- This article concerns Standard Chinese. For the grammars of other forms of Chinese, see their respective articles via links on Chinese language and varieties of Chinese.
The grammar of Standard Chinese shares many features with other varieties of Chinese. The language almost entirely lacks inflection, so that words typically have only one grammatical form. Categories such as number (singular or plural) and verb tense are frequently not expressed by any grammatical means, although there are several particles that serve to express verbal aspect and to some extent, mood.
The basic word order is subject–verb–object (SVO). Otherwise, Chinese is chiefly a head-last language, meaning that modifiers precede the words they modify – in a noun phrase, for example, the head noun comes last, and all modifiers, including relative clauses, come in front of it. (This phenomenon is more typically found in SOV languages like Turkish and Japanese.)
Chinese has both prepositions and postpositions, that is to say, some words corresponding to English prepositions come before the noun in Chinese, while some come after it (and both types may occur together with the same noun). Chinese prepositions can in fact be considered grammatically to be types of verb, as can adjectives in their predicate uses. There are various serial verb constructions that involve two or more verbs or verb phrases in sequence.
As in many southeast Asian languages, classifiers or measure words are required when using numerals (and sometimes other words such as demonstratives) with nouns. There are many different classifiers in the language, and each countable noun generally has a particular classifier associated with it. Informally, however, it is often acceptable to use the general classifier 个 [個] ge in place of other specific classifiers.
- 1 Word formation
- 2 Basic sentence structure
- 3 Plurals
- 4 Noun phrases
- 5 Pronouns
- 6 Adjectives
- 7 Adverbs and adverbials
- 8 Comparatives and superlatives
- 9 Verbs
- 10 Passive
- 11 Negation
- 12 Questions
- 13 Imperatives
- 14 Serial verb constructions
- 15 Particles
- 16 Cleft sentences
- 17 Conjunctions
- 18 Classifiers
- 19 Numerals
- 20 See also
- 21 Notes
- 22 References
- 23 Further reading
- 24 External links
In Chinese, the concept of words and the boundaries between them is not always transparent, and the Chinese script does not use spaces between words. Grammatically, some strings of characters behave as single words in some contexts, but are separable in others. Many English intransitive verbs are translated by verb+noun compounds, such as 跳舞 (tiàowǔ, "to dance") (literally "to jump a dance"), which may be regarded as single lexical words, although the two parts can become separated by (for example) aspect markers, and in fact they generally behave grammatically as combinations of verb plus object. Sometimes the behavior of such compounds is anomalous, however; for instance 关心 [關心] (guānxīn, "to be concerned about") behaves as an inseparable word when the perfective particle le is attached, although it is separable in the phrase 关什么心 [關什麼心] (guān shénme xīn, "to be concerned about what").
Chinese morphemes (minimum units of meaning) are mostly monosyllabic. Syllables (and thus morphemes in most cases) are represented as a rule by single characters. Some words consist of single syllables, but many words are formed by compounding two (or sometimes more) monosyllabic morphemes (which may be either free or bound – that is, they may or may not also be able to stand independently). Most two-syllable compound nouns have the head on the right, while in compound verbs the head is usually on the left. There are also some words (including many phonetic loans from other languages) that cannot be broken down into separate morphemes, although they are generally written with characters that otherwise represent particular morphemes (homophonic with the respective syllables of the word in question).
Many monosyllabic words have alternative disyllabic forms with virtually the same meaning, such as 大蒜 dàsuàn ("garlic", literally "big garlic") for 蒜 suàn ("garlic"). Very many disyllabic nouns are produced by adding the suffix 子 zi (original meaning: "child") to a monosyllabic word or morpheme. There is a strong tendency for monosyllables to be avoided in certain positions (for example, a disyllabic verb will not normally be followed by a monosyllabic object) – this may be connected with the preferred metrical structure of the language.
A common feature in Chinese is reduplication, where a syllable or word is repeated to produce a modified meaning. This can happen with:
- classifiers, to produce a phrase meaning "all", for example, 一座座山 yī zuò-zuò shān "all the mountains" (where ordinarily zuò is the classifier used in a phrase denoting a specific number of mountains);
- syllables in some informal words denoting family relations, for example 妈妈 [媽媽] māma "mother", 弟弟 dìdi "younger brother";
- some adjectives, to add emphasis, for example, 红红 hóng-hóng "so red" (from 红 hóng "red"). This is most common with monosyllabic adjectives, but can also occur with some disyllabic ones, in some cases on the pattern 舒舒服服 shū-shu-fú-fu (from 舒服 shūfu "comfortable"), and in others on the pattern 冰涼冰涼 bīngliáng-bīngliáng (from 冰涼 bīngliáng "ice-cool");
- many verbs, to mark the delimitative aspect ("to do something for a little bit") or for general emphasis - see under Aspects below;
- certain other single-syllable words and morphemes, as in 星星 xīngxīng "(distant) star, speck" (from 星 xīng "star"), 常常 chángcháng "often".
Basic sentence structure
他 喝 酒。
He drinks wine.
我 给 了 她 六 本 书。[我給了他六本書。]
I have given her six books.
