The Ultimate Guide to Understanding and Mastering Chinese Particles
If I asked you to name the parts of speech, could you name all of them?
Nouns. Verbs. Adjectives. Adverbs. Pronouns. Prepositions. Conjunctions. Determiners. Interjections.
Those are the nine parts of speech that we learned about in school.
I don’t know about you, but my English teachers never mentioned anything about particles in class. Imagine my surprise when I first came across particles in Chinese.
“Chinese particles? Do I even know what particles are in English?!”
As it turned out, I did know what particles were. I just didn’t know there was a name for them.
It’s the same case for Chinese. You might not be able to name any at the top of your head at this moment, but you definitely know at least a couple of them.
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Why Learning Chinese Particles Is Important
Because particles don’t fall under the main parts of speech, you might not think they’re all that important to learn.
Even if you haven’t specifically learned about Chinese particles yet, chances are you’ve already encountered them in classroom lessons or tutoring sessions, TV shows or movies, language meetups, etc. They’re part of everyday conversations—small words that come naturally in speech but don’t seem to have a specific definition.
While they can’t be defined per se, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a lot to offer, in terms of grammar.
The reality is that Chinese particles have grammatical functions that are arguably just as important as the other sentence elements.
In fact, Chinese particles can change the meaning of sentences. Not dramatically, but they can change certain details of a statement.
While you might be fine and dandy never knowing what particles are in English, the same can’t be said in Chinese. Take your time getting to know the particles. After all, using them in daily conversations will give you major fluency points among native speakers.
What Are Chinese Particles?
The word “particle” makes it seem like the concept is much more difficult than it actually is, but it really isn’t. In fact, it’s no more challenging than the some of the basic Chinese grammar rules. Believe it or not, you’ve probably been using them all along—you just haven’t realized it.
Take 的 (de) for instance. At this point, you recognize that 的 is used to indicate possession, where “my dog” in Chinese would be 我的狗 (wǒ de gǒu).
As you know, Chinese is a tonal language, and in spoken Chinese, we find meanings of characters through tones. Unlike most characters, Chinese particles take the neutral tone and therefore have no meaning on their own. Their meanings depend on the context, and the addition of a particle can alter a statement in a couple of different ways.
In other words, Chinese particles are function words that determine the tone or duration of the statement. Some express mood or attitude, which are known as modal particles. Others indicate how a verb relates to or works within a certain timeframe, which are known as aspect particles.
In this guide, we’re covering the commonly used modal and aspect particles to improve your Chinese fluency.
8 Essential Chinese Modal Particles
To reiterate, Chinese modal particles are function words that can determine the attitude or mood of the statement. There are loads of different modal particles out there, and some can even combine to form new ones, but let’s not worry about those.
Instead, we’ll go over the modal particles, or 语气助词 (yǔqì zhùcí), you’ll use in everyday speech.
吧 is the first that can be used in three different ways. Not to be confused with the Mandarin Chinese 把 (bǎ) construction which is placed between a subject and an object, 吧 follows after a statement or a command. Thus, 吧 appears at the end of a sentence or clause.
- To make a suggestion (command + 吧). The first function of 吧 is to lighten the tone of a command by turning it into a suggestion or alternative solution. You can think of 吧 as “then,” referring to the example below.
那我们去别的地方吃饭吧。(nà wǒmen qù bié de dìfang chīfàn ba.) — Let’s eat somewhere else then.
- To respond by expressing “all right” or “fine then” (statement + 吧). When you want to respond by conceding (answer with “all right then” to a yes or no question), you can answer with a statement + 吧.
A: 我们可以早点离开聚会吗？(wǒmen kěyǐ zǎodiǎn líkāi jùhuì ma?) — Can we leave the party early?
B: 好吧，我们九点钟离开。(hǎo ba, wǒmen jiǔ diǎn zhōng líkāi.) — All right, we’ll leave at nine o’clock.
- To be more polite (statement + 吧). If you want to kindly tell someone to do something, feel free to add 吧 to the end of the statement or command. 吧 can translate to “please” in this case.
快点吧，我不想迟到。(kuài diǎn ba, wǒ bùxiǎng chídào.) — (Please) Hurry up. I don’t want to be late.
