 

I slept two hours yesterday afternoon.

我          昨天下午                睡了    两个小时。

wǒ     zuótiān xià wǔ     shuìle    liǎng gè xiǎo shí

S           Time                        V          time duretion

 

I run every day.

我       每天             跑步

wǒ     měitiān      pǎobù   

S        Time            V

 

Yesterday I bought several books                         

昨天             我           买了       几本书。

zuótiān      wǒ          mǎile      jǐběnshū

Time              S               V            O

 

In summary, The Chinese sentence structure is as follows:

Subject + time preposition + Time + location preposition + Location (from the biggest to the smallest) + how (can be adverb or a phrase containing a preposition.) + Verb + time duration + indirect object + Object

Here are some tips you can follow to better remember the sentence structure.

  1. The subject can be located after the time.
  2. Sometime the duration of time word is an adverb phrase, which describes a verb or an adjective phrase describing a noun. In this case it is located before the verb (or noun) and not after it. Pay attention not to let it confuse you. (Look at examples)

 

Since coming to China, I learnt Chinese very hard for three hours every day with my sister in Beijing University.

自从来到中国,我和妹妹每天在北京大学努力学三个小时的中文

   Time                    S                      Location   Adv.V.    O                 

zì cóng lái dào zhōng guó,wǒ hé mèi mei měi tiān zài běi jīng dà xué   nǔ lì xué xí sān gè xiǎo shí de zhōng wén

My dog lies in the couch of living room all day.

我的狗             整天       在客厅的沙发上             躺着       睡懒觉。

S                     Time          Location                       How          V

wǒ de gǒu zhěng tiān zài kè tīng lǐ de shā fā shàng tǎng zhe      shuì lǎn jiào

 

Important Exceptions in the Chinese sentence order

As we know the basic Chinese sentence order is: Subject + Time (when) + Place + verb. There are some special verbs, which seem to be allowed to break the rules. These verbs are put before the place and not after it as usual. For these verbs we have the structure:

Subject + Time (when) + verb + Place                        

 

Which verbs are breaking the rules? There are two kinds of these verbs:

  1. Verbs implying movement or location:

住(zhù/live), 放 (fàng/put), 坐 (zuò/sit), 站 (zhàn/stand),走 (zǒu/walk),去 (qù/go),达到 (dá dào/arrive),来 (lái/come),飞 (fēi/fly),扔 (rēng/throw),待 (dāi/stay), etc.

 

  1. Verbs that express variability from one situation to another in this place:

结 (jiē/ bear fruit ),积累/积 (jī lěi / accumulate) , 生长 (shēng zhǎng/ grow ),烹饪(pēng rèn/cooking), etc.

 

Here are several exception examples:

The food is put in the stove

食物放在炉子上 (type 2)

(shí wù fàng zài lú zi shàng)

 

Banana grow on the tree.

香蕉结在树上 (type 2)

(xiāng jiāo jiē zài shù shàng)

 

Don’t throw on the ground.

不要扔在地上 (type 1)

(bú yào rēng zài di shàng)

 

Kids always like sitting on the ground.

孩子 总是 喜欢 上 (type 1)

(hái zi zǒng shì xǐ huan zuò zài dì shàng)

 

This may be a lot of information to take in and may be overwhelming but don’t fret. If you continue to listen and read as much real Chinese as you can, it will let you get a natural feel for these exceptions and put them before the place word naturally. These verbs can be also used in the normal order (after the place) in case we want to emphasize the place. For example:

I live in US

我在美国住。

(wǒ zài měi guó zhù) (not in china).

Conclusion

Chinese grammar is not difficult; I believe learning the grammar of any language is usually done by repetition. However I still want to suggest a way to make the use of the correct sentence words order easier for Dig Mandarin audiences. Take an easy Chinese sentence, which still contains most of the sentence grammatical words (like subject, object, verb, prepositions and etc.) and say it to yourself for some days until you will be able to recite it fluently. Then, whenever you need to compose a sentence in Chinese only check the situation in this sentence frame.

 

I can also promise you this: as you progress in Chinese, you will feel you are grasping the sense of the language. The more you listen to Chinese speaking (don’t give up if you don’t understand every sentence) the more you will get an understanding of the language. Then you will not need to recite the grammar anymore and instead know it by your inner feeling and intuition. You will notice that your mistakes are less and less without thinking. So listen to Chinese as much as you can. You will then see miracles!

Orna Taub

Orna Taub was born in Haifa, Israel in 1957 to a happy family with a twin sister. After the army service she studied pure mathematics in the Technion in Haifa. After receiving the MS.c she studied four years Chinese medicine and some subjects in alternative medicine. She worked in her own clinic for several years. In a certain point she started to feel an unexplained very strong attraction to China and as a result started to learn mandarin by her own. This strong feeling towards China only gets stronger and she uses every opportunity to base and deepen her knowledge and mastery in the Chinese language, history, culture and life. the Chinese language is her main hobby and occupation and recently she decided to share her knowledge in insights with other students and wrote some textbook for students.

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