With many verbs, however, the indirect object may also be preceded by 给 [給] gěi; in that case it may either precede or follow the direct object. (Compare the similar use of to in English.)
Chinese can also be considered a topic-prominent language: there is a strong preference for sentences that begin with the theme (often "given", or "old", information) and end with the rheme ("new" information). Certain modifications of the basic subject–verb–object order are permissible and may serve to achieve topic-prominence. In particular, a direct (or sometimes indirect) object may be moved to the start of the clause (topicalization). It is also possible for an object to be moved to a position in front of the verb, for emphasis.
In certain situations a direct object may be preceded by the accusative marker 把 bǎ. This generally denotes an action that results in a change of state in the object. For further details of this, see bǎ construction. Such a bǎ phrase no longer occupies the normal direct object position, but moves in front of the verb. Compare:
我 打 破 了 一 个 盘子。 [我打破了一個盤子。]
I broke a plate. (Accusative I, without bǎ)
我 把 盘子 打 破 了。[我把盤子打破了。]
I (acc.)-plate broke (and it is no longer intact). (Accusative II, with bǎ as marker)
There are also certain other markers that can be used in a similar way to bǎ, such as 将 [將] jiāng (in formal language) and 拿 ná (colloquial).
Another type of sentence is what has been called an ergative structure, where the apparent subject of the verb can move to object position; the empty subject position is then often occupied by an expression of location (compare locative inversion in English). This structure is typical of the verb 有 yǒu (meaning "there is/are"; in other contexts the same verb means "have"), but it can also be used with many other verbs, generally denoting position, appearance or disappearance. An example:
院子 里 停着 一 辆 车。 [院子裏停著一輛車。]
In the courtyard is parked a car.
Chinese is also to some degree a pro-drop or null-subject language, meaning that the subject can be omitted from a clause if it can be inferred from the context. In the following example, the subject of the verbs for "hike" and "camp" is left to be inferred (it may be "we", "I", "you", "she", etc.)
今天 爬 山， 明天 露 营。 [今天爬山，明天露營。]
Today hike up mountains, tomorrow camp outdoors.
In the next example the subject is omitted and the object is topicalized by being moved into subject position, to form a passive-type sentence. (For passive sentences with a marker such as 被 bèi, see Passive below.)
饭 做 好 了。[飯做好了]
Food make complete LE. (The food has been made, i.e. the food is ready.)
Adverbs and adverbial phrases that modify the verb typically come after the subject but before the verb, although other positions are sometimes possible; see Adverbs and adverbials. For constructions that involve more than one verb or verb phrase in sequence, see Serial verb constructions. For sentences consisting of more than one clause, see Conjunctions.
Chinese nouns and other parts of speech are not generally marked for number, meaning that plural forms are mostly the same as the singular. However, there is a plural marker 们 (們) men, which has limited usage. It is used with personal pronouns, as in 我们[我們] wǒmen, meaning "we" or "us" (from 我 wǒ, "I, me"), and can be used with nouns representing humans, most commonly those with two syllables, like in 朋友们[朋友們] péngyoumén "friends" (from 朋友 péngyou "friend"). Its use in such cases is optional. It is never used when the noun has indefinite reference, or when it is qualified by a numeral.
The demonstrative pronouns 这[這] zhè "this" and 那 nà "that" may be optionally pluralized by the addition of 些 xiē, making 这些[這些] zhèxiē "these" and 那些 nàxiē "those".
The head noun of a noun phrase comes at the end of the phrase; this means everything that modifies the noun comes before it. This includes attributive adjectives, determiners, quantifiers, possessives, and relative clauses.
Chinese does not have articles as such; a noun may stand alone to represent what in English would be expressed as "the ..." or "a(n) ...". However the word 一 yī "one", followed by the appropriate classifier, may be used in some cases where English would have "a(n)". It is also possible, with many classifiers, to omit the yī and leave the classifier on its own at the start of the noun phrase.
The demonstratives are 这 [這] zhè "this", and 那 nà "that". When used before a noun, these are often followed by an appropriate classifier (for discussion of classifiers, see Classifiers below and the article Chinese classifiers). However this use of classifiers is optional. When a noun is preceded by a numeral (or a demonstrative followed by a numeral), the use of a classifier or measure word is in most cases considered mandatory. (This does not apply to nouns that function as measure words themselves; this includes many units of measurement and currency.)
The plural marker 些 xiē ("some, several"; also used to pluralize the demonstratives) is used without a classifier. However 几 jǐ "some, several, how many" takes a classifier.
Possessives are formed by adding 的 de (the same particle that is used after relative clauses and sometimes after adjectives) after the noun, noun phrase or pronoun that denotes the possessor.
Chinese relative clauses, like other noun modifiers, precede the noun they modify. Like possessives and some adjectives, they are marked with the final particle 的 de. A free relative clause is produced if the modified noun following the de is omitted. A relative clause usually comes after any determiner phrase (such as a numeral and classifier), although for emphasis it may come before.
There is usually no relative pronoun in the relative clause. Instead, a gap is left in subject or object position, as appropriate. If there are two gaps (the additional gap being created by pro-dropping), ambiguity may arise. For example, 吃的 chī de may mean "(those) who eat" or "(that) which is eaten".