Another one of the grammar points you learn as a beginner is the use of Chinese “ma,” so you might already know what the function of 吗 is as a modal particle.
- To turn statements into yes/no questions (statement + 吗?). The way to form yes or no questions is by simply tacking 吗 at the end of a statement.
你明天晚上有空吗？(nǐ míngtiān wǎnshang yǒu kòng ma?) — Are you free tomorrow night?
- Use 吗 to ask for confirmation. In English, that would be the equivalent of asking “right?” or “correct?”
你父母要去，对吗？(nǐ fùmǔ yào qù, duì ma?) — Your parents are going, right?
When the Chinese “le” is used as a modal particle, it shows a change between a past and present state or circumstance. It’s placed at the end of a statement.
- To differentiate between a past and current state (adjective + 了). If you want to point out a change in a noun’s mental, emotional or physical state, the adjective in the sentence should be followed by 了. Basically, 了 implies that a noun is or feels different from before.
我需要休息，我累死了。(wǒ xūyào xiūxi, wǒ lèi sǐle.) — I need to rest. I’m exhausted.
- To differentiate between a past and current situation (verb + 了). If you want to indicate that something that is true now wasn’t true before, you can attach 了 to the end of the verb that is relevant to the current situation. If it makes it easier for you, think of this construction as a “used to… but now” sentence in English, where 了 would roughly translate as “but now.”
老公以前讨厌慢跑，现在喜欢了。(lǎogōng yǐqián tǎoyàn mànpǎo, xiànzài xǐhuānle.) — My husband used to hate jogging, but now he likes it.
- Use 了 to describe a sudden change in the weather.
看，下雪了！(kàn, xià xuěle!.) — Look, it’s snowing!
Did you know that the Chinese “de” does more than just demonstrate possession? Although all the uses of 的 don’t qualify as modal particle functions, we’ll go over everything for clarity.
- To indicate possession (noun + 的). First and foremost, 的 can be placed after personal pronouns to turn them into possessive pronouns. It also demonstrates possession in general, such as a noun belonging to another noun.
我的妈妈比我的爸爸高。(wǒ de māma bǐ wǒ de bàba gāo.) — My mom is taller than my dad.
- To describe nouns (adjective + 的 + noun). 的 is also used to connect adjectives to nouns, where 的 would be placed in between the descriptive word and the noun.
她有最可爱的猫。(tā yǒu zuì kě’ài de māo.) — She has the cutest cats.
- To create a verbal phrase (verb + 的 + noun). If you want to use a verbal phrase, or use an -ing verb as an adjective for a noun, then you would place 的 in between the verb and noun. A verbal phrase would be something like “talking dog,” which in Chinese would be 说话的狗 (shuōhuà de gǒu).
电影里有只会说话的狗。(diànyǐng lǐ yǒu zhī huì shuōhuà de gǒu.) — The movie has a talking dog.
- To add certainty to a statement (statement + 的). Here’s where 的 works as a modal particle. If you want to show confidence in what you say, you can add 的 at the end of your statement.
是真的, 我看到了。(shì zhēn de, wǒ kàn dàole.) — It’s true, I saw it.
呢 can be used at the end of questions and statements.
- To ask “how/what about” questions (subject + 呢). When you want to ask a “how/what about” question as a follow-up to a statement, simply add 呢 after the subject that’s being addressed.
我不喜欢芦笋，你呢？(wǒ bù xǐhuan lúsǔn, nǐ ne?) — I don’t like asparagus. How about you?
- To demonstrate confidence or conviction (statement + 呢). 呢 can also be used to add conviction to your statement. In this instance, 呢 would be placed at the end of the sentence.
他不会准时到达呢。(tā bú huì zhǔnshí dàodá ne.) — He won’t make it on time.
啊 pretty much does what it sounds, which elevates the emotion or sentiment of the statement. This is included at the end of the statement or question.
- To emphasize excitement or exclamation (statement + 啊). When you want to express amazement or that you’re pleasantly surprised, add 啊 to the end of your statement.
你在做什么菜？好香啊！(nǐ zài zuò shénme cài? hǎo xiāng a!) — What (food) are you making? It smells amazing!
