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The Basics of Chinese Grammar Explained in Under 10 Minutes

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

For example:

      喜欢       
      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.

    喜欢     黑色           
   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.

    喜欢     黑色            猫   吗?
  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:

        唱歌
    chànggē
I           sing

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

        每天            唱歌
    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.

        每天           在家里           唱歌
    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’

        每天           在家里          跟朋友一起                 唱歌
    měitiān       zài jiālǐ       gēn péngyǒu yīqǐ      chànggē
I       every day     at home         with friends                 sing

Talking about the past in Chinese

       昨天             唱歌        
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.

For example:

          唱了       20          分钟
    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:

      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:

      快乐              唱歌
  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.

For example:

        唱歌                      
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!