If the relative item is governed by a preposition in the relative clause, then it is denoted by a pronoun (e.g. 替他 tì tā "for him", to mean "for whom"), or else the whole prepositional phrase is omitted, the preposition then being implicitly understood.
For example sentences, see Relative clause → Mandarin.
The Chinese personal pronouns are 我 wǒ "I, me", 你 nǐ "you", and 他/她/它 tā "he (him)/she (her)/it". Plurals are formed by adding 们[們] men: 我们[我們] wǒmen "we, us", 你们[你們] nǐmen "you", 他们/她们/它们[他們/她們/它們] tāmen "they, them". There is also a formal, polite word for singular "you": 您 nín. The alternative "inclusive" word for "we/us", 咱 zán or 咱们[咱們] zá(n)men, referring specifically to the two people "you and I", is not widely used. The third-person pronouns are not often used for inanimates (instead, demonstratives are preferred).
Possessives are formed with 的 de, as with nouns (我的 wǒde "my, mine", 我们的[我們的] wǒmende "our(s)", etc.). The de may be omitted in phrases denoting inalienable possession, such as 我妈妈[我媽媽] wǒ māma "my mom".
The demonstrative pronouns are 这[這] zhè "this" and 那 nà "that" (with alternative colloquial pronunciations zhèi and nèi). They are optionally pluralized by the addition of 些 xiē. There is a reflexive pronoun 自己 zìjǐ meaning "oneself, myself, etc.", which can stand alone as an object or a possessive, or may follow a personal pronoun for emphasis. The reciprocal pronoun "each other" can be translated by 彼此 bǐcǐ, usually in adverb position (where an alternative is 互相 hùxiāng "mutually").
Adjectives can be used attributively, before a noun. The relative marker 的 de (also used after possessives and relative clauses) may be added after the adjective, but this is not always required; "black horse" may be either 黑马[黑馬] hēi mǎ or 黑的马[黑的馬] hēi de mǎ. When multiple adjectives are used, the order "quality/size – shape – color" is followed, although this is not necessary when each adjective is made into a separate phrase with the addition of de.
Gradable adjectives can be modified by words meaning "very", etc.; such modifying adverbs normally precede the adjective, although some, such as 极了[極了] jíle "extremely", come after it.
When adjectives co-occur with classifiers, they normally follow the classifier. However, with most common classifiers, when the number is "one", it is also possible to place adjectives like "big" and "small" before the classifier, for emphasis: 一大个西瓜[一大個西瓜] yí-dà-ge xīguā "one big [CLASSIFIER] watermelon".
Adjectives can also be used predicatively. In this case they behave more like verbs; there is no need for a copular verb in sentences like "he is happy" in Chinese; one may say simply 他高兴[他高興] tā gāoxìng, literally "he happy", where the adjective may also be interpreted as a verb meaning "is happy". In such sentences it is common for the adjective to be modified by a word meaning "very" or the like; in fact the word 很 hěn ("very") is often used in such cases (with gradable adjectives) even without carrying the meaning of "very".
It is nonetheless possible for a copula to be used in such sentences, to emphasize the adjective: 他是高兴了[他是高興了] tā shì gāoxìng le, "he is now truly happy" (here shì is the copula meaning "is", and le is the inceptive marker discussed below). This is similar to the cleft sentence construction. Sentences can also be formed in which an adjective followed by 的 de stands as the complement of the copula.
Adverbs and adverbials
Adverbs and adverbial phrases normally come in a position before the verb, but after the subject of the verb. In sentences with auxiliary verbs, the adverb usually precedes the auxiliary verb as well as the main verb. Some adverbs of time and attitude ("every day", "perhaps", etc.) may be moved to the start of the clause, to modify the clause as a whole. However, some adverbs cannot be moved in this way (these include 常 cháng, 常常 chángcháng or 经常[經常] jīngcháng "often", 都 dōu "all", 就 jiù "then", 又 yòu "again").
Adverbs of manner can be formed from adjectives using the clitic 地 de (not the same character as the de used to mark possessives and relative clauses). It is generally possible to move these adverbs to the start of the clause, although in some cases this may sound awkward, unless there is a qualifier such as 很 hěn ("very") and a pause after the adverb.
Some verbs take a prepositional phrase following the verb (and its direct object). These are generally obligatory constituents, such that the sentence would not make sense if they were omitted. For example 放本书在桌子上[放本書在桌子上] fǎng běn shū zài zhuōzi shàng "put a book on the table".
There are also certain adverbial "stative complements" which follow the verb, such as 得 dé +adjective (meaning "-ly"; note that this is a different character again from the two types of de previously mentioned), or 好了 hǎo le ("complete"). It is not generally possible for a single verb to be followed by both an object and an adverbial complement of this type (although there are exceptions in cases where the complement expresses duration, frequency or goal). To express both, the verb may be repeated (in a special kind of serial verb construction), the first instance taking an object, the second taking the complement. Aspect markers can then appear only on the second instance of the verb.
The typical Chinese word order "XVO", where an oblique complement such as a locative prepositional phrase precedes the verb, while a direct object comes after the verb, is very rare cross-linguistically; in fact, it is only in varieties of Chinese that this is attested as the typical ordering.
