Chinese sentence structure
Many Chinese learners struggle with Chinese word order & sentence structure. The difficulty comes from being used to word order & sentence structure in your mother tongue, and then replacing each word for each as LEGO blocks. That is not the right way. The Chinese language has a different word order & sentence structure than for instance English.
Read our guide written by Vivian老师.
Sentence structure mistakes come in many shapes
When Chinese beginners start learning the Mandarin Chinese language, they will make a variety of errors for different reasons. Maybe some of these seem unrelated to sentence structure to you, but they are.
1: Lexical differences
Chinese beginners are not familiar with the language rules of Chinese and often resort to translating and swapping words, but often ignore the differences between Chinese and native language parts of speech, so they are prone to some grammatical structure errors.
- English: “I’m going to meet Vivian at Goeast tomorrow.”
- In Chinese but wrong: “明天我要见面Vivian在GoEast。”
But the correct word order in Chinese is:
Although the word “见面” is translated into “meet” in English, in Chinese, because “见面” is not a transitive verb, we don’t say “见面 someone” but “跟/和+someone+见面”.
2: Wrong choice of words
- English: When running, I like to wear a hat.
- In Chinese but wrong: 跑步的时候，我喜欢穿帽子。
In Chinese, “wear” in English can be words such as “穿” and “戴”, but because of the different objects, we choose different verbs, which will cause some trouble to Chinese beginners.
3: Word omission
- In English: “I have a cup”
- In Chinese but wrong: “我有一杯子。”
Quantifier in Chinese is a special part of speech, and numeral phrases are often the parts of the language that second language learners have not touched before, so they are often forgotten, resulting in the loss of sentence elements.
4: Word order error
- In English: “If you are sick, you should drink more hot water.”
- In Chinese but wrong: 你生病了，要喝多热水。
The correct sentence structure in Chinese is:
The reason for this error is that Chinese beginners, whose mother tongue is English, say “drink more water” as “喝多热水” in English order, ignoring the differences in Chinese word order.
5: Sentence pattern errors
- In English: She is beautiful
- In Chinese but wrong: “她是漂亮。”
The correct sentence in Chinese is:
Because students have learned “我是XX” before, they will derive the usage of “是” and apply it to all places of “is/am/are”, causing errors.
These are some errors that Chinese beginners may often make. So what is the word order of Chinese? How can we master Chinese word order better? Let’s take a look next.
Basic Chinese word order pattern
Mandarin Chinese is classified as an SVO (subject + verb + object) language. This is a very common word order found in many languages such as English.
- 我是Ellie。(I’m Ellie.)
- 他很帅。(He is handsome.)
- 我们学汉语。(We learn Chinese.)
On the basis of basic sentence patterns, we will learn some complex sentence structures and use them to express more meanings with the deepening of our study.
- Yesterday, Victoria and her friends went to eat Chinese food in a restaurant.
In order to express the meaning of the sentence more accurately, we need to use some words such as place and time. But if we can analyze it carefully, we can see that the basic structure of a sentence is still SVO (subject + Verb + object), even if a lot of sentence elements are added.
It is not difficult for us to see that even if we need to express complex sentences, the Chinese syntactic structure itself has its own logical structure. So let’s analyze this from the perspective of pragmatics?
The logic behind Chinese word order
The characteristics of the syntactic structure are often inseparable from pragmatics. Discourse is a kind of meaningful sentence formed by people according to the different information of topic and topic focus.
Due to the lack of morphological changes in the strict sense of Chinese, Chinese relies on word order and function words to express sentence meaning, so word order has become an important way to express dependency. According to different topics and focus information, people will choose the corresponding syntactic structure to express key information.
For example, under the topic of “辣spicy food”, we often hear three phrases:
- “不怕辣 Bùpà là”
- “辣不怕 Là bùpà”
- “怕不辣 Pà bù là”
Because of the different word order of “不（no）”, “怕（afraid）” and “辣（spicy）”, the sentence structure is different. They are respectively composed of verb-object structure, subject-predicate structure, and verb-object structure. According to the principle of semantic proximity, with the change of word order, the focus information also changes greatly, which leads to the change of the semantic direction of “不”, which leads to the change of sentence semantics.
