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Chinese Grammar Fundamentals: Master the Attributive Particle 的

Language is like a puzzle, where words come together to create meaning and share ideas. In the world of the Chinese language, there’s a small but powerful puzzle piece called the 的(de) particle. It’s responsible for linking together different words and phrases to build more complex and complete ideas. That’s the indispensable role of 的(de). In this article, we’ll uncover the secrets of this special particle and see how it’s used in different ways.

Basic Structure: Building Phrases with the Particle 的

The structural particle 的(de) shows that the word or phrase before it works as an adjective, defining or modifying the noun or noun phrase 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 cases, the nouns 书(shū) and 大夫(dàifu) are modified by the pronoun 我(wǒ) and the adjective 很忙(hěn máng) respectively. The particle 的(de) highlights the connection between the modifier and the modified word.

Adding Context in Chinese: Using 的 with verbs

When a verb, verb phrase, or clause modifies a noun, a specific pattern is used. Here’s how it works:

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.

Key points to remember:

  1. Notice the difference in word order between Chinese phrases and their English counterparts. In Chinese, the modifier ALWAYS COMES BEFORE the modified noun, while in English, it’s the opposite.
  2. In English, when a verb or verb phrase modifies a noun, there’s no structural connector to indicate the relationship, as seen in examples a and b.
  3. In English, when a clause modifies a noun, a structural connector is often used, such as WHICH, WHO, WHOM, WHEN, or WHAT. However, regardless of the connector, when translated into Chinese, it’s represented by the particle 的(de), as shown in examples c and d.
  4. In Chinese, when the noun being modified is clear from the context, it can be left out.

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.

Concise Chinese: When to omit 的

In general, the particle 的(de) acts as a link between the modifier and the modified noun or noun phrase. However, there are situations where using 的(de) is optional:

1. Monosyllabic adjectives don’t require 的(de).

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

2. Nouns classifying other nouns don’t need 的(de).

a). Place names as attributives: Names of countries, regions, cities, etc., can be used as-is.

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

b). Languages as attributives: Language names also remain unchanged when used as modifiers. Like with place names, 的(de) isn’t necessary.

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

3. Personal pronouns followed by nouns showing close relationships or belonging don’t need 的(de).

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

Hint: When using multiple nouns to describe the main noun, it’s common to place 的(de) before the main noun rather than after each noun. For instance, instead of saying 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), you can place 的(de) before the main noun like this: 我哥哥同学的爱人 (Wǒ gēgē tóngxué de àirén), which means “my brother’s classmate’s wife.”

Quiz Time! Put Your Skills to the Test

Now, let’s practice by adding 的(de) where necessary:

(1)他们都是很好人。They are all very good people.
(2)这是我汉语词典。This is my Chinese dictionary.
(3)她穿着一条红裙子。She is wearing a red dress.
(4)这是一张旧世界地图。This is an old world map.
(5)他是北京大学学生。He is a student at Peking University.
(6)我哥哥女朋友是我同学姐姐。My brother’s girlfriend is my classmate’s sister.

The 的(de) particle stands as an essential building block of complex ideas in Chinese communication. Its ability to simply and directly unite modifiers and modified words, while imparting subtlety and clarity, is a testament to the logical syntactic foundation of the language. By understanding and mastering the role of 的(de), we not only grasp the mechanics of syntax but also gain insight into the intricate artistry that underlies effective communication. Furthermore, in Chinese, there are two more “de” particles: 得 and 地 that can sometimes puzzle new learners. You can find a helpful comparison of these three words here.


(1) 他们都是很好的人。

(2) 这是我的汉语词典。

(3) 她穿着一条红色的裙子。

(4) 这是一张旧的世界地图。

(5) 他是北京大学的学生。

(6) 我哥哥的女朋友是我同学的姐姐。

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.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. This is extremely helpful – thank you. As an English (and also French) speaker, I really have to work hard for this to come naturally! However, this explains it so well. 🙂

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