Expressions of location in Chinese may include a preposition (before the noun), a postposition (after the noun), both, or neither. Which is appropriate depends on the meaning of the noun itself and on the intended meaning of the locative phrase. The postpositions, which include 上 shàng "up, on", 下 xià "down, under", 里[裡] lǐ "in, within", 内 nèi "inside" and 外 wài outside, may also be called locative particles.
In the following examples locative phrases are formed from a noun plus a locative particle:
"table-on" = on the table
"house-in" = in the house
A commonly used preposition of location is 在 zài "at, on, in" (another is 从 cóng "from", which behaves similarly to zài). With certain nouns, such as nearly all place names, which inherently denote a specific location, a locative phrase is formed with zài together with the noun:
However other types of noun still require a locative particle (postposition) in addition to zài:
在 报纸 上[在報紙上]
"in newspaper-on" = in the newspaper
If a noun is modified so as to denote a specific location (as in "this ..."), then it may form locative phrases without any locative particle. Also, some nouns, like 家 jiā home and 学校[學校] xuéxiào "school", which can be understood to refer to a specific place, may optionally omit the locative particle. Words like 上面 shàngmiàn "top" can function as specific-location nouns (like in 在上面 zài shàngmiàn "on top"), but can also take the role of locative particle, not necessarily with analogous meaning (one can say 在报纸上面[在報紙上面] zài bàozhǐ shàngmiàn "in newspaper-top", meaning "in the newspaper" or "on the newspaper").
Prepositions such as 在 zài are grammatically equivalent to verbs, and can therefore form predicates without the need for a copula. For example, 他在学校[他在學校] tā zài xuéxiào "he at school", i.e. "he is at school".
Comparatives and superlatives
Comparative sentences are commonly expressed simply by inserting the standard of comparison, preceded by 比 bǐ "than". The adjective itself is not modified. The bǐ phrase is an adverbial, and has a fixed position before the verb. (See also Negation.)
If there is no standard of comparison (than phrase), then the adjective can be marked as comparative by a preceding adverb 比较[比較] bǐjiào (or just 较[較] jiào), meaning "more". Similarly, superlatives can be expressed using the adverb 最 zuì "most", which precedes a predicate (verb or adjective).
Adverbial phrases meaning "like (someone/something)" or "as (someone/something)" can be formed using 跟 gēn, 同 tóng or 像 xiàng before the noun phrase, and 一样[一樣] yīyàng or 那样[那樣] nàyàng after it.
The construction 越...越... yuè ... yuè ... can be used to translate statements of the type "the more ..., the more ...".
The Chinese copular verb (the equivalent of English "to be" and all its forms – "am", "is", "are", "was", etc.) is 是 shì. However, it is normally only used when its complement is a noun or noun phrase. As noted above, prepositions and predicate adjectives function as verbs themselves, so in sentences where the predicate is an adjectival or prepositional phrase, shì is not required.
For another use of shì (the shì ... (de) construction) see the section on cleft sentences. The English existential phrase "there is" ("there are", etc.) is translated using the verb 有 yǒu, which is otherwise used to mean "have" (denoting possession).
Chinese does not have grammatical markers of tense; the time at which action is conceived to take place (past, present, future) can be indicated by expressions of time ("yesterday", "now", etc.) or may simply be inferred from the context. However, Chinese does have markers of aspect, which is a feature of grammar that gives information about the temporal flow of events. There are two aspect markers that are especially commonly used with past events: the perfective 了 le and the experiential 过[過] guo. (Some authors, however, do not regard guo, or the zhe described below, as markers of aspect.)
The perfective le, which immediately follows the verb, presents the viewpoint of "an event in its entirety". It is sometimes considered to be a past tense marker, although it can also be used with future events. (For sentence-final le, see Particles.)
我 当 了 兵。 [我當了兵。]
I became a soldier (and I still am; note that this is subjected to the context. One could say 那时，我当了兵[那時，我當了兵] - at that time, I became a soldier - and this sentence would not necessarily indicate that the speaker is still a soldier now).
他 看 了 三 场 球 赛。 [他看了三場球賽。]
He watched three ballgames (and he probably has watched many during his lifetime; often used in a time-delimited context such as "today" or "last week").
The experiential guo "ascribes to a subject the property of having experienced the event".
我 当 过 兵。 [我當過兵。]
I was/used to be a soldier before (but no longer am).
他 看 过 三 场 球 赛。 [他看過三場球賽。]
He has watched three ballgames (and that is the sum of all the ballgames he has ever watched; in the context of actions like "watch" or "take part," which can easily be repeated, this does not have the same connotation of the first usage, but merely denotes that the action was in the past and describes the state of affairs up to now).
The two imperfectives, 正在 (zhèngzài-) and 着 [著] (-zhe) also differ in nuance:
- zhèngzài/zài (dynamic)
我( 正) 在 挂 画。 [我(正)在掛畫。]
I'm hanging pictures up. (The "hanging" is a continuous dynamic event.)
- zhe (static)
墙 上 挂 着 一 幅 画。 [牆上掛著一幅畫。]
A picture's hanging on the wall. (The "hanging" is a continuous current state.)
