Chinese particles

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Both Classical Chinese and modern Chinese contain a number of grammatical particles. These can have a number of different functions depending on their placement in a sentence; however, some general roles played by particles in Chinese include indicating possession, a continuous action, completion, addition of emotion, softening of a command, and so forth.

In Mandarin, particles are known as yǔzhù (语助), zhùzì (助字), zhùcí (助词/助辭) or yǔcí (语词). They are part of the Classical Chinese category of "empty words", or xūzì (虛字), along with prepositions, conjunctions, and—according to some grammarians—pronouns and adverbs; these contrast with "solid words" or shízì (实字), which include verbs, nouns, adjectives, numerals and measure words.[1] (Compare the similar notion of the contrast between function words and content words.)

Classical Chinese[edit]

The function of a Chinese particle depends on its position in the sentence and on context. In many cases, the character for a Chinese particle is only used phonetically; thus, the same particle could be written with different characters that share the same sound. For example, qí/jī (其, which originally represented the word jī "winnowing basket", now represented by the character 箕), a common particle in classical Chinese, has, among others, various meaning as listed below.

The following list provides examples of the functions of particles in Classical Chinese. Classical Chinese refers to the traditional style of written Chinese that is modeled on the Classics, such as Confucius' Analects. Thus, its usage of particles differs from that of vernacular and modern Chinese.[2]

Preceding syntactic element Example sentence Translation
Can have various functions depending on context.
third-person possessive adjective: his/her/its/their Gōng yù shàn qí shì, bì xiān lì qí qì.
A workman who wants to do his job well has to sharpen his tools first.
demonstrative adjective: that/those Yǐ qí rén zhī dào, huán zhì qí rén zhī shēn.
Punish that person (someone) with his very own tricks.
suffix before adjective or verb Běifēng qí liáng, yǔ xuě qí pāng.
The northern wind is cool; the snow falls heavily.
to express doubt, uncertainty Wú qí huán yě.
Jūn qí wèn zhū shuǐ bīn.

I had better go.
You have to go to the riverside to make an inquiry, I'm afraid.
to express hope, command Wúzi qí wú fèi xiān jūn zhī gōng!
Boy, don't ruin the accomplishment of your father!
to form a rhetorical question Yù jiāzhī zuì, qí wú cí hu?
How could we fail to find words, when we want to accuse someone?
Possessive marker
personal pronoun Hérén zhī jiàn
Whose sword is this?
proper noun Dōngfāng zhī guāng
The light of the East
Translates to: "and" (conjunction); "with" or "as with" (preposition).
Emphatic final particle.
Can have various functions depending on context.
  1. A preposition
  2. A modal particle to express doubt, praise, surprise, or to highlight the word in front
  3. To express a question, when placed at the end of a phrase
Phrases: question Bù yì jūnzǐ hu
Is this not the mark of a gentleman?

Vernacular and modern Chinese[edit]

Written vernacular Mandarin, known in Chinese as báihuà (白话), refers to standard written Chinese that is based on the vernacular language used during the period between imperial China and the early 20th century.[3] The use of particles in vernacular Chinese differs from that of Classical Chinese, as can be seen in the following examples. Usage of particles in modern Standard Chinese is similar to that illustrated here.

