Chinese grammar

Chinese grammar
This article describes the grammar of Standard Chinese. For the grammars of other forms of Chinese, see their respective articles via links on Chinese language and varieties of Chinese.
中文語法/中文语法 Zhōngwén yǔfǎ (Chinese grammar)

Standard Chinese shares a similar system of grammar with the many language varieties or dialects of the Chinese language, different from those employed by other language families, and comparable to the similar features found within the Slavic languages or Semitic languages. Beyond genetic similarities within the Sino-Tibetan language family to which Chinese belongs, there are also strong similarities within the East Asian sprachbund, a group of mutually-influenced but not directly related languages, including Japanese and Korean.

One key feature of Chinese grammar is that all words have only one grammatical form, as, with minor exceptions, the language lacks conjugation, declension, or any other inflection. Functions such as number in nouns or tenses in verbs are expressed through word order or particles; thus, where nouns in other languages might be distinguished by singular and plural ("woman" and "women") or verbs by number or person ("I go", "he goes"), Chinese lexemes are typically invariant.


Topic prominence

Chinese is considered to be a topic-prominent language, where the topic of the sentence (defined as "old" information whereupon the sentence is based) takes precedence in the sentence. For example, the following sentences do not seem to follow normal subject-first word order, but adhere perfectly to the topic–comment structure (Traditional Characters in square brackets):

  • 院子(yuànzi)() 停着(tíngzhe) () (liàng) (chē)。 [院子裏停著一輛車。]
    Literally: In the courtyard is parked a car. (A car is parked in the courtyard.)
  • 今天(jīntiān) () (shān)明天(míngtiān) () (yíng)。 [今天爬山,明天露營。]
    Today climb mountains, tomorrow camp outdoors. This is an example of a pro-drop sentence. The subject of this sentence (for instance, "we" or "I" or "our school group") would be determined by context.
  • (fàn) (zuò) (hǎo) (le)。[飯做好了]
    Literally: Food done complete LE. (Food is ready.) LE indicates that the action is done.

Mandarin is classified as an SVO language, because verbs precede rather than follow objects in simple sentences. Unlike most SVO languages, most modifiers of nouns, verbs and adjectives precede the head (modified item), as is often the case in SOV languages like Turkish and Japanese. Hence

  • Prepositional phrases modifying a verb precede the verb
  • Genitive constructions precede the head noun
  • Relative clauses precede the head noun
  • Adjectives precede nouns
  • The standard of comparison in a comparative adjective precedes the adjective

Furthermore, Chinese uses postpositions in many constructions rather than prepositions, for example:

  • 桌子(zhuōzi)(shàng)
    "table-on" = on the table
  • 房子(fángzi)() [房子裏]
    "house-in" = in the house

Mandarin also relies on the formation of adjectival phrases rather than subordination, for example:

  • ()()(guo)(de)() [我騎過的馬]
    "I have ridden horse" = the horse that I have ridden
  • (lìng)(rén)烦恼(fánnǎo)(de)事情(shìqing) [令人煩惱的事情]
    "(cause people worries)'s matter" or "to people worrisome matter" = matter that worries people

Moreover, verb phrases come at the end of a clause if the object or indirect object is "marked." For example, there are two types of accusative cases in Mandarin. Accusative I is the typical subject–verb–object ordering. Accusative II, also known as the bǎ construction,[1] results in a change of state in the object, and implies a stronger sense in which something is done to the object, and is marked with the prefix 把 and by a movement of the verb phrase to the end of the clause.

  • ()()()(le)()()盘子(pánzi)。 [我打破了盤子。]
    I broke a plate. (Accusative I), versus
  • ()()盘子(pánzi)()()(le)。[我把盤子打破了。]
    I (acc.)-plate broke (and it is no longer intact). (Accusative II)
  • ()()(le)()(tōng)电话(diànhuà)。 [我打了一通電話。]
    I made a phone call. (Accusative I), versus
  • ()()()()(le)(()(dùn))。 [我把他打了(一頓)。]
    I him beat (up). (Accusative II)

Similarly, sentences with an indirect object marked by the dative 給/给 gěi– or sentences in the passive construction (with the subject prefixed by 被 bèi–) follow SOV word ordering:

  • 不要(búyào)(gěi)()(pāi)马屁(mǎpì)。 [不要給我拍馬屁。]
    Don't (dat.)-me flatter (Don't flatter me).
  • ()(bèi)()()(le)()(dùn)。 [他被我打了一頓。]
    He by me beaten (up) (He was beaten up by me).