If the sentence could be rephrased using "in the middle of", then zhèngzai would be best; otherwise, zhe. "I'm [in the middle of] hanging pictures up" would take zhèngzài, while "A picture's hanging on the wall" would take zhe. The two imperfectives may both occur in the same clause, e.g. 他正在打着电话[他正在打著電話] tā zhèngzai dǎ zhe diànhuà "He is in the middle of telephoning someone".
我 到 公 园 走 走。 [我到公園走走。]
I'm going for a walk in the park.
The verb zǒu "walk" is reduplicated here. An alternative construction is reduplication with insertion of 一 yī ("one"): 走一走 zǒu yi zǒu (which might be translated as "walk a little walk"). A further possibility is reduplication followed by 看 kàn ("to see"); this emphasizes the "testing" nature of the action. (If the verb has an object, this kàn follows the object.)
Some compound verbs (restrictive-resultative and coordinate compounds) can also be reduplicated, on the pattern 讨论讨论[討論討論] tǎolùn-tǎolùn (from 讨论[討論] (tǎolùn, "discuss")). Other compounds may be reduplicated, but for general emphasis rather than delimitative aspect. In compounds regarded as verb-object combinations, like 跳舞 tiào wǔ "dance", delimitative aspect can be marked by reduplicating the first syllable: 跳跳舞 tiào-tiào wǔ (and 看 kàn may be added after this).
As has already been shown, the fact that a verb is intended to be understood in the passive voice is not always marked in Chinese. It may be marked, however, using the passive marker 被 bèi, followed by the agent (like the English "by"), although bèi may appear alone, if the agent is not to be specified. Certain causative markers can replace bèi, such as gěi, jiào and ràng (see Other cases in the serial verb section), although of these, only gěi can appear alone without a specified agent. Passive markers are normally used only when there is a sense of misfortune or adversity. The passive marker (and agent) occupy the typical adverbial position before the verb. (See also Negation.) Some examples:
我们 被 他 骂 了。 [我們被他罵了。]
We by him scolded (We were scolded by him).
他 被 我 打 了 一 顿。 [他被我打了一頓。]
He by me beaten (up) (He was beaten up by me).
The most commonly used negating element is 不 bù (pronounced with second tone when followed by a fourth tone). This can be placed before a verb, preposition or adverb to negate it.
For negation of a verb intended to denote a completed event, 没 méi (or 没有 méiyǒu) is used instead of 不 bù (and the aspect marker 了 le is then omitted). The same negator is used for existential sentences; in particular, 没有 méi yǒu is the negation of 有 yǒu, the latter either meaning "have" (denoting possession) or "there is/are". Also, méi(yǒu) is used to negate verbs that take the aspect marker 过[過] guo; in this case the aspect marker is not omitted.
In coverb constructions, the negator may come before the coverb (preposition) or before the full verb, the latter being more emphatic. In constructions with a passive marker, the negator precedes that marker; similarly, in comparative constructions, the negator precedes the bǐ phrase (unless the verb is further qualified by 更 gèng "even more", in which case the negator may follow the gèng to produce the meaning "even less").
The negator 别 bié precedes the verb in negative commands and negative requests ("don't ...", "please don't ...").
Other items used as negating elements in certain compound words include 无[無] wú and 非 fēi.
In wh-questions in Chinese, the question word is not fronted, that is, it stays in the position in the sentence that would be occupied by the item being asked about. For example, 你说什么? [你說什麼？] (nǐ shuō shé(n)me, "What did you say?"), literally "you say what" (The word shénme ("what, which") remains here in the object position after the verb). Other interrogative words include 谁[誰] (shuí, shéi, "who"), 哪 (něi, "which") (used with a classifier and noun or with 些 (xiē) and noun to mean "which ones" – the noun may be omitted if understood), 多少 (duōshǎo, "how much/many") (also 几[幾] (jǐ, "how many"), used with a classifier when the number is quite small), 哪儿[哪兒] (nǎr) or 哪里[哪裡] (nǎlǐ, "where"), 什么时候[什麼時候] (shénme shíhòu, "when"), 怎么(样)[怎麼(樣)] '('zěnme(yang), "how"), and 为什么[為什麼] (wèishé(n)me) or 干吗[幹嘛] (gànmá, "why").
Disjunctive questions can be made using the word 还是[還是] (háishì) between the options, like English "or" (however, the word for "or" in statements is 或者 (huòzhě)).
Yes-no questions can be formed using the sentence-final particle 吗[嗎] (ma) (the word order is otherwise the same as in a statement). An alternative is the A-not-A construction, using phrases like 吃不吃 (chī bu chī, "eat or not eat") (either the verb or the whole verb phrase may be repeated after the negator bù; it is also possible to place bù after the verb phrase and omit the repetition entirely). With two-syllable verbs, sometimes only the first syllable is repeated: 喜不喜欢[喜不喜歡] (xǐ-bu-xǐhuān, "like or not like"), from 喜欢[喜歡] (xǐhuān, "like"). It is also possible to use the A-not-A construction with prepositions (coverbs) and phrases headed by them, as with full verbs.
The negator 没 [沒](méi) can be used rather than bù in the A-not-A construction when referring to a completed event, but if it occurs at the end of the sentence (i.e., the repetition is omitted) the full form 没有[沒有] (méiyǒu) must appear.
