Navigating the seas of Chinese grammar isn’t easy.
That can often mean “not fun.”
It’s enough to drive you to an existential crisis.
Unfortunately, you can’t just ignore Mandarin grammar.
But we’re here to help.
There are a handful of common troubles that Mandarin learners face at different levels, such as:
- Sentence structure (beginner level)
- Question structure (beginner level)
- Verb tense (intermediate level)
- Emphatic sentence structure (intermediate level)
Believe it or not, there’s a painless way to go about learning topics like these.
And it doesn’t even require too much of your time all at once.
YouTube is loaded with Chinese learning channels and tutorials that make it easy to handle Chinese grammar.
But you don’t need to spend hours looking for the right ones. Below we’ve put together a simple guide to learning some sticky parts of Chinese grammar for you.
Each section has under 30 minutes of videos.
Here’s hoping they’ll help smooth out the seas for your Chinese!
A YouTube Guide to Learn Chinese Grammar from the Ground Up
Learning Vocab Along with Your Grammar
Before we get into the explanatory videos in this post, we should acknowledge that along with the basics of grammar, vocab in context is super important at any level.
So to actually make use of the structures and patterns you learn in the videos below, you can check out FluentU for authentic vocab-and-grammar-rich material.
You can also grab lots of basic audio and video material right on YouTube on FluentU Chinese to practice many of the concepts introduced below. For example, “Making Friends and Drinking Coffee” is great for learning and reviewing the basics of conversation:
Learning Basic Sentence Structure
The Golden Rule of Chinese Grammar
The biggest challenge for beginners (and self-taught Chinese students) is the basic sentence structure. Even some experienced Chinese students naturally fall back to the sentence structure they know best. The cure? Start with the video below.
Chinese Sentence Structure (3:58)
Luke Wang’s whiteboard animations walk you through the golden rule of Chinese grammar. They’ll help you to be able to visualize how to construct a sentence in Chinese, and that should help you avoid falling back into an English sentence structure when speaking Chinese. You’ll also learn to ask questions in this video.
So here’s the golden rule of Chinese grammar: Subject, (Time, Place,) Verb, Object.
Similar to English, but different enough to need to learn it. After watching the video, see if you can take these words and make a Chinese sentence:
- 午饭 (wǔ fàn — lunch)
- 我 (wǒ — I)
- 餐厅 (cān tīng — restaurant)
- 12点 (shí èr diǎn — 12 o’clock)
- 在 (zài — meaning “at” in this context)
- 吃 (chī — eat)
Here’s the answer.
我12点在餐厅吃午饭 (wǒ shí èr diǎn zài cān tīng chī wǔ fàn)
How did you do?
Chinese sentence structure in English: “I at 12 o’clock at the restaurant eat lunch.”
English sentence structure: “I eat lunch at the restaurant at 12 o’clock.”
Asking and Answering Questions
Conversations usually involve questions at some point. If you don’t throw in a question particle or options for answering, it sounds like you’re making a statement. In this section we’ll look at two types of questions: yes-or-no and content questions. Let’s start with the video below.
Spoiler alert: there is no word for “yes” or “no” in Chinese. So what do you do? This video, hosted by the fabulous Cheng YangYang from Yoyo Chinese, goes through a more focused explanation.
Essentially, there are two ways to ask a yes-or-no question:
- Make a statement in Chinese and add the question particle 吗 (ma) at the end:
你要吗？(nǐ yào ma)
Chinese structure in English: “You want” plus verbal question mark.
English structure: “Do you want it?”
- Make a statement with two verb options, one affirmative and one negative:
你要不要？(nǐ yào bú yào)
Chinese structure in English: “You want not want,” question mark implied
English structure: “Do you want it?”
To answer questions, you have to identify the verb. Using our example question 你要吗？(nǐ yào ma — “You want it?”):
- To answer “yes,” repeat the verb:
要 (yào —”want,” confirming that you want it)
- To answer “no,” add 不 (bù — negative particle) or 没 (méi — negative particle for past situations) before the verb:
不要 (bú yào — literally “not want,” confirming that you don’t want it)
The second type of question is a content question, like who, what, where and when. Here’s your video:
The Chinese structure for content questions is really easy, but because it’s so different from English, it can be hard to remember when you speak Chinese. Luke Wang’s whiteboard animation above explained how content questions and answers work. This second one from YangYang reinforces the point.