Aspect is a feature of grammar that gives information about the temporal flow of language. Chinese has a unique set of aspects: for example, there are two perfectives, 了 (-le) and 过 [過] (-guo) which subtly differ in meaning.

  • le (perfective)
    • () (dāng) (le) (bīng)。 [我當了兵。]
      I became a soldier (and I still am).
    • () (kàn) (le) (sān) (chǎng) (qiú) (sài)。 [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").
  • guo (experiential perfective)
  1. () (dāng) (guo) (bīng)。 [我當過兵。]
    I was/used to be a soldier before (but no longer am).
  2. () (kàn) (guo) (sān) (chǎng) (qiú) (sài)。 [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)
    • () ((zhèng)) (zai) (guà) (huà)。 [我(正)在掛畫。]
      I'm hanging pictures up. (The "hanging" is a continuous dynamic event.)
  • zhe (static)
    • (qiáng) (shàng) (guà) (zhe) () () (huà)。 [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. 他正在打电话 tā zhèngzai dǎ diànhuà "He is in the middle of telephoning someone".[citation needed]

  • Reduplication is used to form the delimitative aspect — an action that goes on for some time:
    • () (dào) (gōng) (yuán) (zǒu) (zǒu)。 [我到公園走走。]
      I'm going for a walk in the park.

This sentence could variably be expressed by 走一走 zǒu yi zǒu, which means the same thing, and could possibly be translated as "walk a little walk".


Another category of devices used in Chinese are the modal particles (语气助词 yǔqì zhùcí), used to express mood, or an expression of how a statement relates to reality and/or intent. Among them, the most important are:

  • Le (inceptive)
    • () (méi) (qián) (le)。 [我沒錢了。]
      As of now, I have no money. (I've gone broke.)
  • Hai (pending)
    • () (hái) (méi) (yǒu) (huí) (jiā)。 [他還沒有回家。]
      He still has not returned home. (There has been no change in the old situation)

The perfective le and the inceptive le are often considered to be two different words.[2] The Chinese linguist Y.R. Chao (Zhào Yuánrèn) traces the two "le"s back to two entirely different words.[3] The fact that they are now written the same way in Mandarin can cause confusion. Consider the following sentence:

妈妈(māma) (lái) (le)! [媽媽來了!]

The aspect marker le comes after a transitive or intransitive verb. The modal particle le comes at the end of a sentence and governs the entire sentence. When an intransitive verb comes at the end of a sentence, then the only way to determine whether the le at the end of the sentence is perfective or inceptive is to look at the context. The sentence given above can have two different meanings. In one case, someone is perhaps engaged in a long distance telephone call with Mother. He is trying to convince her to travel to where he is for some celebration. He hangs up the phone and says, "Māma (yào) lái le!" That sentence gives the information that Mother had not previously agreed to travel here, but the situation has changed and she will be coming after all. If, however, there is a knock on the front door and someone who has gone to answer the door shouts, "Māma lái le!" it means that she has come.

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).

Verbal Complements

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 jiéguǒ bǔyǔ "complement of result"

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.

  • (tīng) (dǒng) [聽懂]
    To understand (something you hear)
    Positive absolute complement of result
  • (méi) (tīng) (dǒng) [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.
  • (tīng) (de) (dǒng) [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
    able to (because of the situation, not skill) understand something
  • (tīng) () (dǒng) [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. 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) pepper the language. Further, it is possible to analyze many of the aspect suffixes from the perspective of a complement of result; for example, 了 (le) means "finished" or "already", so it makes sense that placing it after the verb should force the active verb's aspect into the perfective. The similarity ends there, though, as it is impossible to, for example, construct a possible complement using 了 (le), although it is possible to do so with 了 (liǎo) (same character, representing a different word). Although this latter reading has the same meaning as the former in principle, in a complement of result it simply indicates inability with some verbs (for example, 受不了, 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 with a complement of result.

