Structural particle "de"
The structural particle "de" has three written forms in modern Chinese, each with its own uses:
- 的 (de), most often used for modifying nouns
- 得 (de), most often used with complements
- 地 (de), most often used with adverbial phrases
There is also a modal particle 的 (de), not covered in this grammar point.
的 (de) Before Nouns
Before nouns, 的 (de) is used to mark possession or modification. One way to think about 的 (de) is that it works like apostrophe-"s" in English. Think of this one as the "possessive de" or "noun-modifying de."
- 小李 的 房子 Xiao Li's house
This comparison works very well for possession, as it shows how English and Chinese handle possession in a similar way. Just remember that Chinese uses this "possession" far more widely than English. Modifying, describing qualities, and assigning attributes are all handled in the same way as possession, by using 的 (de).
Another way to use 的 (de) is as an attributive. It's just a way of connecting adjectives or other words with a noun. It gives us more information about the noun, and the 的 (de) makes it clear that the extra information is connected to the noun. Here's an example:
- 红色 的 自行车 red bicycle
Here 的 (de) is used to modify "bicycle" with the color "red." It attributes the color "red" to the "bicycle."
Although certainly not complete for all uses, this simple structure should help as a general guideline:
的 + Noun
- 我 的 手机my cell phone
- 我们 的 老师our teacher
- 漂亮 的 衣服beautiful clothes
- 热闹 的 酒吧a boisterous bar
- 我 女朋友 的 公司 my girlfriend's company
For you nerdier learners, 的 (de) is known to the Chinese as 白勺的 (bái-sháo de) as it's composed of the characters 白 (bái) and 勺 (sháo).
得 (de) After Verbs
This de is probably the trickiest to crack for English speakers as it has no obvious equivalent in English. 得 (de) is used to construct various kinds of complements and is usually associated with verbs. You can think of it as the "complement de."
Although certainly not complete for all uses, this simple structure should help:
Verb + 得
- 做 得 很 好 do very well
- 说 得 太 快 speak too fast
- 玩 得 很 开心 play very happily
- 开 得 很 快 drive very fast
- 住 得 很 舒服 live very comfortably
For you nerdier learners, 得 (de) is known as 双人得 (shuāngrén de), as the character component 彳 is often referred to as 双人 (shuāngrén), or the "double person" component.
Not an Adverb?
You might be wondering how the examples using 得 (de) above are different from adverbs. That's actually a really good question, but it's one that you should defer until later in your studies. Complements are a bit tricky, and you'll be learning a lot more about them at the intermediate level, so be patient!
地 (de) Before Verbs
地 (de) is used to turn adjectives into adverbs, and can be thought of as equivalent to the suffix -ly in English. You could call it the "adverb de" or "adverbial de," since it precedes verbs like adverbs do.
Although not complete for all uses, this simple structure should help:
Adj. + 地 + Verb
Note that it's the "adjective + 地 (de)" structure that makes the adjective into an "adverb phrase" (called an adverbial). If it's a straight-up adverb you're using (instead of an adjective), then you don't need 地 (de) at all.
This pattern is also the least common of the three; you'll be using 的 (de) and 得 (de) a lot more in everyday communication than this one.
- 生气 地 说 angrily say
- 开心 地 笑 happily laugh
- 慢慢 地 走 slowly walk
- 伤心 地 哭 sadly cry
- 认真 地 听 carefully listen
Again, you don't have to know this, but this 地 (de) is known in Chinese as 土也地 (tǔ-yě de), as it's composed of the 土 (tǔ) component on the left with a 也 (yě) on the right.
Using All Three "de"s
This example is naturally going to be a little more difficult than the ones above, since we're cramming all three usages into one sentence, but you may find this useful.
- 今天 的 作业 你 做 得 不好，因为 你 没 认真 地 听课。You didn't do today's homework well because you didn't listen attentively in class.
Sources and further reading
- A Practical Chinese Grammar For Foreigners (外国人实用汉语语法) (pp. 133-135) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy
- Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (pp. 72) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 2 (3rd ed) (pp. 291-3) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 2, Part 1 (pp. 193 - 195) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 3 (新实用汉语课本3) (pp. 50-1, 99-101) Anything Goes (无所不谈) →buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (pp. 189) [ →buy]
- Blog post (Chinese): “的”与“地”“得”
- Online document (Chinese): “的”“地”“得”的用法区别 explains and shares a song about the three de's
- Sinosplice: The Three De Song
- ChinesePod blog: The Three Musketeers (的, 得, and 地) on ChinesePod.com