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Beginner Guide to Chinese Grammar

As a beginner, Chinese grammar can be challenging to understand. In this quick overview, we will provide you with some basic information on Chinese grammar as well as some good starting points.

Background

English is classified as an Indo-European language. This language family includes a lot of languages spoken in the western world, including the romance languages (such as Spanish, French, and Portuguese) as well as the Slavic languages (such as Russian, Czech, and Polish), and many others. All of these languages have common grammatical features which include conjugating verbs for different tenses, following specific rules about subject-verb agreement, and adding endings to words to make them plural.

Chinese is not part of the Indo-European family at all. Instead, it is classified as a Sino-Tibetan language, and, unsurprisingly, its grammar is quite different from the grammar of those European languages you may have encountered before. Still, Chinese grammar may surprise you with its pleasing simplicity and consistent logical structure.

As a language, Chinese (quote famously) does not have an alphabet. Instead, characters known as “hanzi” (汉字) are used to express the different sounds of the language. These characters can also be written using the roman letters in a system called “pinyin.” All beginners should learn pinyin first. Pinyin is provided for all Chinese characters that appear in A1 and A2 grammar points.

The Basics

There are a number of misconceptions about Chinese grammar, the most egregious being that "Chinese has no grammar." If Mandarin Chinese truly had no grammar, you could make no grammar mistakes, and no learners would ever struggle with it. We will start this overview by looking at some specific areas of Chinese grammar that can sometimes trip up beginners.

Word Order

For many simple cases, the basic sentence structure of Chinese is the same in Chinese as it is in English. Both languages use a subject-verb or subject-verb-object (SVO) formula for making simple sentences. This familiar pattern means that you shouldn't have much trouble with word order at first.

Subject-Verb Examples:

Subject Verb Translation
吃。chī. You eat.
笑。xiào. He laughs.
去。qù. I go.

Subject-Verb-Object Examples:

Subject Verb Object Translation
chī. 肉。ròu. I eat meat.
水。shuǐ. You drink water.
shuō 中文。Zhōngwén. He speaks Chinese.

More examples can be found on our basic word order page.

As sentences get more complex, you'll note that Chinese word order does, in fact, diverge significantly from English word order, even for some relatively simple sentences. For help with those, check out our articles on time words, locations of actions, using simple adverbs correctly, and making simple noun-adjective sentences.

Questions

Simple sentences can be turned into yes/no questions by adding 吗 (ma) to the end of simple statements. For each of the following, you could make a simple statement by dropping 吗 (ma).

  • 他 是 老师 questionTā shì lǎoshī ma?Is he a teacher?
  • 你 喜欢 咖啡 questionNǐ xǐhuan kāfēi ma?Do you like coffee?
  • 他 是 机器人 questionTā shì jīqìrén ma?Is he a robot?

Another important question particle for beginners to understand is 呢 (ne). 呢 (ne) is simply added after a topic to turn it into a "what about...?" question. This is useful in conversations to say things like "what about you?" or "what about my money?" This particle is simply tagged onto a subject to form the question.

  • 我 吃饭 了 。 你 Wǒ chīfàn le. Nǐ ne?I've eaten. What about you?
  • 北京 下 雨 了 。 上海 Běijīng xià yǔ le. Shànghǎi ne?It's raining in Beijing. How about Shanghai?
  • 你 说 他们 可以 去 。 我们 Nǐ shuō tāmen kěyǐ qù. Wǒmen ne?You said they can go. What about us?

There are of course other ways to form questions. In English, we use question words, commonly referred to as the "5 W's and 1 H" (what, where, who, when, why, how), to make questions. These question words also exist in Chinese, but their placement within a sentence in Chinese is different from English. The structure of a question in Chinese follows the same structure as a normal statement.

For example, in English the structure of the question "Who are you?" puts the question word "who" at the beginning of the sentence. If the person answering this question says, "I am Li Li" we can see that the answer to the question comes at the end of the sentence. In Chinese, the structure of the question to learn someone's name is "You are who?" So the question follows the same structure as the answer (subject-verb-object). This works for all kinds of other questions too. For example, in Chinese, to ask "What is it?" you literally say, "It is what?"

  • 什么 shénmewhat
  • 哪里 / 哪儿 nǎlǐ / nǎrwhere
  • shéiwho
  • 什么时候 shénme shíhouwhen
  • 为什么 wèishénmewhy
  • 怎么 zěnmehow

Possession

Possession can be shown using the particle 的 (de). This character functions the same way as an apostrophe-"s" does in English and is added after the "owner," before the "thing owned." One interesting result of this extremely versatile system is that you don't need separate words for "my" or "your" or "his"; you just follow the words for "I" or "you" or "he" with a 的 (de).

