Basic Chinese Grammar and Sentence Structures
In this blog post we’re going to introduce to you some basic Chinese grammar rules.
We will talk about the following sentence patterns in Mandarin Chinese:
#1 Subject + Verb Sentence
So for our first basic Chinese grammar point, we’re going to show you the simplest sentence structure in the Chinese language.
You can form very simple sentences with just two words (who said Chinese was difficult?), for example:
我忙 (wǒ máng）- I’m busy.
我 (wǒ) means “I” or in some cases “me”. And 忙 (máng) means “busy”. Simple!
#2 Subject + Verb + Object Sentence
The next basic sentence structure of Mandarin Chinese is the same as in English – subject + verb + object.
我爱你。（Wǒ ài nǐ.）I love you.
我们都喜欢汉语。（Wǒmen dōu xǐhuān hànyǔ.）We all like Chinese language.
#3 The “Shi” 是 Sentence
This is a sentence in which the main verb is (well, obviously) the verb “shi” (是), which is best translated as the verb “to be”.
The sentence structure goes like this:
- Subject + Shi + Object
At beginner level, “是” is usually used to identify people or objects. The position of the subject and object cannot be reversed, so for example the following sentence is incorrect:
学生是你。(The literal translation would be: “Student you are”.)
The correct form of this sentence would be:
你是学生 (Nǐ shì xuéshēng) – “You are a student”.
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#4 The “You” 有 Sentence
A sentence with the verb “you” (有; to have) as the main verb is known as the “you” sentence.
The verb “有” means ” to have” or”to possess”.
The “you” sentence can also be used to express existence. In this case, it is similar to the expression “there is/there are” in the English language, when meaning that something “exists” at a certain place.
This can sometimes be confusing to learners of Chinese language (but also to Chinese people learning English, who tend to literally translate such sentences into English). Let’s take the next sentence as an example:
- 我家有五口人 (wǒ jiā yǒu wǔ kǒu rén) – There are five people in my family (literally: my family has five people).
In this example, the sentence would be translated with the “there is/there are” expression and not as “my family has five people”, since the verb “有” has a different meaning here.
Note: “You” is the equivalent of the English verb “to have”. The “you” verb does not, however, change in any way to indicate subject or tense.
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#5 The Most Common Question: The “ma” (吗) Question
The meaning of the “ma” (吗) question is similar to the “yes/no” question in English.
To make a “吗” question, we simply add the particle “吗” at the end of the statement. This means that any statement can be turned into a question. Let’s look at a simple sentence, such as: “You like coffee.” (Who doesn’t?!).
你喜欢咖啡 (Nǐ xǐhuān kāfēi).
We simply turn it into a question by adding the particle “吗” at the end of the sentence.
你喜欢咖啡吗? Nǐ xǐhuān kāfēi ma? .. now this sentence means: “Do you like coffee?”
For some more top tips on how to order a coffee, check out our blog.
But back to the grammar. It is important to note that we cannot add the “吗” particle at the end of a sentence that is already a question. For example:
- 你 是 谁 吗？Nǐ shì shéi ma? – Who are you “ma”? Doesn’t really make sense. It’s already a question without the “ma” particle.
To answer a “吗” question, one can give either an affirmative or negative answer.
In English, the word order and format of a “yes/no” question may change depending on a subject, tense and verb forms. But in Chinese, the form of the “吗” question never changes.
Top Tip – also, be careful with the use of the verbs “shi” and “you”, which we mentioned earlier.
The questions that contain the verb “shi” should be answered with “shi” (affirmative) or “bu shi” (negative) and those that contain “you” should be answered with “you” (affirmative) or “mei you” (negative).
The question can also always be affirmatively answered with “对” (duì)
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#6 – Expressing “And” With “He” 和
The character 和 (hé) is the most common way to express “and” in Chinese. But, be careful! It is only used to link nouns. So don’t use it to link verse, adjectives or subordinate clauses.
The structure is the following: Noun 1 + 和 + Noun 2
For example, 你 和 我 (nǐ hé wǒ; you and I)
我 的 爷爷 和 奶奶 都 70 岁 。(Wǒ de yéye hé nǎinai dōu qīshí suì.; My grandpa and grandma are both 70 years old.)
#7 – Expressing Existence With “Zai” 在
The verb 在 (zài) can be used to express “existence in a place”. This is similar to English in which we use “to be at” or “to be in” to express the same.
The structure is the following: Subjest +在 + Place
Let’s look at the following example. We will see something interesting in the example sentences.
Example 1: 我 在 上海。(Wǒ zài Shànghǎi., I am in Shanghai)
Example 2: 他们 在 英国。(Tāmen zài Yīngguó, They are in England)
What can we see in these examples? Although it can be tempting to use a verb here, there is no need for it. Actually, using a verb here would be gramatically incorrect. Actually, here “在” functions as a verb, so there is no need for “shi” or “you” or any other verb.
“在” can also be used as a preposition or adverb.
Basic Grammar – The Conclusion
And there you have it!
Some of the most basic sentence patterns in Mandarin Chinese.
To recap, in this post we talked about:
- Subject + Verb Sentence
- Subject + Verb + Object Sentence
- The “Shi” Sentence
- The “You” Sentence
- The Most Common Question: The “Ma” Question
- Expresing “And” With “He”
- Expressing Existence With “Zai”.
In our next post we will discuss basic negative forms of verbs and some of the more complicated sentence patterns, such as the “ba” Sentence. And don’t get us started on the particle “le” (了)!
Need some basic Chinese to help you get around China? Look no further…
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Basic Chinese Grammar – FAQ’s
Grammar in Chinese is 语法 Yǔfǎ.
Actually no. Grammar in Chinese is considering to be far, far easier than that of many other languages. Once you get around the basic structures, they are simple to apply.
Quite simply by adding “ma” (吗) onto the end of a sentence allows the sentence to become a question.
For example I could say “I’m full up”.
Wǒ chī bǎole
Now simply add on “ma”.
This has no become a question. Are you full up? Simple!
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