how to use chinese ba grammar structure

Chinese “Ba” Sentences: How to Use 把 Correctly, Plus Practice Tips

Once you start pushing toward intermediate Chinese, you’ll discover that there’s more beyond Chinese SVO statements.

The one construction you’ll probably hear the most is the Chinese ba (把) sentence.

In this post, we’ll get you started with the basics: what 把 sentences look like, when and why they’re used, as well as how to get in the habit of using them yourself.


What Is a Chinese “Ba” Sentence?

In Chinese grammar, the 把 (bǎ) sentence is a construction that focuses on the result or effect of an action.

It has no equivalent in English grammar and completely changes the order of the sentence in Chinese.

When you use 把, you have to remember to put your object before the verb.

Since English speakers just don’t plan their sentences that way, it takes some getting used to.

As a fairly simple example, take the following sentence.

(tā bǎ jiǎo zi chī diào le.)
She ate up the dumplings.

This follows the basic order of a 把 sentence:

Subject (她) + + Object (饺子) + Verb (吃掉了)

There are a lot of sentences in Chinese that sound more natural if you use 把, but you can usually get by without it.

That said, Chinese has at least one common verb where you just can’t use normal English word order: (fàng) meaning “put.”

Here’s an example:

(wǒ shū fàng zài zhuō zi shàng.)
I put the book on the table.

Now that you know what a 把 sentence looks like, we’ll look more carefully at when and why you might want to use it.

把 sentences are often used in situations where you could say, “The subject took the object and did something to it.” (This is, in fact, the likely historical source of the 把 construction.)

Remember our original sentence? You could express roughly the same meaning by saying “She took the dumplings and ate them up.”

Use 把 to Emphasize What Happened to an Object

Unlike SVO statements which answer “What did the subject do?”, 把 sentences answer the following questions:

  • “What did the subject do to the object?”
  • “What happened to the object?”

And going back to our earlier example, “She ate up the dumplings” works well to answer both questions.

In other words, you should only use 把 when the object has undergone some change or has been strongly affected by the action.

Chinese textbooks and grammar books will sometimes refer to this as “affectedness” or “disposal.”

This is why our example sentence uses 吃掉了 instead of simply 吃了, as 吃掉了 implies a greater effect on the object.

In most 把 sentences:

1. The action is complete. You can see the result of the verb’s action. 

2. The effect is complete. The entire object has experienced the effect. 

In the case of our dumpling example, the dumplings have undergone a change (from not being eaten to all of them eaten up).

There are certain verbs that lend themselves particularly well to the Chinese 把 construction, such as:

(fàng) — put

(mài) — sell

变成 (biàn chéng) — turn into

翻成 (fān chéng) — translate

Here are some sentence examples:

(wǒ wǒ de diàn nǎo mài le.)
I sold my computer.

(tā shuǐ biàn chéng jiǔ.)
He turned the water into wine.

Another component of a 把 sentence is that you need to indicate how the verb was carried out, or at least clearly show the action is complete.

Some examples that show completion are the complements 好 (hǎo) and 完 (wán), as in:

(wǒmen bǎ zuò yè zuò hǎo le.)
We finished the homework.

(tā bǎ píng guǒ chī wán le.)
He ate the apple.

Verbs followed by a directional complement also tend to work well with 把 sentences.

One example:

(tā bǎ táo zi zhāi xià lái le.)
She picked the peach.

Notice that the direction won’t always translate into English.

On the other hand, verbs that describe events like thinking, feeling or perceiving, such as 知道 (zhī dào) know, 喜欢 (xǐ huān) like, and 看 (kàn) look, are almost never used with 把 because the object remains unaffected.

It would be strange to say, “She took the dumplings and liked them.”

Use 把 When the Object Has Already Been Defined

Because of the special meaning of a 把 sentence, only certain kinds of objects can be used in them.

In most 把 sentences, both the speaker and the listener know the object being talked about.

This is another way of saying that the object needs to be “definite.” Think about whether you could use the word “the” with the object. If you can’t, 把 isn’t going to work.

Suppose you wanted to tell your coworker what you ate for lunch, for example. 

In this situation, you can tell your coworker:

(wǒ chī le jiǎo zi.)
I ate dumplings.

But if your coworkers already know which dumplings you’re referring to (i.e. you already had a prior discussion about the soup dumplings you made last night and brought to work), then you can say:

(wǒ jiǎo zi chī le.)
I ate the dumplings.

