Some people say that Chinese doesn’t have grammar, but in fact, although there is greater flexibility in Chinese grammar than in the grammar in other languages, there is still often a clear difference between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
The most important aspect of Chinese grammar is the order of the words in the sentence. In this post, I want to explain the basics of how you put together sentences in Chinese, through easy to understand examples.
Chinese grammar in simple sentences
你 喜欢 猫
nǐ xǐhuan māo
You like cats
You like cats
Notice also that the character for ‘cat’ is also used for ‘cats’. In other words, there is no singular and plural in Chinese characters, the same character is used.
Adding an adjective
If we expand the sentence to include an adjective, it comes directly before the noun, just like in English.
你 喜欢 黑色 的 猫
nǐ xǐhuan hēisè de māo
You like black cats
You like black cats
In this sentence, the 的 is a particle which connects two parts of a sentence together, or shows the relationship between two parts of a sentence. In this situation, we could also have said 你喜欢黑猫
nǐ xǐhuan hēi māo, leaving the particle out.
Making a sentence a question
If we take the same sentence and add the particle 吗 (ma), then we make it into a question.
你 喜欢 黑色 的 猫 吗？
nǐ xǐhuan hēisè de māo ma?
You like black cats (question)
Do you like black cats?
There are other ways of forming a question in Chinese, but this is the easiest.
You’ll also notice that the verb doesn’t change its form in Chinese depending on who is ‘doing’ it. In other words, 喜欢 (like) is used with I, you, he, she or they. It doesn’t change.
Let’s have a look at another example sentence now:
Sing is actually two words in Chinese. 唱 is the verb ‘to sing’ and 歌 means ‘song/songs’. Some Chinese verbs work like this, they actually contain the object as well.
The time comes before the verb
我 每天 唱歌
wǒ měitiān chànggē
I every day sing
I sing every day
In this example, I’ve added in the time when the action takes place. As you can see, it comes before the verb. This is different from English and many other languages, where the time phrase comes after the verb.
Adding extra elements to the sentence
This time I’ve added in the location where the action takes place. As you can see, it comes after the time phrase and before the verb.
我 每天 在家里 唱歌
wǒ měitiān zài jiālǐ chànggē
I every day at home sing
I sing every day at home
To expand this one step further, if we wanted to say who we are ‘doing’ this action with, that comes right before the verb. In this case, the Chinese grammar is also different from English grammar. In English we would say ‘I sing with my friends’, whereas in Chinese it would be ‘I with my friends sing’
我 每天 在家里 跟朋友一起 唱歌
wǒ měitiān zài jiālǐ gēn péngyǒu yīqǐ chànggē
I every day at home with friends sing
Talking about the past in Chinese
我 昨天 唱歌 了
wǒ zuótiān chànggē le
I yesterday sung (past)
I sung yesterday
When you talk about a past action in Chinese, the verb stays the same. Usually, you can add the marker 了 (le) to indicate the past. Sometimes, when the time when the action takes place is clear, or it comes after another event, then you don’t even need the 了.
You do have to be careful about how to use 了; it’s not exactly the same as a past tense in English and it can also do other things, but let’s not overcomplicate things for this post.
Talking about a duration of time
In Chinese, if you are talking about the duration of time that something happens, that comes after the verb.
我 唱了 20 分钟
wǒ chàngle èrshí fēnzhōng
I sung 20 minutes
I sung for 20 minutes
We have taken the verb 唱, added the particle 了 to it to indicate the past (taking away the object 歌 – songs), and then stuck the ’20 minutes’ on the end. You can also say 我唱歌唱了二十分钟, repeating the verb and the object.
Talking about the future in Chinese
I already mentioned that the time phrase comes before the verb in Chinese. As with the past, when we are talking about the future, the verb is the same, and doesn’t change its form. Sometimes you use a marker to indicate the future, such as 要 (yào), 会 (huì) or 将 (jiāng), and sometimes it is clear from the sentence or the time words in it, so you don’t need a marker at all.
Here’s an example of a sentence in the future:
我 明天 (要) 唱歌
wǒ míngtiān yào chànggē
I tomorrow going to sing
I am going to sing tomorrow
Adding an adverb to a sentence
If you want to add an adverb to a Chinese sentence, then you normally just use the character 地 after the adjective. So, for example, happy is 快乐 and happily would be 快乐地.
The adverb comes before the verb in Chinese:
我 快乐 地 唱歌
wǒ kuàilè de chànggē
I happy (adv) sing
I sing happily
Adding more information about the verb
There’s also a special character in Chinese (得) that is used to add a complement to a verb, to give the reader more information about it.
It is sometimes used as a marker for something almost like an adverb in a sentence in English.
我 唱歌 唱 得 很 好
wǒ chànggē chàng de hěn hǎo
I sing sing very good
I sing very well
Here we have repeated the verb 唱歌, 唱 (leaving out the 歌, meaning ‘songs’) and added 得 + 很 好 (very good). The character for ‘good’ and ‘well’ is the same in Chinese.
Of course, there is more to Chinese word order and Chinese grammar than I have described in this post, but I hope it has helped you to understand a bit about how Chinese is ‘put together’ and made the language that little bit more simple for you.
If you have any questions or want to know about something I haven’t covered, just leave me a comment!