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 (look down), and 对不起 [對不起] to be unable to face (someone).

Other examples
  • () () 盘子(pánzi) () () (le)。 [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.)
  • (zhè(i)) () 电影(diànyǐng) () (kàn) () (dǒng)。 [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 qūxiàng bǔyǔ "complement of direction"

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".)


Some serial verb constructions have verbs that take 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:

()(bāng)()(zhǎo)()(.) [我幫你找他。]
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:

()(zuò)飞机(fēijī)(cóng)上海(Shànghǎi)(dào)北京(Běijīng)()(.) [我坐飛機從上海到北京去。]
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.


量词 liàngcí "measure word"

Finally, Chinese nouns require classifiers (also termed measure words) in order to be counted. That is, when specifying the amount of a countable noun, the classifier has to agree with the noun. Hence one must say "兩頭牛/两头牛 two head of cattle", not two cows, with "頭/头 head" 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 examples; one does not typically say, "two wines" or "three papers", unless talking about types of wine or academic research, respectively.)

Classifiers are generally associated with certain groups of nouns related by meaning, such as "條/条 tiáo" for long, thin objects or animals (e.g. ropes, snakes or fish), "把 bǎ" for objects with handles (e.g. knives, umbrellas) "張/张 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, the vast majority of words generally use "個/个 gè". Many nouns that may use other classifiers can also use "個/个" if the speaker chooses. The classifiers for many nouns appear arbitrary. "Table" (桌子 zhuōzi) is a "zhāng 張/张" noun probably because table-top is sheet-like and "chair" (椅子 yĭzi) is a noun probably we move a chair by lifting a "handle," while another word for chair or stool, "凳子 dèngzi" is a "個/个 gè" noun.

The endings for the indefinite and demonstrative article must also agree with the appropriate classifier for a noun. For example, "狗 gǒu" means "dog" or "the dog." But to specify "that / that (in direction of addressee) / this dog" (demonstrative) one says "那只狗/这只狗 [那隻狗/這隻狗] nèizhī / nàzhī / zhèizhī gǒu," and to say "a dog" one says "一只狗 [一隻狗] yīzhī gǒu," where the ending "只 [隻] -zhī" agrees with the classifier of the noun "狗 gǒu." Similarly, "that / that (in direction of addressee) / this / a house" are "那座房子/这座房子/一座房子 nèizuò / nàzuò / zhèzuò / yīzuò fángzi," where the ending "座 -zuò" agrees with the noun "房子 fángzi."

Parts of speech

See also


  1. ^ Li, Charles, and Sandra Thompson (1981). "The ba construction," in Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 463–491. ISBN 978-0520066106.
  2. ^ Li, Charles, and Sandra Thompson (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Los Angeles: University of California Press. pp. 296–300. ISBN 978-0520066106.
  3. ^ Yuen Ren Chao, A Grammar of Spoken Chinese, p. 246.

Further reading


  • Chao Yuen Ren. (1968). A Grammar of Spoken Chinese (中國話的文法) (Berkeley etc., University of California Press; new edition in: Zhang Yuanren Quanji 赵元任全集 Bd. 3; Beijing, Commercial Press 2004).
  • Li, Charles N., and Thompson, Sandra A. (1981). Mandarin Chinese: A functional reference grammar. Berkeley etc.: University of California Press.
  • Lü Shuxiang 呂叔湘. (1957). Zhongguo wenfa yaolüe 中國文法要略. Shangwu yinshuguan 商務印書館.
  • Wang Li 王力. (1955). Zhongguo xiandai yufa 中國現代語法. Zhonghua shuju 中華書局.
  • Yip Po-Ching and Rimmington, Don. (2004). Chinese: A Comprehensive Grammar. Routledge: Routledge Grammars. ISBN 0-415-15032-9.

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