Preceding syntactic element Example sentence Translation
Emphatic final particle. Indicates a suggestion, or softens a command into a question. Equivalent to using a question tag like "aren't you?" or making a suggestion in the form of "let's (do something)".
Verbs Wǒmen zǒu ba.
Let's go.
Used as a possession indicator, topic marker, nominalization. Vernacular Chinese equivalent of Classical .
Nominal (noun or pronoun): possession Zhāngsān de chē
Zhangsan's car.
Adjective (stative verb): description Piàoliang de nǚhái
Pretty girl.
Verbal phrase: relativization (creates a relative clause) Tiàowǔ de nǚhái
The girl who dances (dancing girl)
Translates to: "for example, things like, such as, etc., and so on". Used at the end of a list.
Nouns Shāngpǐn yǒu diànnǎo, shǒujī, yídòng yìngpán děng děng.
Products include computers, mobile phones, portable hard drives, et cetera. (The second can be omitted)
Used as a counter, also called a measure word.(general classifier) This is the most commonly used classifier, but anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred classifiers exist in Chinese.
Number Yī gè xiāngjiāo
One banana
Yī xiē xiāngjiāo
Some bananas
Note: general classifier All Chinese classifiers generally have the same usage, but different nouns use different measure words in different situations.
ie: 人(rén; person) generally uses 个(gè), but uses 位(wèi) for polite situations, 班(bān) for groups of people, and 辈/輩(bèi) for generations of people, while 花(huā; flower) uses 支(zhī) for stalks of flowers and 束(shù) for bundles of flowers.
Translates to: "also", "even", "still"
Verbs Wǒmen hái yǒu wèixīng píndào!
We also have satellite television channels!
Verbs hái zài shuìjiào ne.
He is still sleeping.
Translates to: "and" (conjunction); "with" or "as with" (preposition). Vernacular Chinese equivalent of Classical .
Nouns: conjunction Zhāng Sān hé Lǐ Sì shì wǒmen zuì cōngmíng de xuéshēng.
Zhang San and Li Si are our most intelligent students.
Translates to: "could", "-able"
Verbs kěyǐ huí jiāle.
You can go home now.
Verbs Kě'ài
Loveable (i.e. cute)
Used to indicate a completed action. Within informal language, can be alternatively replaced with 啦 la or 喽 lou.
Action zŏu le
He has gone.
Used as a question denominator.
Phrases: question Nǐ jiǎng pǔtōnghuà ma?
Do you speak Mandarin?
Used as the copula "to be"; as a topic marker.
Nouns Zhège nǚhái shì měiguó rén.
This girl is an American.
Translates to: "also"
Nouns yěshì xuéshēng.
I am also a student.
Used to indicate a continuing action.
Action Tā shuìzhejiào shí yǒurén qiāomén
Someone knocked while he was sleeping.
Translates to: "only, just"
Nouns Zhǐyǒu chéngrén kěyǐ rù nèi.
Only adults are permitted to enter.


Lu Yiwei (盧以緯) produced the first book devoted to the study of Chinese particles, Speech Helpers (語助), in the period of the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368). More important works concerning the particles followed, including Some Notes on the Helping Words (助字辨略) by Liu Qi (劉淇) and Explanations of the Articles Found in the Classics (經傳釋詞) by Wang Yinzhi (王引之), both published during the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911). These works focus on the particles found in the Confucius classics, paying little attention to the particles used in the vernacular literature. The first work covering the particles found in the vernacular literature, Compilation and Explanations of the Colloquial Terms Found in Classical Poetry and Operas (詩詞曲語辭彙釋) by Zhang Xiang (張相), appeared posthumously in 1953.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Pollard, David E. "Empty words: modal adverbs." An encyclopaedia of translation: Chinese-English, English-Chinese (1995): p. 216
  2. ^ Norman, Jerry. Chinese. Cambridge University Press. (1988). pp. xi, 83.
  3. ^ Jacob, Mey, Concise encyclopedia of pragmatics, Elsevier, 1998:221

Further reading[edit]

  • Dobson, W. A. C. H. (1974). A Dictionary of the Chinese Particles. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • He Jiuying 何九盈 (1995a). Zhongguo gudai yuyanxue shi (中囯古代语言学史 "A history of ancient Chinese linguistics"). Guangzhou: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe.
  • _____ (1995b). Zhongguo xiandai yuyanxue shi (中囯现代语言学史 "A history of modern Chinese linguistics"). Guangzhou: Guangdong jiaoyu chubanshe.
  • Wang Li 王力 (ed.) (2000). Wang Li guhanyu zidian (王力古漢語字典 "A character dictionary of classical Chinese, chiefly edited by Wang Li"). Beijing: Zhonghua Book Company.
  • Yip Po-Ching & Don Rimmington (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. London; New York: Routledge.