  • 小李 手机Xiǎo Lǐ de shǒujīXiao Li's cell phone
  • 手机de shǒujīMy cell phone
  • 公司 老板gōngsī de lǎobǎnthe company's boss
  • 小狗de xiǎogǒuHis puppy

Possession can also be expressed with 有 (yǒu), the Chinese verb meaning "to have." Just like we can say in English "I have the tickets" or "she has the camera," 有 (yǒu) can indicate this type of possession.

  • 钱。yǒu qián.I have money.
  • 两 个 女儿 。yǒu liǎng gè nǚér.He has two daughters.
  • 工作 吗?yǒu gōngzuò ma?Do you have a job?

Negation

The same basic word order holds true when using the negative. Simply put the word 不 (bù) before verbs and adjectives. This functions much like the word "not" in English.

  • 喝酒 hējiǔ. She doesn't drink alcohol.
  • 他们 想 工作Tāmen xiǎng gōngzuò.They don't want to work.
  • 漂亮 piàoliang.She is not pretty.

When talking about what you do not "have," you use the word 没 (méi) instead of 不 (bu). It is placed right before the verb 有 (yǒu) to form the "do not have" phrase 没有 (méiyǒu). This allows you to say sentences like "Walter doesn't have a car" or "Voltron doesn't have the books."

  • 手机 。méi yǒu shǒujī.I don't have a cell phone.
  • 我们 房子 。Wǒmen méi yǒu fángzi.We don't have a house.
  • 他们 公司 电脑 。Tāmen gōngsī méi yǒu diànnǎo.Their company doesn't have computers.

Aspect

As we mentioned already, there is a silly notion floating around that Chinese has no grammar. While this belief is false, it probably stems from the fact Chinese has no formal tenses to express events that took place in either the past or the future. Instead of tense, the language makes use of time words and puts more emphasis on aspect. You don't need to worry about this in the beginning; just remember to use time words to make clear when something happened, and the aspect thing will come with time. (Hint: aspect involves the particle 了 (le), which you'll be spending more time with later.)

Parts of Speech

All words can be classified into parts of speech to define what roles the words play in sentences. Here, we will briefly recap how these different parts of speech work in English, and explain how the same rules apply to Chinese grammar.

Nouns are commonly referred to as "person, place, or thing" words. As you start learning more Chinese vocabulary, many of the words you will learn will be nouns. These will make up the subjects and the objects of the sentences you study.

Verbs are words that describe actions (sometimes mental or abstract rather than physical). Chinese does not conjugate verbs. Chinese verbs stay the same, regardless of when the action takes place or who performs it.

Here are some good verbs for beginners to start learning:

Adverbs are words that modify verbs and adjectives. In Chinese, the adverb always goes before the verb or adjective. Instead of saying "I run also," proper grammar in Chinese would be "I also run." It's very consistent in Chinese.

Here are some good adverbs for beginners to start learning:

Adjectives are words that describe nouns. Chinese has some unique rules about how adjectives interact with different nouns and verbs.

Here are some good adjective rules for beginners to start learning:

Conjunctions are words that join two thoughts together in a sentence. The three most common ones in English are "and," "but," and "or." As you learn more about these conjunctions in Chinese, you will discover that they're each a little different from their English equivalents.

Here are some good conjunctions for beginners to start learning:

Articles are kind of a confusing concept in English, but the main English articles are "a," "an," and "the." We use them when saying things like "I have a laptop" or "open the door." In Chinese, articles don't exist. There is no word for "a" or "the" in Chinese.

Numbers are the words we use to express specific quantities. We use numbers to express value, time, and other important functions in our lives. They can be used for all of these same functions in Chinese.

Here are some good number structures for beginners to start learning.

Measure words are words that pair up with numbers and help describe the nouns that are being counted (or "measured"). We don't have such a pervasive, complete system for this in English, but we do something similar when we say, "5 pieces of pizza" or "3 sheets of paper."

Here is the only measure word beginners need to start learning the concept:

Ready for more?

Of course all of this is just the beginning. There are many more interesting grammar patterns that can help you correctly express lots of different things in Chinese. Take a look at the A1 grammar points for more beginner-friendly grammar help. Just keep in mind that these grammar points are not sequential. Start with what you need help with most, and branch out from there.