For this post, I’m going to assume that you are somewhat familiar with Chinese pronunciations and have some basic concepts down. This should serve more as a summary and review of basic, introductory Chinese grammar so I will also be using pinyin and simplified characters as reference throughout. If you aren’t familiar with pinyin, I would recommend this Elementary Class for Chinese Pronunciation. It covers all the pinyin and their associated phonemes. “Phoneme” is the technical term for sounds in a language.
Read on for a summary of basic Chinese grammar.
There is a myth that each character in Chinese is a standalone word and that Chinese is mostly monosyllabic. This is not true. Chinese has thousands of words that are two, three and even four “words” long. They won’t make sense split up out of context and can only convey specific meanings in combination with other characters.
Unique Feature: No Verb Conjugations
Conjugations are what you do to a verb to make it match your intention or timing. Things like past tense, or subjunctive are all conjugations expressed by changing the verb form. Verbs in Chinese do not have any conjugations at all. Even subject verb agreement is not needed in Chinese. Verbs in Chinese are always just presented and it is up to the context for hearer or reader to make sense of it.
Just like English and many other languages, Chinese typically follows a SVO (subject-verb-oblect) order with simple sentences. It gets a bit more complicated when conveying longer concepts, but this is just a basic primer for grammar.
For example: chī fàn 吃饭
This is a verb-object construction, chī 吃 being “eat” and fàn 饭 meaning “a meal”. Often it is used to mean simply, “eat”.
- I eat. Wǒ chī fàn. 我吃饭。
- He eats. Tā chī fàn. 他吃饭。
- Kids eat. Háizi chīfàn. 孩子吃饭。
- We all eat. Wŏmen dōu chī fàn. 我们都吃饭。
The verb doesn’t change in those sentences and it is the same for all verbs. Once you learn a verb, you know it and all its forms, unlike other languages where you have something like 14 tenses, and 4 different subject verb agreements for each!
Then, how do you convey when something happens? Chinese people don’t expect everything to be happening at the same time, all the time. It is a human language and we all have the same basic understandings of time and space, no matter our cultural background.
However, if you aren’t necessarily interested in learning nuts-and-bolts like this, Udemy has a class that is more for folks that just want some language and culture background. Called Survival Chinese, this course walks you through everything you made need to know to function in China, from ordering in restaurants to navigating hospitals.
Particle: Past Tense and Change – 了le
To convey when something happens in Chinese, you add words to a sentence. It can be a time, like a clock time or a day or date. It could also be a grammatical helper word, or particle. Particles are where a lot of grammar in Chinese happens.
One of the most useful particles in this case is le 了. This is super useful as it indicates change, like something has happened or something is now a different way than it was before.
- I ate. Wǒ chī fàn le. 我吃饭了。
- You ate. Nǐ chī fàn le. 你吃饭了。
- He ate. Tā chī fàn le. 他吃饭了。
- We all ate. Wǒmen dōu chī fàn le. 我们都吃饭了。
Notice that all that happened was that a new word was added. The verb phrase stayed the same. Adding le 了 creates a past tense, indicating that eating has happened already.
Le 了 can also be used to show how something has changed. The word bǎo 饱 means full, as in “I ate until I was full” not as in “a full gas tank”. It is often used together with chī 吃 to show you have eaten and are full, like so:
- I am full. Wǒ chī bǎo le 我吃饱了
The implication is that you weren’t full before but you are now due to eating, even though the word “now” isn’t in the sentence. Many times, words we call adjectives in English behave as verbs in Chinese and do not need to have a verb “is” in there. These words use le 了 as well to show how something has come to pass.
- It’s hot! Rè le. 热了
- I’m tired. Wǒ lèi le. 我累了
- It’s late. Wǎn le. 晚了
- Her face is red (i.e. she’s embarrassed). Tā liǎn hóng le. 她脸红了。
Particle: Asking Simple Questions pt. 1 – 吗 ma
Another extremely useful particle is ma 吗. This gets added to the end of a statement and transforms it into an interrogative, which is a fancy way to say a question. In this case, a yes or no question.
Using the previous phrases with chīfàn 吃饭, we can make them all questions. Just put ma 吗 on the end, and leave the word order the same.
- Did I eat? Wǒ chī fàn le ma? 我吃饭了吗？
- Did you eat? Nǐ chī fàn le ma? 你吃饭了吗？[add-on value: This is also used as a greeting!]
- Did he eat? Tā chī fàn le ma? 他吃饭了吗？
- Did we all eat? Wǒmen dōu chī fàn le ma? 我们都吃饭了吗？
Be careful though. You may have noticed the word “did” in there in the English. In the Chinese sentence, there is no “did”. Adding that to the beginning of the translation is the easiest way to say the same thing in English. You could just as easily have used “Have I…?” or “Has he…?”. It’s the same meaning, a past tense question.