For content questions, you say the question like a statement and use a question word as a fill-in-the-blank:
Statement: 他喜欢吃面包 (tā xǐ huān chī miàn bāo — He likes to eat bread)
Question: 他喜欢吃什么? (tā xǐ huān chī shén me?)
Chinese structure in English: “He likes eat what?”
English structure: “What does he like to eat?”
The Golden Rule, Questions and Two Common Grammar Patterns
Ready for a review of what you’ve already learned?
Learn Chinese Now Grammar Guide #1 (12:09, although the lessons end around the 10 minute mark)
The talented Ben Hedges of Learn Chinese Now hosts his Grammar Guide video series to walk you through some hard-to-handle parts of Chinese grammar. In this video, he visits the golden rule of Chinese grammar as well as asking and answering questions in Chinese. See how well you can follow along with what he’s teaching.
This video also includes a couple of bonus Chinese sentence structures:
- 因为… 所以 (yīn weì… suǒ yǐ — because/since… therefore)
- 越 x 越 y (yuè x yuè y — the more x, the more y)
When you ask a Chinese teacher about tenses, some of them will immediately say “Chinese doesn’t have tenses.” If you’re thinking “that makes no logical sense,” you’re right, it doesn’t. Although verbs don’t get conjugated, the concept of tenses is still expressed. Below are some videos to help you handle tenses in Chinese.
The Basics of Tenses
Five Basic Chinese Tenses (4:44)
Here’s another whiteboard short from Luke Wang that breaks down a very simplified version of tenses in Chinese. In the video, he admits that the explanation is oversimplified, but it’s the perfect springboard for understanding how to think (and therefore communicate) in Chinese.
To learn Chinese grammar “tenses,” we’ll start again with the golden rule of Chinese grammar (Subject, Time, Place, Verb, Object), using the present… time:
我12点在餐厅吃午饭 (wǒ shí èr diǎn zài cān tīng chī wǔ fàn)
But what if you’re on the phone explaining what you’re doing right now?
How to Use 在
How to Use 在 (1:26)
Mary Chen offers one minute Chinese grammar video tutorials, including this one to explain how to use the word 在 (zài) to express what you’re doing right now.
To talk about what you’re doing now, add 在 (the equivalent of “am/are/is” and “-ing” after the verb) after the subject.
Note that “time” is not included in this sentence structure because the tense implies that the verb is happening right now: Subject, 在, (Place), Verb, Object.
我在餐厅吃午饭 (wǒ zài cān tīng chī wǔ fàn)
Chinese structure in English: “I be -ing at the restaurant eat lunch.”
English structure: “I am at the restaurant eating lunch.”
Now, we’ll build into the future.
ChineseClass101 brings you a teacher’s answer to the question, “Does Chinese have a future tense?” If you enjoy this video you can get lots more on different grammar, vocab and cultural topics by subscribing on their website, along with other goodies like PDF lesson notes and access to a learner community.
When talking about a future time, add 会 (huì – will) before the verb (although 要 — yào is also used a lot, 会 seems to be more common).
Subject, 会, (Time, Place,) Verb, Object:
我会12点在餐厅吃午饭 (wǒ huì shí èr diǎn zài cān tīng chī wǔ fàn)
Chinese structure in English: “I at 12 o’clock at the restaurant will eat lunch.”
English structure: “I will eat lunch at the restaurant at 12 o’clock.”
Now for past tense (deep breath). Many people are befuddled by 了 (le — …just watch the video below for a definition).
How to Use 了
How to Use 了 (8:48)
What do you have to do to understand how to use 了? Thank Ben Hedges for working up this video. People have actually written doctorate papers on how to use this character. Some Chinese teachers intensely deny that it equals past tense, even though it’s constantly used for situations that at least involve the past.
In this video, Ben goes a step further, showing you how 过 (guò) and 了 can actually work together to create a commonly used time concept.
If you want to talk about something that already happened, put 了 after the verb.
Subject, (Time, Place,) Verb, 了, Object:
我12点在餐厅吃了午饭 (wǒ shí èr diǎn zài cān tīng chī le wǔ fàn)
Chinese structure in English: “I at 12 o’clock at the restaurant ate lunch.”
English structure: “I ate lunch at the restaurant at 12 o’clock.”
