chinese sentence structure

A Gentle Introduction to Mandarin Chinese Sentence Structure

Is Mandarin Chinese as difficult as everyone says?

For beginners whose native language is English, I would say that it is as difficult as everyone says – it’s hard as hell.

The challenge lies in the fact that there are so many new things to master: for example, pinyin, pronunciation, a new writing system and a totally different approach to grammar.

The way to overcome this complexity is to break it down and to see each piece in isolation. When you do that, it actually becomes much simpler, and even logical.

Why Mandarin Chinese Sentence Structure?

Chinese sentence structure is a good place to start because:

  • It’s a foundational part of the Chinese language.
  • It’s relatively simple and so helps you build confidence.
  • It helps you understand the essential qualities of Chinese grammar.

Let me elaborate on the last point a bit.

The most disorienting part of Chinese grammar is that it feels like driving a car without a steering wheel.  Unlike English, Chinese grammar has no tenses or conjugation. Not sure what I mean? Read on.

5 Simple Examples of Chinese Sentence Structure

Here are 5 really simple sentence structures to get you started.

1. Subject + Verb: “nĭ chī”

“Nĭ” means “you” and “chī” means “to eat .” So this means “you eat.”

2. Subject + Verb + Object: “nĭ chī fàn”

nĭ means “you” and “chī” means to eat and “fàn” means “food” or “rice.”

So this means “you eat food.” Or “you are eating.”

But if the tense of eat/chī isn’t clear, then how do Chinese people communicate?

The answer is that it’s implied from the context. If they want to be clearer, they provide more details like in the next example.

3. Subject + Time + Verb + Object: “nĭ jīn tiān chī fàn”

“jīn tiān” means “today,” so this means “today you eat rice/food.”

If the person wants to clarify the tense, instead of changing the verb “chī” which means “to eat,” they add the time after the noun.

This is what I meant when I said there are no tenses or conjugation. The verb “chī” has a timeless quality about it, sort of like an element in chemistry.

4. Subject + Verb + Object + ma: “nĭ jīn tiān chī fàn ma”

Adding “ma” at the end converts a sentence into a question. So this means “today do you eat rice?”

You can use this for any question that has a yes/no answer. (So you wouldn’t be able to use it for something like “what do you think of this food?”)

Isn’t this much simpler than English? How would you go about explaining to an English learner how they can ask a question?

5. Subject + Time + Verb: “nĭ jīn tiān chī”

This means “you eat today.” We’ve removed the word “fan”, which is implied.

Chinese people love to be concise, so if they can communicate the same thing with less they say less.

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Where to Go for More Chinese Sentence Structure Goodness

I hope that you’ve found this post helpful in starting to understand Chinese grammar and Chinese sentence structure. If you want more, I would recommend the following next steps:

And One More Thing...

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