Verb: Close enough to Is – 是 shì
For “is”, the easiest equivalent is shì. Though it isn’t the exact same, it acts much the same way. It is technically a copula, meaning it joins two things or concepts together. That means, when stating that someone is something (not an adjective) or classifying things, you should use shì.
- He is French. Tā shì Fǎguórén. 他是法国人。
- She is the boss. Tā shì lǎoban. 她是老板。
- You are a student. Nǐ shì xuésheng. 你是学生。
- The teacher is American. Lǎoshī shì Měiguórén. 老师是美国人。
Again, pay attention to the fact there is no “the” or “a” in there. The words themselves are enough and don’t need an article.
When forming questions, you would just add the particle ma at the end, no change in word order.
- Is he French? Tā shì Fǎguórén ma? 他是美国人吗？
- Is she the manager? Tā shì ǎobǎn ma? 她是老板吗？
- Are you a student? Nǐ shì xuésheng ma? 你是学生吗？
- Is the teacher American? Lǎoshī shì Měiguórén ma? 老师是美国人吗？
Descriptions and Adjectives Act Like Verbs
In fact these descriptions are called stative verbs because they describe a state of being. Words that mean “too” or “very” or “really” are added but you don’t add the word shì 是 at all. Hĕn 很, which means “very”, is most commonly added with these words, even if you don’t mean “very”.
- He is very big. Tā hĕn dà. 他很大。
- The kid is very small. Háizi hĕn xiăo. 孩子很小。
- She is cute. Tā hĕn kĕ’aì. 她很可爱。
- This is too expensive. Zhèige tài guì. 这个太贵。
- Chinese food is really tasty. Zhōngguó cài zhēn hăochī. 中国菜真好吃。
Negative word #1 – 不 bù
Chinese has a catchall negative word that is used in nearly every circumstance to express when something is not or will not happen. That word is bù 不. Building on the previous sentences, we can add bù 不 before the verb or description and get the negative version.
- I won’t eat. Wǒ bù chī fàn. 我不吃饭。
- I’m not tired. Wǒ bú lèi. 我不累。
- It’s not late. Bù wǎn. 不晚。
- He is not French. Tā búshì Fǎguórén. 他不是法国人
- You are not a student. Nǐ búshì xuésheng. 你不是学生。
- The teacher is not American. Lǎoshī búshì Měiguórén. 老师不是美国人。
You should see that bù changes tone before certain words. Whenever another fourth tone word follows bù, it changes to a second tone and becomes bú, as in búshì 不是 and bú lèi 不累. This happens any time it precedes a fourth tone word.
Asking simple Questions pt. 2 – using 不 bù
Another way to ask yes or no questions is to give a choice in the question using the positive and the negative. It is a bit more direct, since you want to know yes or no. Also, don’t add ma to the end.
- Do you eat (that)? Nǐ chī bùchī fàn? 你吃不吃饭？
- Are you tired? Nǐ lèi búlèi? 你累不累？
- Is it late (for you)? Wăn bùwăn? 晚不晚？
- Is he French? Tā shì búshì Făguórén? 他是不是法国人？
- Are you a student? Nĭ shì búshì xuésheng? 你是不是学生？
- Is the teacher American? Lăoshī shì búshì Mĕiguórén? 老师是不是美国人？
The answer can simply be positive or negative: chī or bùchī; lèi or búlèi; wǎn or bùwǎn; shì or búshì.
Here’s the grammar covered in this post:
- In Chinese, verbs do not take on different forms or match subjects, one size fits all.
- Le 了 is added to sentences to show it happened in the past or something changed.
- Ma 吗 is added to the end of sentences to make simple yes/no questions.
- Shì 是 is very similar to is (but isn’t quite the same as is).
- Descriptive words don’t need an “is” , but often use “very”.
- Bù 不 is a common negative.
- Bù 不 is also used to create simple yes/no questions.
That’s actually quite a bit to cover, especially if you haven’t ever learned any of it before. Hopefully this can be a bit of a reminder or summary for when you just need something to help recall some basics of Chinese .
If you’d like to learn more there are a couple beginning classes here on Udemy, How to Speak Chinese and Mandarin Lessons.
- How to Speak Chinese covers a lot of basic knowledge, like greetings and cultural ideas of importance surrounding numbers and Chinese New Year.
- Mandarin Lessons is a bit more traditional, covering what you might find in a typical language learning course regarding self expression and simple conversation.
Both are pretty highly rated and cheap, with How to Speak Chinese being the low price of $0. They should both prove excellent introductions to learning more Mandarin.
If you’re traveling and need a jumpstart so you have a little knowledge under your belt, Essential Chinese for Travellers is geared for people going to China and has second set of lessons. It covers planes, taxis, and checking into a hotel. Given the lifetime access, you can still access it while on the go.
Whatever your needs for learning, hopefully these tips and classes will meet your needs. 加油！