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How to Use the Structural Particle “的”

The structural particle “的(de)” indicates that the word or phrase preceding it functions as an attributive that defines or modifies the noun or noun phrase that comes after it.

For example:

我的书 (Wǒ de shū) my book
很忙的大夫 (hěn máng de dàifu) a very busy doctor

In these examples, the nouns “书” and “大夫” are respectively modified by the pronoun “我” and adjective “很忙” .The structural “的” marks the relationship between the modifier and the modified.

When a verb/verb phrase or a clause modifies a noun

This format applies when the modifier is a verb/verb phrase or a clause. For example:

a. 学汉语 的 学生 (Xuéhànyǔ de xuéshēng) the students learning Chinese.
b. 姐姐给我 的 词典 (Jiejie gěi wǒ de cídiǎn) the dictionary given to me by my older sister.
c. 教我汉语 的 老师 (Jiào wǒ hànyǔ de lǎoshī)  the teacher who teaches me Chinese.
d. 我买 的 手机 (Wǒ mǎi de shǒujī) the cell phone (which) I bought.

Important points:

  • Notice the difference in word order between the Chinese phrases and their English equivalents. In Chinese, the modifier ALWAYS PRECEDES the modified, while in English it’s the opposite.
  • In English, when a verb or a verb phrase modifies a noun, there is no structural connector to mark the relation. See examples a and b.
  • In English, when a clause modifies a noun, there is usually a structural connector, which could be WHICH, WHO, WHOM, WHEN, WHAT. But whatever the connector is, when translated into Chinese, it takes the form of 的. See examples c and d.
  • In Chinese, when the modified noun is understood based on context, it can be omitted. For example:

今天我买了很多东西,有吃的(东西),也有用的(东西). ( Jīntiān wǒ mǎile hěnduō dōngxi, yǒu chī de (dōngxi), yěyǒu yòng de (dōngxi).)
Today I bought a lot of stuff. There is stuff to eat; there is stuff to use.

In general, the particle “的” comes in as a connection between the modifier and the noun or the noun phrase modified. However, there are some cases in which “的” is optional:

1. Monosyllabic adjectives don’t need 的。

白(的)衬衣 (bái chènyī) white shirt
好(的)车 (hăo chē) good cars

2. Nouns which classify other nouns don’t need 的

A. Place names as attributives: Names of countries, regions, cities, etc. may serve unchanged as attributives.

美国车 (Měiguó chē) American car
德国人 (Déguó rén) German person

B. Languages as attributives: Names of languages can also serve unchanged as attributives. As with place names, there is no need to have a “的” to mark the subordination when the name of a language functions as a modifier.

法文老师 (Făwén lăoshī) French teacher
汉语书 (Hànyŭ shū) Chinese book

3. Personal pronouns followed by nouns of close relationships or places to which the pronouns belong don’t need 的

你(的)朋友 (nĭ péngyou) your friends
我(的)家 (Wǒjiā) my home

Hint: If you have to use many nouns to classify the main noun, a 的 is usually placed before the main noun, instead of placing 的 after each noun, as in 我姐姐朋友的老师是我哥哥同学的爱人。(Wǒ jiejie péngyǒu de lǎoshī shì wǒ gēgē tóngxué de àirén) My sister’s friend’s teacher is my brother’s classmate’s wife.

Here, let’s do some exercises: Put “的” in the proper place as needed.

(1)他们都是很好人。
(2)这是我汉语词典。
(3)她穿着一条红裙子。
(4)这是一张旧世界地图。
(5)他是北京大学学生。
(6)我哥哥女朋友是我同学姐姐。

In addition, there are other two “de”—- “得” and  “地” in Chinese, which often confuse Chinese beginners, but we will explain them later.

Rita Zhang

Rita is a professional Mandarin teacher, has been teaching more than 8 years. She enjoys digging more about Chinese grammar and culture work and helping more learners. Now she is working at the one-on-one online Chinese school TouchChinese.

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