- “不怕辣” puts “不” in front of “怕”, which forms a negative meaning to “怕”. The focus information of a sentence is “不怕”, but it is a passive state to accept all the things it bears.
- “辣” in “辣不怕” is placed in front of the sentence information, emphasizing that you can eat spicily. Here, because of the preposition of topic focus information, “辣” has the meaning of taking the initiative to bear, indicating that you can eat spicily and not afraid.
- “不” in “怕不辣” is placed in front of “辣”, which forms a strong semantic relationship with “辣”. “怕” is placed in the focus of the topic and reminds the speaker to say “be afraid” first, but “not spicy” acts as the result of “be afraid”, so it has the deepest semantic degree and expresses that they are very strong in eating spicy food.
From the above analysis, it is not difficult to see that the choice of Chinese word order is closely related to the focus of the information it contains. Then what are the rules of Chinese sentence structure? How can we better grasp the word order of Chinese?
Tricks for beginners to memorize word order
In order to facilitate you to better remember the regular patterns of Chinese expression, we can summarize some regular Chinese word order patterns.
1: Chinese verbs do not change with a person, number, tense, and so on
- 我是汉语老师。（I am a Chinese teacher.）
- 你是汉语老师。（You are a Chinese teacher.）
- Andie 是汉语老师。（Andie is a Chinese teacher.）
- 我们是汉语老师。（We are Chinese teachers.）
No matter how the person, singular, and plural change, the verb “是” will not change (unlike in English).
2: No matter in time or place, the order of Chinese is from big to small
- 他明年八月去英国。（He will go to England next August.）
- GoEast 在上海市杨浦区政民路。（Goeast is on Zhengmin Road, Yangpu District, Shanghai.）
Because of the function of modification and restriction, the attribute is before the subject and object, the adverbial is before the predicate, and the complement is after the predicate.
- 他喜欢漂亮的女人。（He likes beautiful women.）
- Allen上个星期旅游了。（Allen traveled last week.）
- 她们写完报告了。（They’ve finished the report.）
3: In Chinese, time words are placed before and after the subject or at the beginning of the sentence
- 我下个月要参加汉语考试。（I will take the Chinese test next month.）
- 明年我们可以去中国旅游。（We can travel to China next year.）
4: If there are more than one adverbial in a sentence at the same time, the order of the sentence is: time + place + scope/negation + verb
- 我运动，（I do sports.）
- 我昨天运动了。（I took exercise yesterday.）
- 我昨天在学校运动了。（I played sports at school yesterday.）
- 我昨天在学校跟同学一起运动了。（I played sports with my classmates at school yesterday.）
In addition to adverbials, there are also many attributives in Chinese. We usually describe them according to the structure of “scope + quantity + verb phrase + adjective phrase + noun phrase + head”
- 她是老师。（She is a teacher.）
- 她是女老师。（She is a female teacher.）
- 她是汉语女老师。（She is female teacher of Chinese.）
- 她是漂亮的汉语女老师。（She is a beautiful Chinese teacher.）
- 她是有丰富教学经验的漂亮的汉语女老师。（She is a beautiful Chinese teacher with rich teaching experience.）
- 她是一个有十年教学经验的漂亮的汉语女老师。（She is a beautiful Chinese teacher with ten years of teaching experience.）
- 她是GoEast里一个有十年教学经验的漂亮的汉语女老师。（She is a beautiful Chinese teacher with ten years of teaching experience at GoEast.）
5: The position of time quantity complement is placed after the verb
- 我们昨天唱了八个小时歌。（We sang for eight hours yesterday.）
For beginners Chinese language students, to really learn Chinese, the most important thing is not always to ask “why”, but to master the general rules of Chinese word order, listen more and practice more, in order to cultivate their own sense of Chinese. I hope today’s Chinese word order analysis can help you in your Chinese learning!
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