For answering yes-no questions, Chinese has words that may be used like the English "yes" and "no" (对[對] (duì) or 是 (shì) for "yes", 不 (bù) for "no"), but these are not often used for this purpose; it is more common to repeat the verb or verb phrase (or entire sentence), negating it if applicable.
Second-person imperative sentences are formed in the same way as statements, but like in English, the subject ("you") is often omitted.
Orders may be softened by preceding them with an element such as 请 qǐng ("to ask", in this use equivalent to English "please"). See also Particles below. The sentence-final particle 吧 ba can be used to form first-person imperatives ("let's ...").
Serial verb constructions
Serial verb construction is a basic feature of Chinese grammar, in which two or more verbs are concatenated together. Also known as verb stacking, serial verb construction typically manifests itself in two ways: verbal complements, which appear after the main verb, and coverbs, which appear before the main verb. Such stacking is also present in Turkish (similar to compound verb formation with gitmek, vermek, and olarak) and in the two other major languages of the Northeast Asia region, Japanese and Korean (Japanese grammar; Korean grammar).
A main verb may be preceded by an auxiliary verb, as in English. The auxiliary normally follows an adverb, if present. In shortened sentences (like "I can.") an auxiliary may be used without a main verb. Chinese auxiliaries include 能 néng and 能够[能夠] nénggòu "can", 会[會] huì "know how to", 可以 kéyǐ "may", 敢 gǎn "dare", 肯 kěn "be willing to", etc.
Chinese sentences typically concern themselves greatly with the result and direction of a verb, where applicable. Because of this, Chinese has developed powerful grammatical machinery which facilitates the construction of sentences that supply this information. Western texts concerning themselves with Chinese grammar sometimes refer to this as double verbs.
Essentially, the active verb of a sentence is suffixed with a second verb which indicates either the result of the first action, or the direction in which it took the subject. When such information is appropriate, it is generally mandatory.
Complement of result
结果补语[結果補語] jiéguǒ bǔyǔ "complement of result" or "resultative complement"
A complement of result comes in two flavors: one indicates an absolute outcome, and the other a possible or likely outcome. To illustrate, the verb 听 [聽] (tīng, "to listen") will serve as the active verb, and 懂 (dǒng, "to understand", "to know") will serve as the complement of result.
To understand (something you hear)
Positive absolute complement of result
没 听 懂[沒聽懂]
To have not understood (something you hear)
Negative absolute complement of result
Note that the existence of an absolute complement of result forces the active verb into the perfective aspect, as discussing the absolute result of an unfinished action would be meaningless – hence the use of 没 [沒] méi to negate the verb.
听 得 懂[聽得懂]
To be able to understand (something you hear)
Positive possible complement of result
This form is equivalent in meaning to 能听懂 [能聽懂] néng tīng dǒng – be able to (because of the situation, not skill) understand something. The construction with the infix de is not possible with "restrictive" resultative compounds such as 节省 jiéshěng ("reduce-save", i.e. "to save, economize").
听 不 懂[聽不懂]
To be unable to understand (something you hear)
Negative possible complement of result
Note that the result is negated in this construction, not the active verb, and that the use of 不 bù, not 没 [沒] méi, is required because the resulting action, being only a possibility, can obviously not be in a completed state.
The complement of result is a highly productive construction, and is used frequently in Chinese, as in expressions such as 饿死了 [餓死了] (è sǐ le, literally: hungry-till-die already, meaning (I'm) starving) and 气死了 [氣死了] (qì sǐ le, literally: mad-till-die already, meaning (I'm) extremely angry). The character 了 (le) used as the perfective aspect marker can also represent the word liǎo, meaning "to finish", which can itself serve as a complement of result. With some verbs, this complement is added (with the negating bù) simply to indicate inability (for example, 受不了 shòu-bù-liǎo, to be unable to stand (tolerate) something or someone, as in "I can't stand it!"). This use of the complement of result (to simply negate certain verbs) is quite common. Those verbs which can be negated with a complement of result often must be negated in this way.
Sometimes, idiomatic phrases develop using the complement of result that seem to have no relation whatsoever to the result in question. For example, the phrases 看不起, 对不起 [對不起], and 买不起 [買不起] all use 起 (qǐ, to rise up) as their complement of result, but their meanings (to look down upon, to apologize, and to be unable to afford, respectively) are not obviously related to that character's actual meaning. This is partially the result of metaphorical construction, where 看不起 literally means "to be unable to look up to" (i.e. look down on), and 对不起 [對不起] "to be unable to face (someone)".
他 把 盘子 打 破 了。 [他把盤子打破了。]
literal: he OBJ-plate hit-break-PF.
He hit/dropped the plate, and it broke.
(double-verb where the second verb, "break", is a suffix to the first, and indicates what happens to the object as a result of the action.)
这 部 电影 我 看 不 懂。 [這部電影我看不懂。]
literal: This movie I look-no-understand.
I can't understand this movie (even though I watched it.)
(double-verb as well, where the second verb, "understand", suffixes the first and clarifies the possibility and success of the relevant action.)
