Word order

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Also known as: sentence order, 语序 (yǔxù) and 词序 (cíxù).

You may have heard that word order in Chinese is very similar to that of English, and compared to a language like Japanese, it is. Fairly quickly, though, you'll start to realize that there are quite a few ways that the word order of even relatively simple sentences simply don't match in Chinese and English. The honeymoon is over; you're going to have to work just a little bit to master Chinese word order.

The Basic SVO Sentence

On this level, Chinese word order very closely matches English word order. "SVO" stands for "Subject-Verb-Object" [1]. For extremely simple sentences like "I love you" or "he eats glass," the word order of Chinese matches that of English, literally, word for word. Keep in mind that "SVO" doesn't include little details like articles (a, the, etc.) or prepositions (to, for, etc.).

Subject + Verb + Object

SVO word order exampes
Subject Verb Object
足球

This concept shouldn't take long at all to master. This makes sense "by default" for English speakers.

Adding extra information to a sentence

More details can be added to the basic sentence structure. How to do this is demonstrated below.

Placement of time words in a sentence

Time words, the WHEN part of a sentence, have a special place in Chinese. They usually come at the beginning of a sentence, right after the subject. Occasionally you'll see them before the subject, but the place you won't be seeing them is at the end of the sentence (where they frequently appear in English).

Placement of Time Words
Subject Time when Verb phrase
今天 工作
你们 每天 洗澡
星期二

Placement of place words in a sentence

When you want to tell WHERE something happened in Chinese (at school, at work, in Vegas, on the bus, etc.), you're most often going to use a phrase beginning with 在. This phrase needs to come after the time word (see above) and before the verb. Pay attention to this last part: before the verb. In English, this information naturally comes after the verb, so it's going to be difficult at first to get used to saying WHERE something happened before saying the verb.

Placement of place words
Subject Time when Place word Verb phrase
在 上海 工作
你们 星期六 在 家 看 电影
1980年 在 美国 出生

For some common exceptions to this word order, please see the following section.

Exceptions to the normal placement of place words

There are some special verbs which seem to be allowed to break the rules (see also location complements). For these special verbs, the WHERE information comes after the verb rather than before. It's important to remember that these verbs are exceptions. If you're not sure where the place phrase should go, it's usually safer to put it before the verb. This is the normal way to modify a verb in Chinese.

Exception to place word location in sentences
Subject Time when Place word Verb phrase Place word
我们 在 中国
到 外面
刚才 在 房间 里

Placement of duration in a sentence

Whenever you talk about FOR HOW LONG, you're getting into duration. It's not the same as a regular time word; it has its own rules.

Placement of duration
Subject Time when Place word Verb phrase Place word Time duration
在 中国 三年
去年 在 北京 学习 了 三 个 月
上 个 星期 在 家里 看 电视 看 了 二十 个 小时

Placement of manner in a sentence

Manner refers to HOW you do something, as in quietly, quickly, angrily, drunkenly, etc. This can be done adverbially (before the verb), but it's worth remembering that a complement works very well too.

Placement of manner
Subject Time-when Manner Place word Verb
高兴 地 笑了
买 完 东西 以后 满意 地 走 了
喝醉 的 时候 疯狂 地 在桌子上 跳舞

It is worth noting that "manner" is not something you'll want to add to every sentence. You will see it, but it's not the most common way to add more detail to a verb.

Placement of instrument in a sentence

OK, now we're getting a little out there. Rarely are you going to want to cram so much information into a simple sentence, but for the sake of argument, we're going to give it a go. This is the USING WHAT part of a sentence - called the instrument. In English, this is often placed at the end of the sentence and preceded by 'with'. In Chinese, it comes before the verb and is preceded by 用.

Placement of instrument
Subject Time when Manner Place word Instrument Verb Time duration
用 筷子 吃饭
今天 早上 在 办公室 用 电脑 工作
咱们 友好地 在 路上 用 中文 讨论 了 十 分钟

Placement of target in a sentence

Target is about who or what the verb is aimed at. This includes doing things for or on behalf of someone, or towards people or objects.

Placement of manner
Subject Time when Manner Location Instrument Target Verb phrase Time duration
有时候 对 父母 说谎
偷偷 地 和 女朋友 见面
司机 热情 地 给 我 介绍 上海
警察 那天 不停地 在 警察局 对 他 审问 了 几 个 小时
上 个 星期 在 他 家 用 网上 的 菜谱 给 我们 做了 饭

Placement of 也 in a sentence

也 behaves like other adverbs, but if the sentence also contains 很, 都 or 不, 也 should appear before them.

Before 很:

  • 他 很 喜欢 吃 包子。我 很 喜欢 吃。He really likes to eat baozi. I also like to eat them.
  • 我们 很 高兴。他 很 高兴。We are happy. He is also happy.

Before 都:

  • 你 是 我的 朋友。他们 都 是 我的 朋友。You are my friend. They are also all my friends.
  • 我 吃素。我 家人 都 吃素。I am vegetarian. The people in my family are also all vegetarians.

Before 不 and 没:

  • 我 不 是 学生。他 不 是。I am not a student. He isn't either.
  • 我 没 去过 美国。他 没 去过。I have not gone to America. He also hasn't gone.

Mnemonic Trick

One way to remember the word order in Chinese is the order in which things have to happen. For example, time has to pass before you can be at a place, so that goes first. You have to be at a place before you can do anything there, so the location comes before the verb. You need the instrument before you can use it, so that comes before the verb as well. Adverbs and complements are a little more difficult, but since they have to do with the verb itself, they go around the verb, either before or after it, depending on their role. Hopefully this little trick helps you remember the order of words in Chinese, but remember, practicing with Chinese speakers and hearing them make these sentences is a great tool to use as well.

Using question words in a Chinese sentence

You can insert question words (often called wh-words in English) into the structures above to form questions. Forming questions in Chinese is more straightforward than in English. In English you have to move the question word to the front of the sentence, whereas in Chinese it stays put in the sentence. All you have to do is replace the element you'd like to ask about with an appropriate question word.

Placement of question words
Subject Time when Manner Place Word Instrument Target Verb Time duration
在 路上 用 中文 向 陌生人 问路
什么 时候 在 路上 用 中文 向 陌生人 问路
怎么 用 中文 向 陌生人 问路
在 哪里 用 中文 向 陌生人 问路
在 路上 用 哪种 语言 向 陌生人 问路
昨天 在 路上 用 中文 向谁 问路
闲暇的时候 做什么
今年 在 上海 学了 多久 了

Order of attributives

Sometimes, a noun will have more than one detail that you want to express. When this is the case, Chinese has a specific order for the attributives that describe the noun. It's important to keep this order in mind as you are describing something.

Order: 1) Possessives such as "my", "his", or "Sarah's". 2) Demonstrative pronouns (这/那), number, and measure word. 3) Any adjectives that you want to use to describe the noun. 4) The noun or noun phrase

Remember, it isn't necessary to include every single one of these attributes, but when they are all present , this is the order that they should come in. If some are missing, just jump over that section and move onto the next. The examples below will help make this clearer.

Examples

  • 我 的 这 三 个 孩子 都 很 听话。These three kids of mine are all very obedient.
  • 这 个 红 色 的 小 盒子 里面 有 什么?What is inside this little red box?

See Also

References

  1. For more information on the SVO concept, see the Wikipedia article Subject–verb–object.

Sources and further reading

Books

Videos

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