Chinese De Particles: What’s the Difference Between 的, 得 and 地?
Ever heard of the Chinese de?
It may sound like the exclamation “duh” in English, but it’s something slightly more complicated in Chinese.
The Chinese de isn’t just some simple utterance, but rather, an important (and nuanced) element of Chinese grammar.
- What Are the De Particles in Chinese?
- What Is the Difference Between 的, 得 and 地?
- How Are the De Particles Used in Chinese?
What Are the De Particles in Chinese?
的 (de), 得 (de) and 地 (de) are three structural particles used in the Chinese language. 结构助词 (jiégòu zhùcí) or “structural particles” show the relationship between sentence elements.
We’ll also briefly talk about modal particles in this post, since that is also another function of 的. 语气助词 (yǔqì zhùcí) or “modal particles,” like the Chinese character 吗 (ma), demonstrate the attitude or mood of a statement.
The third type of particles that exists in Chinese is the 时态助词 (shí tài zhùcí) or “aspect particle,” like the Chinese character 了 (le), which indicates how the verb of a sentence operates within or relates to a certain timeframe.
What Is the Difference Between 的, 得 and 地?
The differences between 的, 得 and 地 in Chinese are like their, they’re and there.
They all have completely different meanings, even though they sound the same.
Just like how we should use “they’re” when saying “they’re at the movies,” or “their” when expressing possession, there are specific times when 的 should be used over 得 or 地 over 的 etc.
These particles don’t take on any of the four Chinese tones—they’re all pronounced with a neutral or clear tone.
Most people have difficulty between 的 and 得.The main difference is 的 is used with nouns and 得 is used with verbs. The last one, 地, is mainly used to modify a verb, like giving it the “ly” in English.
How Are the De Particles Used in Chinese?
1. Adding Certainty to a Statement with 的
As a modal particle, 的 is tacked on at the end of a statement to add conviction, changing the “mood” of the sentence. Here’s how it looks in a sentence:
A: 把水烧开。(bǎ shuǐ shāo kāi.) — Bring the water to a boil.
B: 我知道的！(wǒ zhīdào de!) — I know!
While B could have simply replied with 我知道, the 的 emphasizes that the person already knew what to do before they were instructed.
Now that you know how 的 works as a modal particle, let’s talk about its functions as a structural particle.
2. Indicating Possession with 的
的 can be used to create personal pronouns.
我 (wǒ) — I, me
我 + 的 (wǒ de) — My, mine
的 is also used with nouns in general to indicate possession. You can think of 的 as the “‘s” we add to nouns in English.
To show that an object belongs to a noun, the construction would be noun + 的 + noun.
Here’s an example of the possessive 的 in a sentence:
我的猫很可爱。(wǒ de māo hěn kě ài.) — My cat is very cute.
On the other hand, 的 isn’t always necessary to indicate possession.
When there are a couple of degrees of possession, 的 is only used once to avoid repetition. So rather than translating “my brother’s girlfriend” as 我的弟弟的女朋友 (wǒ de dìdi de nǚ péngyou), you would just say:
我弟弟的女朋友很漂亮。(wǒ dìdi de nǚ péngyou hěn piàoliang.) — My little brother’s girlfriend is gorgeous.
的 can also be eliminated when used to indicate close personal relationships or body parts.
我爸爸妈妈正在度假。(wǒ bàba māma zhèngzài dùjià.) — My mom and dad are on vacation.
他头发太长了。(tā tóufa tài chǎng le.) — His hair is too long.
The possessive 的 is demonstrated in the video below:
This clip shows how straightforward it is to use 的.
For a better viewing experience, this video is also worth checking out on the digital language learning platform FluentU. Through educational videos and authentic media clips, FluentU can help you see how Chinese particles and grammar points work in a natural context—and commit them to memory with active learning features like quizzes and SRS flashcards.
3. Describing Nouns with 的
The second function of 的 as a structural particle is to connect adjectives to nouns, so the formula would be adjective + 的 + noun.
她点了最辣的咖喱。(tā diǎnle zuì là de gālí.) — She ordered the spiciest curry.
But similar to its possessive function, 的 isn’t always necessary to describe nouns.
他喜欢辣牛肉面。(tā xǐhuan là niúròu miàn.) — He likes the spicy beef noodles.
4. Modifying Verbs with 得
得 is placed after a verb in a sentence to connect the verb to the corresponding complement. The complement is the segment of the sentence that describes the quality or degree at which the verb is completed.
The complement sounds a lot like an adverb, but it isn’t. In Chinese, the adverb is normally placed before the verb and doesn’t need to be connected with a structural particle.
Basically, a complement is the part of the sentence that answers the question of how well the action has been carried out.
The structure therefore would be verb + 得 + adjective/complement.
他开得很小心。(tā kāi de hěn xiǎoxīn.) — He drives carefully.
In this instance, 小心 is the complement since it describes how well he drives.
Now, what if there’s an object in the sentence?
One formula you can follow is subject + verb + object + verb + 得 + adjective/complement.
她做饭做得很好。(tā zuò fàn zuò de hěn hǎo.) — She cooks (food) very well.
If you don’t want to repeat the verb, you use the subject + 的 + object + verb + 得+ adjective/complement formula instead. Here, you’re using two different structural particles.
他们的中文说得不太好。(tāmen de zhōngwén shuō de bú tài hǎo.) — They don’t speak Chinese very well.
Note: 不 normally takes on the fourth tone, unless it’s followed by a character with the fourth tone. In that case, 不 is pronounced with the second tone.
5. Turning Adjectives into Adverbs with 地
As a noun, 地 (dì) means “ground” or “earth.” As a structural particle, 地 (de) transforms adjectives into adverbs.
It’s pretty much the equivalent of adding “ly” to adjectives in English.
Evidently, you don’t need to use 地 with Chinese adverbs. 地 is only placed after adjectives so that those adjectives can function as adverbs.
Follow this adjective + 地 + verb structure like so:
她自信地完成了考试。(tā zìxìn de wánchéngle kǎoshì.) — She confidently finished the exam.
For more emphasis on the adverb, you can say the adjective twice before adding 地. Note that this only works if the adjective is a single character and not a compound word.
老师跟学生们慢慢地说话。(lǎoshī gēn xuéshēngmen màn man de shuōhuà.) — The teacher speaks slowly with the students.
That wasn’t too hard, right? Although it might take some time to get used to writing with particles, you’ll at least know how to use the Chinese de in conversations!