To talk about an action being completed, put 过 (referring to something that has been done) after the verb.
Subject, Verb, 过, (了), Object:
我吃过午饭 (wǒ chī guò wǔ fàn)
Chinese structure in English: “I eat completed lunch.”
English structure: “I have eaten lunch.”
You can also say you’ve already done something by combining 过 and 了:
我吃过了午饭 (wǒ chī guò le wǔ fàn)
Chinese structure in English: “I ate already lunch.”
English structure: “I ate lunch already.”
Note: 过了 does not literally mean “already.” They are a combination of grammar particles that imply the word “already.” The actual word meaning “already” is 已经 (yǐ jīng).
Conquering the Three des (的，得，地)
I once had a Chinese teacher try to explain this in class on the spot with no advance preparation. It didn’t go well. We actually pointed out some of her mistakes. If you get stuck on these, don’t feel bad. The natives do also.
In this video, Luke Wang brings another whiteboard animation to the table to help sort out how these three characters are used.
The three des. Here we go. Let’s see some ways they can be used.
Noun 的 Noun (possessive):
我妈妈的老家 (wǒ mā ma de lǎo jiā — my mother’s hometown)
我的电脑 (wǒ de diàn nǎo — my computer)
Description 的 Noun (adjectives and adjective phrases):
好吃的菜 (hǎo chī de cài — delicious food)
昨天买的菜 (zuótiān mái de cài — the food we bought yesterday)
Verb 的 Noun (similar to “-able” suffix):
吃的东西 (chī de dōng xi — edible things, literally “eatable” things)
Verb 得 Adjective:
跑得快 (pǎo de kuài — run quick, literally “running to the point of being quick”)
Adjective 地 Verb (similar to “-ly” suffix)
快地跑 (kuài de pǎo — quickly run)
Have a look at the video below to review.
Ben Hedges talks you through this tricky grammar function, explaining how the three-character-one-sound trio works with verbs, adjectives and adverbs.
Learning Sentence Structures to Emphasize Your Point
Sentences with 把 (bǎ) and 被 (bèi) are the Chinese student’s intermediate-life crisis. Everything seemed conquerable until now. Luckily, it still is! Check out the video below.
把 Structured Sentences
One more whiteboard animation from Luke Wang explains how the 把 particle rearranges the sentence so that the verb is emphasized. The video provides a little bit of insight into the subtleties of Chinese communication—what you say last is most important.
So, 把 moves the verb to the end of the sentence to emphasize it. Saying 把 makes the listener wait for the verb because it’s what matters most.
Back to the golden rule structure:
我给你这本书 (wǒ gěi nǐ zhè běn shū)
Chinese structure in English: “I give you this book.”
Sentence structure with 把:
我把这本书给你 (wǒ bǎ zhè běn shū gěi nǐ)
Chinese 把 structure in English: “I this book give you.”
English structure: “I give you this book.” (emphasizing “give”)
The 被 structure introduces the passive voice, which by definition is in the past.
被 Structured Sentences
Ben Hedges sits down to explain how 被 introduces the passive voice and gives a little bit of advice for when to use this word.
The 被 structure emphasizes the subject of the sentence. If there is no subject, it emphasizes the verb. These sentences usually finish with 了.
We’ll start with golden rule structure:
我给了你这本书 (wǒ gěi le nǐ zhè běn shū)
Chinese structure in English: “I gave this book to you.”
Here’s the structure with a subject: Object, (Time, Place,) 被, Subject, Verb, 了, (other objects).
Sentence structure with 被:
你被我给了这本书 (nǐ bèi wǒ gěi le zhè běn shū)
Chinese 被 structure in English: “You by me got this book.”
English structure: “This book was given to you by me.” (emphasizing “me”)
Here’s the structure without a subject: Object, (Time, Place,) 被, Verb, 了, (other objects)
Sentence structure with 被:
你被给了这本书 (nǐ bèi gěi le zhè běn shū)
Chinese 被 structure in English: “You got this book.”
English structure: “This book was given to you.” (emphasizing that it was given)
Chinese grammar shows a different thinking pattern from English, so don’t feel bad if these or other grammar structures aren’t so easy to understand right away.
The important thing is to keep practicing in ways that are engaging and entertaining for you.
Happy sailing on the seas of Chinese grammar!
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.