Learner FAQ

Many learners have the same questions about Chinese grammar. We've compiled the most Frequently Asked Questions here, and organized them by difficulty level for your convenience.

Beginner Questions

Does Chinese have grammar?

Despite what you may have heard, Chinese does have grammar. Otherwise any combination of vocabulary you throw together would make sense, and that's clearly not the case. (Plus, we like to think that all this work we've done for the Chinese Grammar Wiki is actually useful!)

Is it true that Chinese word order is the same as English word order?

It is true that for many very simple sentences the word order in the two languages is the same, but even in many very basic sentence patterns, you'll find that Chinese diverges from English in some important ways. For example, where to put time words, or where to put a location of an action are quite different in Chinese. We recommend you check out our page on word order in Chinese for more details.

What's the difference between a character and a word?

In Chinese, virtually all words are written using characters, but not all characters are words. So if you're learning new words in Chinese, you're pretty much always dealing with characters. But it's quite common to learn a new character which is not a word by itself. In this grammar wiki, you'll encounter single characters used as words, but this resource was not designed to teacher single characters outside of that scope.

I've heard Chinese doesn't have words for "yes" and "no." Is this true?

Yes, sort of. In Chinese, the most common way to answer a yes/no question is to repeat the same verb that was used in the question. Use the verb in the positive for "yes," and use the verb in the negative for "no." See our article on the Verb-Not-Verb pattern for more info.

Is it true that Chinese doesn't have verb conjugation or tenses?

Yes, this is true! Chinese uses aspect, not tense. So of course there are ways to refer to the past, the present, the future, etc., but it doesn't work quite the same way that English does. Key to these concepts are the aspectual particles, but we don't recommend you worry about that too much now if you're just starting out.

Does Chinese have levels of formality like Japanese and Korean?

No. Much like English, Chinese has more formal vocabulary and sentence patterns for more formal situations, but it's not actually built into any verb forms. (There is only one "verb form" for each verb in Chinese. Yay!)

How many characters do I need to know to obtain conversational/professional level Chinese skills?

There is no set number that will indicate conversational/professional level Chinese language skills. However, many estimates range anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 characters for the amount of characters one needs to know to have a decent amount of fluency in reading things like novels and newspapers, and for having decent conversational skill. Also, knowing X amount of characters will not necessarily correlate with a certain level of reading skill, as the combination of characters (words) are more important to understand when reading Chinese texts.

Elementary Questions

What is a particle?

A particle is a tiny word that serves a grammatical purpose. Chinese particles are often used to mark a question, or to indicate that an action has been completed. Chinese particles are always neutral tone, and are never used by themselves. Common examples include (le), (ba), and (ma).

There's a lot more to learn more about particles, but don't try to learn them all at once. Learn them as you need them.

How do I use 了 (le)?

That, my friend, is the million-dollar question that confounds all learners of Chinese. Unfortunately, learning to use 了 (le) is not a matter of following a few simple rules. It's a matter of learning many, many individual patterns and rules for using 了, and over time, gradually getting a feel for its usage. The Chinese Grammar Wiki has pages on both the aspectual particle 了 and the modal particle 了 (the two major traditional classifications), but you're probably better off just slowly working your way through our big page of 了 patterns.

What's the difference between using 吗 (ma) and an affirmative-negative question (adj/v + 不 + adj/v)?

The affirmative-negative pattern and 吗 pattern are very similar when asking simple, yes-no questions. However, affirmative-negative questions may sound a bit more abrupt in some situations. Moreover, the affirmative-negative form is not used when an adverb like 很 (hen), 都 (dou), and 也 (ye) is present.

Is Chinese a language of inflection, like English?

No, Chinese tends to convey meaning through context, word order, and other elements such as adverbials, rather than having inflection-based characteristics.

Can I use 和 (he) in any situation where I would say "and" in English?

While it may be tempting to do so, refrain from using 和 anytime you'd express "and" in English. The reason being that 和 can only be used to link nouns, using 和 to do something like linking verbs will result in ungrammatical and unclear utterances.

Intermediate Questions

What is a complement?

Complements are hard to explain to English speakers, because we don't have them in the same way in English. Chinese complements can modify verbs in all kinds of different ways. Usually the first one learners encounter is 听不懂 (literally, "I hear but don't understand"), but there are many other types of complements.

What is 把 (bǎ) really, and do I need to use it?

把 is used to manipulate objects in Chinese sentences. While you don't technically need to use 把 at first (for most simple sentences there are other ways to express the same information), it's a super common structure in Chinese, and you'll eventually need to break down and start using it yourself. So if you're an intermediate learner, you're definitely going to need to learn how to use 把.

Do I use 过 (guo) whenever I want to indicate past tense?

Using 过 (guo) is not always the correct way to create past tense. 过 (guo) is especially used for "past experiences" that the subject has had.

When do I know whether I should be using 如果 or 要是 for an "if...then" statement?

It's a matter of formality, much like other grammar structures in Chinese. Using 要是 is considered more informal, and it commonly used in spoken Chinese, especially in northern China.