Complement of direction
趋向补语[趨向補語] qūxiàng bǔyǔ "complement of direction" or "directional complement"
The direction of an action that moves must typically be specified. At its simplest, the two directional complements 去 (qù, to go) and 来 [來] (lái, to come) may be affixed to the end of a verb to indicate that it moves somehow away or towards the speaker, respectively. These may be compounded with other verbs that further specify the direction, such as 上去 (shàng qù, to ascend), 过来 [過來] (gùo lái, to come over), which may then be themselves affixed to a verb (such as 走过去 [走過去], zǒu gùo qù, to walk over). Typically, these are only found in an absolute form, although counter-examples of course exist (起不来床 [起不來床] or 起床不來, to be unable to get up out of bed). Another example:
他 走 上 来 了。 [他走上來了。]
literal: he walk-up-come-PF.
He walked up (towards me).
(directional suffixes indicating "up" and "towards".)
If such a verb has an object, the object may be placed either before or after the directional complement(s), or even between two directional complements (provided the second of these is not 去 qù).
Some serial verb constructions have verbs that appear with objects (noun phrases) in order to express many of the relationships that are expressed by prepositions in English. The verbs that typically convey the meaning of the associated prepositions are called coverbs. For instance:
literally: I help you find him.
I will find him for you.
The coverb phrase, "help you" (bāng nǐ), is used in conjunction with the main verb "find" (zhǎo) and functions the same way as the English prepositional phrase "for you" in this context.
Certain verbs in Chinese can function as coverbs taking on an idiomatic prepositional meaning. For instance, when used as a standalone verb, 到 (dào) means "to arrive". However, when used as a coverb, it can mean "to". Many coverbs are often used only in their prepositional sense, such as 从 (cóng), which is almost always seen as a coverb meaning "from." Here is an example showing a serial verb construction involving several coverbs:
literally: I sit airplane from Shanghai to Beijing go.
I'll go from Shanghai to Beijing by plane.
Because coverbs essentially function as prepositions, they are often referred to as prepositions, even though they are lexically verbs.
Coverbs often cannot take aspect markers, although some of them form fixed compounds together with such markers, such as 跟著 gēnzhe "with" (gēn "with" plus aspect marker zhe), 按 ànzhe "according to", 沿着 yánzhe "along", and 为了 wèile "for".
Serial verb constructions can also consist of two consecutive verb phrases with parallel meaning, such as 喝咖啡看报[喝咖啡看報] hē kāfēi kàn bào "drink coffee read paper", i.e. "drink coffee and read the paper". Each verb may independently be negated or given the le aspect marker. If both verbs would have the same object, it is omitted the second time.
Consecutive verb phrases may also be used to indicate consecutive events. Use of the le aspect marker with the first verb may imply that this is the main verb of the sentence, the second verb phrase merely indicating the purpose. Use of this le with the second verb changes this emphasis, and may require a sentence-final le particle in addition. (On the other hand, the progressive aspect marker 在 zài may be applied to the first verb, but not normally the second alone.) The word 去 qù or 来[來] lái (verbs normally meaning "go" and "come") may be inserted between the two verb phrases, meaning "in order to".
Another case is the causative or pivotal construction. Here the object of one verb also serves as the subject of the following verb. The first verb may be something like 给 gěi "allow" (meaning "give" in other contexts), 让[讓] ràng "let", 叫 jiào or 使 shǐ "make, compel" (jiào also means "call"), 请[請] qǐng "invite", or 令 lìng "command". Some of these (lìng, ràng, shǐ) cannot take an aspect marker such as le when used in this construction. Sentences of this type often parallel the equivalent English pattern (except that English may insert the infinitive marker "to"). In the following example the construction is used twice:
他 要 我 请 他 喝 啤酒。[他要請我喝啤酒。]
He want me invite him drink beer, i.e. He wants me to invite him to drink beer.
Chinese has a number of sentence-final particles - "clitics", spoken with a neutral tone and placed at the end of the sentence to which they refer. They are often called modal particles (语气助词[語氣助詞] yǔqì zhùcí), as they serve chiefly to express mood, or how the sentence relates to reality and/or intent. They include:
- 吗 (嗎) ma, which changes a statement into a yes-no question
- 呢 ne, which expresses surprise, or produces a question "with expectation"
- 吧 ba, which serves as a tag question ("don't you think so?") or produces a suggestion ("let's")
- 啊 a (also 呀 ya, 哇 wa, depending on the preceding sound), which reduces forcefulness, particularly of an order or question
- 呕(噢) ou, which signals a friendly warning
- 着 (著) zhe, which marks inchoative aspect (need for change of state) in imperative sentences (compare the imperfective aspect marker zhe in the section above)
- 了 le, which marks a "currently relevant state"; see below. This precedes any other sentence-final particles, and combines with 啊 a to produce 啦 la, and with 呕[噢] ou to produce 喽[囉] lou.
This sentence-final 了 le should be distinguished from the verb suffix 了 le discussed in the previous section. The latter is described as a marker of perfective aspect, whereas the sentence-final particle is described as an inceptive or as a marker of perfect aspect. An example of its use:
我 没 钱 了。 [我沒錢了。]
I have no money, as for now. (I've gone broke.)
