Moving on Up: 9 Must-know Chinese Grammar Patterns for the Intermediate Learner
Remember cubbies, sharing and nap time?
It’s a distant memory, isn’t it?
Our kindergarten days are long past.
So we’d better sound like we’ve grown up some since then, right?
Then say goodbye to simple Chinese sentence structures!
Even if you can already speak conversational Chinese like a pro and effortlessly get your point across to native speakers, you might still be stuck using basic grammar patterns.
And even if your local friends say that you speak Chinese with no accent and that they’re impressed with your Chinese slang, you could still be only using elementary structures.
Alhough these simple structures and patterns are great, you might be wondering how to master the more challenging ones.
Why Learn Different Chinese Grammar Patterns
You could probably get by in China by only using the basic grammar patterns. For every intermediate pattern that exists, there will most likely be an easier way to say it.
But do you really want to sound like a Chinese kindergarten student your whole life?
Let’s leave kindergarten behind; today is graduation day.
Expanding your grammar patterns will give you more knowledge, and practicing intermediate Chinese grammar will help you in every aspect of Chinese learning—including reading, speaking and listening.
Improving your intermediate Chinese grammar is not as hard as you may think. Once you learn some of the useful grammar structures, you’ll start spotting them all around you.
In fact, the best way to learn grammar structures is to see them in context in authentic Chinese situations. For that I recommend FluentU!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Here are nine that you start with:
Moving on Up: 9 Must-know Chinese Grammar Patterns for the Intermediate Learner
These nine patterns fall into three different categories, the first of which involves temporal order.
Temporal Order: Telling a Story
A typical sentence pattern is the narration of a story. One reason people say that Chinese grammar is easy is because you can sometimes get by without sentence connectives. When the context is clear, you can list the phrases in order of what happened without any sentence connectives.
But this can only get you so far.
To tell a good story, you want to be as clear as possible. These following two sentence patterns come in handy to clarify the temporal order and avoid any confusion for your listeners and readers.
1. + 一 + V (+ yī + V)
You have no doubt learned the character 一 (one, a) when you began your Chinese lessons, but you may not realize the extent to which you can use it.
一 can indicate an action that occurred just once or something that lasts for a short time. It also can be paired with 就 jiù (then) or a more formal 便 biàn (then) to indicate something happened immediately after the first action. Think of it as a way to really emphasize what you are about to say in your story.
他喝一口水才开始讲话. – Tā hè yī kǒu shuǐ cái kāi shǐ jiǎng huà.
(He drank a sip of water before he began to talk.)
学生们一来, 老师就走了. – Xué shēng men yī lái, lǎo shī jiù zǒu liǎo.
(Once the students came, the teacher left.)
2. 便 (biàn)
As mentioned above, 便 biàn (then) is simply a more formal way to say 就 jiù (then). It is often used in written language, but can be a great trick to sound more advanced when you use it in spoken Chinese. 便 biàn (then) shows how one action leads to another, and indicates an outcome of a particular condition.
Start replacing 就 jiù (then) with 便 biàn (then) and see if any of your Chinese friends comment on your advanced vocabulary! Here are some examples of how to use it:
他昨天晚上没睡觉, 今天便看起来很累. – Tā zuó tiān wǎn shàng méi shuì jiào, jīn tiān biàn kàn qǐ lái hěn lèi.
(He did not sleep last night, so today he appears tired.)
她回家便忙着洗碗. – Tā huí jiā biàn máng zhe xǐ wǎn.
(Once she goes home, she starts washing the dishes.)
Contrast: A Direct Turn in the Story
Another common type of sentence pattern involves making a contrast. Sometimes you’ll want to make an abrupt turn in your story and say the exact opposite to further emphasize your point. There are many ways to do this in Chinese, as seen in the following three structures.
3. …, 又 (yòu)
You may have learned this character in other contexts, but this is an excellent way to use it when placing a contradiction in your sentences. You will usually start off these sentences with one action, and follow it with a contrasting action. Hopefully, the last example sentence will not apply to you!
我相出去吃饭, 又怕花钱. – Wǒ xiāng chū qù chī fàn, yòu pà huā qián.
(I want to go out to eat, but do not want to spend the money.)
她出去了, 又回来了. – Tā chū qù le, yòu huí lái le.
(She went out, then came back.)
他们学了一年中文, 又放弃了. – Tā men xué le yī nián zhōng wén, yòu fàng qì le.