How to Negate 把 Sentences

The most important note for negating these sentences is that the negation must come before 把.

This is because, again, the purpose of 把 sentences is to explain what happened to an object. Putting the negation word after 把 would mean that nothing happened to the object—it just doesn’t work.

To form the negative of a 把 construction, you’ll often see 没有 (méi yǒu) or its shortened form , which are used to negate something that happened in the past:

(wǒ méi yǒu bǎ shū huán gěi tā.)
I didn’t give the book back to him.

(nǐ méi bǎ nǐ de fáng jiān dǎ sǎo gān jìng.)
You didn’t clean your room.

For present and future timeframes, you can use either 不要 (bù yào) or (bié) to negate the sentence in the manner of a command:

(bù yào bǎ qián jiè gěi tā.)
Don’t lend him money.

(nǐ bié bǎ wǒ de fáng jiān nòng luàn le!)
Don’t you mess up my room!

How to Use 把 with Two Objects

It is possible, depending on your verb, that a 把 sentence will have both a direct object and an indirect object (the latter of which is typically introduced by (gěi) — to, for.

Common verbs that have two objects include:

(mài) — sell

(sòng) — deliver/give

(ná) — take

(dì) — hand over

(jiè) — borrow/lend

(huán) — give back/return

介绍 (jiè shào) — introduce

Take this sentence as an example:

(tā bǎ fáng zi mài gěi xīn hūn fū fù le.)
She sold the house to the newlyweds.

That example follows the formula for using 把 with two objects:

Subject (她) + + Direct Object (房子) + Verb (卖) + + Indirect Object (新婚夫妇)

More examples, with the two objects in bold:

(tā bǎ nà ge lǐ wù sòng gěi le tā de nǚ péng yǒu.)
He gave that gift to his girlfriend.

(wǒ yào bǎ jiè shào gěi hàn yǔ lǎo shī.)
I’m going to introduce you to the Chinese teacher.

How to Ask Questions Using 把

You can use any of the three typical Chinese question formations with 把.

First, you can use a question particle, like this:

(nǐ bǎ zuò yè xiě le ma?)
Have you done your homework?

You can also use a question word (like “who” or “when”):

(tā bǎ wǒ de shǒu jī fàng zài nǎ lǐ le?)
Where did she put my phone?

Or you can use the positive and negative verb form, as in 有没有 (yǒu méi yǒu) or 要不要 (yào bù yào), and place it in front of 把:

(nǐ yào bú yào bǎ jiǎo zi chī wán?)
Are you going to finish the dumplings?

Notice that in each of these questions, the basic 把 structure is unaffected and does not affect the question structure either. Simply put the question particle, word or words where they would normally go in the sentence.

How to Practice Chinese “Ba” Sentences

Here are some practical ideas you can try to start using 把 sentences in your conversations:

Walk yourself through your daily routine

As you get ready in the morning, there are all sorts of things you do to objects.

Try talking your way through your routine in Chinese. And if you don’t live alone, consider keeping the conversation in your head!

(wǒ bǎ liǎn xǐ gān jìng.)
I washed my face clean.

(wǒ bǎ jī dàn jiān hǎo le.)
I finished frying the eggs.

(wǒ bǎ yào shi fàng zài kǒu dài lǐ.)
I put my keys in my pocket.

Practice with a language partner

把 sentences also work nicely with imperatives or commands.

It follows the same basic formula as above, just without a subject.

+ Object + Verb

Have your language partner boss you around for a while, while you get up and carry out the actions.

(bǎ dēng dǎ kāi.)
Turn on the light.

(bǎ bǐ fàng zài yǐ zi shàng.)
Put your pen on the chair.

(bǎ wǎn cā hǎo.)
Wipe the dishes clean.

Tell a story—with feeling!

Chinese speakers don’t just use 把 sentences at random—they have a reason.

And one of those reasons is to make a conversation sound more dramatic.

There’s a whole book about this by Zhuo Jing-Schmidt, actually, should you be looking for a (long) diversion from your studies.

So think of something exciting that happened recently! And then think about how you could tell a simple version in Chinese with a 把 sentence:

(zuó tiān wǒ qù shāng chéng. yǒu rén pèng le wǒ yī xià.)
I was going into the mall yesterday. Someone bumped into me.

(wǒ zhuǎn yǎn kàn. xiǎo tōu bǎ wǒ de qián bāo tōu zǒu le!)
I turned and looked. A thief had stolen my purse!


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