The two uses of le may in fact be traced back to two entirely different words. The fact that they are now written the same way in Mandarin can cause confusion, particularly when the verb is not followed by an object. Consider the following sentence:
妈妈 来 了！ [媽媽來了！]
This le might be interpreted as either the suffixal perfective marker or the sentence-final perfect marker, depending on context. In the former case it might mean "mother has come" (she has just arrived at the door, for example), while in the latter it might mean "mother is coming after all" (where she had previously said she would not be coming, but has just changed her decision). It is even possible for the two kinds of le to co-occur:
他 吃 了 饭 了。[他吃飯了]
He has eaten. (Without the first le, the sentence could again mean "he has eaten", or it could mean "he wants to eat now". Without the final le the sentence would be ungrammatical, as perfective le cannot appear in a semantically unbounded sentence.)
There is a construction in Chinese known as the shì ... (de) construction, which produces what may be called cleft sentences. The copula 是 shì is placed before the element of the sentence which is to be emphasized, and the possessive particle 的 de is placed at the end of the sentence (although this can be omitted). For example:
他 是 昨天 买 菜 (的)[他是昨天買菜的]
He SHI yesterday buy food (DE), i.e. It was yesterday that he bought food.
If an object, following the verb, is to be emphasized in this construction, the shì precedes the object, and the de comes after the verb, before the shì.
Sentences with similar meaning can be produced using relative clauses (these may be called pseudo-cleft sentences), for example: zuótiān shì tā mǎi cài de shíjiān "yesterday is he buy food DE time", i.e. "yesterday was the time he bought food".
Certain adverbs are often used as correlative conjunctions, where correlating words appear in each of the linked clauses, such as 不但 ... 而且 búdàn ... érqiě "not only ... (but) also", 虽然 ... 还是[雖然...還是] suīrán ... háishì "although ... still", 因为 ... 所以[因為...所以] yīnwèi ... suǒyǐ "because ... therefore". Such connectors may appear at the start of a clause or before the verb phrase.
Similarly, words like 既然 jìrán "since/as", 如果 rúguǒ or 假如 jiǎrú "if", 只要 zhǐyào "provided that" correlate with an adverb 就 jiù ("then") or 也 yě (literally "also") in the main clause, to form conditional sentences.
In some cases, the same word may be repeated when connecting items; these include 又...又... yòu ... yòu ... ("both ... and ..."), 一边...一边... yībiān ... yībiān ... ("... while ..."), and 越...越... yuè ... yuè ... ("the more ..., the more ...").
Conjunctions of time such as "when" may be translated with a construction that corresponds to something like "at the time (+relative clause)", where as usual, the Chinese relative clause comes before the noun ("time" in this case). For example:
当 我 回 家 的 时候 , ...[當我回家的時候...]
At I-return-home-DE time, i.e. "When I return(ed) home..."
Variants include 当...以前[當...以前] dāng ... yǐqián ("before ...") and 当...以后[當...以後] dāng ... yǐhòu ("after ...") (these do not use the relative marker de). In all of these cases the initial dāng may be replaced by 在 zài, or may be omitted. There are also similar constructions for conditionals: rúguǒ/jiǎrú/zhǐyào ... de huà ("if ...") (where huà 话[話] literally means "speech, language").
Chinese nouns require classifiers (also termed measure words, in Chinese 量词[量詞] liàngcí) in order to be counted. That is, when specifying the amount of a countable noun, a classifier must be inserted, and the classifier has to agree with the noun. Hence one must say 两头牛 [兩頭牛] liǎng tóu niú "two head of cattle" for "two cows", with tóu being the unit of measurement, or measure word. (This phenomenon is common in East Asian languages. In English, some words, as in the cited example of "cattle", are often paired with a noun used much like the Chinese measure word. Bottle in "two bottles of wine" or piece in "three pieces of paper" are further examples.) However, certain nouns (representing units of measurement, time or currency) are themselves classifiers, and can therefore be counted directly.
Classifiers are generally associated with certain groups of nouns related by meaning, such as 条 [條] tiáo for long, thin objects or animals (e.g. ropes, snakes or fish), 把 bǎ for objects with handles (e.g. knives, umbrellas), 张 [張] zhāng for flat objects that can be counted as sheets in English (photographs, fur, etc.). While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of classifiers that exist, which must be memorized individually for each noun, a majority of words use the general classifier 个 [個] gè. Many nouns that are associated with other classifiers can also use gè if the speaker chooses. The classifiers for many nouns appear arbitrary. The noun 桌子 zhuōzi "table" is a zhāng noun probably because a table-top is sheet-like, while 椅子 yĭzi "chair" is a bǎ noun probably a chair is moved by lifting something like a handle, although another word for chair or stool, 凳子 dèngzi, is a gè noun.
- The first Chinese scholar to consider the concept of a word (词 [詞] cí) as opposed to the character (字 zì) is claimed to have been Shizhao Zhang in 1907. However, defining the word has proved difficult, and some linguists consider that the concept is not applicable to Chinese at all. See San Duanmu, The Phonology of Standard Chinese, OUP 2000.
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- AllSet Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki
- Unilang Chinese Grammar wikipage
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