(They learned Chinese for one year, then gave up.)
4. 还是 (hái shì)
Much like 又 yòu (then), 还是 hái shì (nevertheless) is usually used when you are describing one particular thing, but then you change your mind to an alternative. What comes before will usually be different from what happens after. It can be seen in English as “but…still.”
我在中国住了两年, 最后还是回到了美国. – Wǒ zài zhōng guó zhù le liǎng nián, zuì hòu hái shì huí dào le měi guó.
(I lived in China for two years, but in the end I still moved back to the United States.)
她身体有些瘦弱, 但她还是很漂亮. – Tā shēn tǐ yǒu xiē shòu ruò, dàn tā hái shì hěn piào liang.
(Her body is small and weak, but she is still very beautiful.)
5. 却 (què)
却 què (but) is used in front of the verb and in situations that contrast what has been previously said. Instead of using the simpler 可是 kě shì (but) as part of your vocabulary, try substituting 却 què (but) in your sentences to add a formal touch.
大家都出去玩, 我却在家里一个人睡着. – Dà jiā dōu chū qù wán, wǒ què zài jiā lǐ yī gè rén shuì zhe.
(Everyone is outside playing, but I am at home alone sleeping.)
Emphasis: Adding Importance to the Conditions
The third common sentence pattern takes place when you are emphasizing the current conditions. These sentence patterns are meant to bring importance to certain parts of your conversation or story.
6. 随着 (suí zhe)
You will usually use this phrase as a way to imply the cause of the main verb and can be translated in English to “as.”
随着节日的到来, 商店又忙起来了. – Suí zhe jié rì de dào lái, shāng diàn yòu máng qǐ lái le.
(As the holidays are here, stores have become busy.)
很多树叶随着秋天的到来掉落到地上. – Hěn duō shù yè suí zhe qiū tiān de dào lái diào luò dào dì shàng.
(As autumn is here, many leaves are falling to the ground.)
7. 连 N 都 V (lián N doū V)
This structure is similar to the English “even,” and describes when something does or does not happen. It’s used where N is the actual subject or object of V.
他很爱锻炼, 连生病时都会跑步. – Tā hěn ài duàn liàn, lián shēng bìng shí doū huì pǎo bù.
(He loves to exercise; even when he is sick, he will run.)
她弹琴弹得不好, 连小孩都笑她. – Tā tán qín dàn dé bù hǎo, lián xiǎo hái dōu xiào tā.
(She does not play the piano very well; even little children laugh at her.)
8. 不知为什么 (bù zhī wèi shén me)
This is an easy phrase to incorporate into your conversations, and it simply emphasizes that you are unsure of why something did or did not happen. You should place it at the beginning of the sentence that you’re planning to describe. It can be loosely translated to “I don’t know why” or “for some reason.”
不知为什么, 她们很早就睡觉了. – Bù zhī wèi shén me, tā men hěn zǎo jiù shuì jiào le.
(For some reason, they decided to sleep early.)
不知为什么, 他今天心情不好. – Bù zhī wèi shén me, tā jīn tiān xīn qíng bù hǎo.
(I don’t know why, but he was in a bad mood today.)
9. 怎么 (zěn me)
怎么 (how, why) is slightly different from 不知为什么 – bù zhī wèi shén me (I don’t know why) but are more or less interchangeable. 不知为什么 – bù zhī wèi shén me expresses doubt through the statement, whereas 怎么 zěn me expresses the same idea but in a question form. Many times it will act as a rhetorical question.
For example, you could take the above sentence “不知为什么, 他今天心情不好,” bù zhī wèi shén me, tā jīn tiān xīn qíng bù hǎo. (I don’t know why, but he was in a bad mood today.) and express it in a similar way:
他今天怎么心情不好? – Tā jīn tiān zěn me xīn qíng bù hǎo?
(Why was he in a bad mood today?)
Here’s another example:
你中文怎么讲的这么好? Nǐ zhōng wén zěn me jiǎng de zhè me hǎo?
(How do you speak Chinese so well?)
As you can see, once you learn the framework it’s easy to add in existing vocabulary. Put in the initial time investment to learn these specific patterns, and start practicing by filling in the sentences. This way you aren’t completely overwhelmed with trying to learn new vocabulary and grammar.
Soon people will ask you “你中文怎么讲的这么好?” Nǐ zhōng wén zěn me jiǎng de zhè me hǎo? (How do you speak Chinese so well?) and you will move up to even more advanced phrases!