- To show urgency (statement/question + 啊). If you need to warn someone or generally tell them to watch out, you can place 啊 at the end of your statement or question to demonstrate a sense of urgency.
小心台阶啊! (xiǎoxīn táijiē a!) — Watch your step!
This particle is probably one that you haven’t encountered yet, but nonetheless, a fun one to use in everyday conversations.
- To state a topic (topic + 嘛). The first function of 嘛 is to introduce a topic. Just say the topic, follow it up with 嘛, and then express your opinion or thought on the topic.
泡黄瓜嘛，你要么喜欢，要么恨。(pào huángguā ma, nǐ yàome xǐhuān, yàome hèn.) — Pickles, you either love them or hate them.
- To state the obvious (statement + 嘛). Just like how you would say “duh” in English, 嘛 can be used to point out the obvious.
他们一整天没吃东西，当然饿嘛。(tāmen yì zhěng tiān méi chī dōngxi, dāngrán è ma.) — They haven’t eaten all day. Of course they’re hungry.
呀 works very similarly to 啊 in the way that it heightens the emotion of the statement. However, the difference between the two is that 呀 is more common among younger people. I also like to think of 呀 as the informal, melodramatic version of 啊.
- To express excitement or exclamation (statement/question + 呀). When you’re really anxious for an answer, add 呀 to the end of your question.
A: 我有一个新女朋友。(wǒ yǒu yígè xīn nǚ péngyǒu.) — I have a new girlfriend.
B: 是谁呀？(shì shéi ya?) — Who is it?
If 啊 doesn’t quite reflect how excited or antsy you really are, end your statement with 呀.
快来呀！ (kuài lái ya!) — Come on!
3 Essential Chinese Aspect Particles
Tenses don’t exist in Chinese. Instead, the language relies on aspect particles. These are function words that come after the verb in a sentence to determine the state of the action. Different aspect particles will indicate whether an action is complete, has been done in the past, ongoing, etc.
Confused? Don’t worry. Many aspect particles, or 时态助词 (shí tài zhùcí), are very similar to the tenses we have in English.
As you can see, 了 works both as a modal and aspect particle. When it’s an aspect particle, 了 is attached to the verb rather than placed at the end of the statement.
- To indicate an action is complete (verb + 了). When the Chinese “le” works as an aspect particle, it shows that the action is done. You can think of 了 as tacking on “-ed” to the end of verbs in English to turn them into the past tense.
她吃了整个披萨。(tā chīle zhěnggè pīsà.) — She ate the whole pizza.
今天早上他去了超市。(jīntiān zǎoshang tā qùle chāoshì.) — He went to the supermarket this morning.
When the word takes the fourth tone, 过 becomes a verb that means “to cross.” When paired with another verb as an aspect particle, 过 in Chinese means something different.
- To show that an action has been done in the past (verb + 过 + object). If the action has been completed at an indefinite time in the past, this is where 过 comes in. This is pretty much how we also understand the present perfect tense in English.
你去过哥斯达黎加吗？(nǐ qùguo gēsīdálíjiā ma?) — Have you ever been to Costa Rica?
她看过这电影很多次了。(tā kànguo zhè diànyǐng hěnduō cìle.) — She has watched the movie too many times.
This one might be a bit of a head-scratcher since this particle is used to express an ongoing action, not an action that’s currently in progress. I’ll break it down for you.
- To express a continuous action (verb + 着). While there’s a way to translate -ing verbs in Chinese, 着 is not the way to do so. 着 implies that one action will happen simultaneously with another action. If it helps, you can think of this as the conjunction “while” in English.
Please note that 着 only follows the verb in the “while” clause.
你洗着碗，我做晚饭。(nǐ xǐzhe wǎn, wǒ zuò wǎnfàn.) — I’ll cook dinner while you wash the dishes./I’ll cook dinner, you wash the dishes.
你点着菜，我停车。(nǐ diǎnzhe cài, wǒ tíngchē.) — I’ll park the car while you order food./I’ll park the car, you order food.
That was a lot to go through, but you made it! As you can see, Chinese particles play a bigger role in language than you might’ve noticed in the past, if at all. Now that you know how to use these particles, you’re one step closer to Chinese fluency!