Learning Chinese is notorious for being tough. So if you’ve ever tried to tackle one of the so-called easy languages like French or German, you’re probably wondering what horrors lie in wait when you start grappling with Chinese grammar.
Well, let’s start with some good news – Chinese grammar is actually extremely simple. The language’s reputation as one of the most difficult to master comes mainly from its writing system and the tones.
It’s also a language that’s rich in idioms and expressions, so learning vocabulary can be a challenge. But in terms of basic grammar, there’s really nothing too tricky to wrap your head around.
That said, Chinese grammar can be very different from English grammar, so to give you an idea of what to expect, here’s an introduction to the kind of thing you can look forward to.
What Chinese Grammar Doesn’t Have
Sometimes Chinese people will tell you that Chinese has no grammar. This is not true, of course, because every language has grammar. But what they mean is, it doesn’t have things like verb conjugations and word endings that can make other languages so difficult to learn.
Chinese words don’t inflect at all, which is a fancy way of saying they don’t change. Verbs don’t have different endings according to who did the action or when it happened. And there is no separate form to distinguish singular and plural.
There are no separate subject and object pronouns. So, for example, the word 我 wŏ covers both “I” and “me”. The same word is also used (usually combined with 的 de, a particle that has no meaning on its own) to mean “my” or “mine”.
You may be surprised to learn that Chinese has no word for “yes” or “no”. There is also no word for “please”. And use of the Chinese equivalent of “and” is restricted to talking about lists of two or more items, as in ‘X, Y and Z’.
Of course, these meanings and concepts can all be expressed in Chinese, it’s just that they are conveyed in other ways. So now let’s look at some of the major aspects of Chinese grammar and how they differ from English.
#1 Chinese Measure Words
One of the most noticeable features of Chinese grammar is the use of “measure words” or “classifiers”.
In English, when we talk about coffee, an uncountable noun, we can count the coffee by saying how many cups: “three cups of coffee”. Here, “cups” serves as a kind of measure word.
The Chinese words for things like “cups”, “glasses” and “bowls” also function as measure words.
For example, we can say:
- 三杯咖啡 Sān bēi kāfēi (Three cups of coffee)
- 两碗米饭 Liăng wăn mĭ fàn (Two bowls of rice)
When we talk about countable nouns, like “dogs”, we don’t need to use a measure word in English – we just say “four dogs”.
However, in Chinese, this is not possible. In Chinese, every countable noun (with just a few exceptions) also needs a measure word.
The measure word you use depends on the type of thing you are talking about. For example, the measure word for animals is 只 zhī, the measure word for flat, card-shaped things is 张 zhāng and the measure word for things with a handle is 把 bă, so we say:
- 一只狗 Yì zhī gŏu (One dog)
- 两张票 Liăng zhāng piào (Two tickets)
- 三把刀 Sān bă dāo (Three knives)
If this concept is a little difficult to grasp, think about the word “grass” in English. To count it, we say how many “blades” there are, and this is exactly how Chinese measure words work, but they're much more widely used.
When learning Chinese, you need to remember the relevant measure word for each noun. But by far the most common is 个 ge – so if you forget the correct one, you can use this, and most of the time, it'll be ok.
#2 Chinese Particles
Like many East Asian languages, Chinese makes use of a range of particles, some of which have a clear meaning while others are simply used to soften a sentence or add nuance. Let’s look at a couple of examples.
This particle is placed at the end of a statement to turn it into a question, like this:
- 你是老师 Nĭ shì lăoshī (You are a teacher)
- 你是老师吗？ Nĭ shì lăoshī ma? (Are you a teacher?)
This particle gives the idea of insistence or a suggestion, for example:
- 我们走 Wŏmen zŏu (We go/leave)
- 我们走吧！ Wŏmen zŏu ba! (Let’s go!)
- 你不是 Nĭ bú shì (You aren’t)
- 你不是吧！ Nĭ bú shì ba! (Surely you aren’t!)
It can also be used to make a question when you think you know the answer, like this:
- 你不要去吧？ Nĭ bú yào qù ba? (You don’t want to go? (you think the person doesn’t want to go))
吧 ba is a common, versatile particle, and you will get used to its many uses through practice.
呢 ne has a couple of different uses. One is to express the idea of “and you?” after a statement or a question, like this:
- 我是工程师，你呢？ Wŏ shì gōngchéngshī, nĭ ne? (I’m an engineer, and you?)
- (a) 你好吗？ (b) 我很好，你呢？
- (a) Nĭ hăo ma? (b) Wŏ hĕn hăo, nĭ ne?
- (a) How are you? (b) I’m very well, and you?
Another use is to soften a question, like this:
- 你做什么工作呢？ Nĭ zuò shénme gōngzuò ne? (What job do you do?)
If you ask the same question without 呢 ne, it has exactly the same meaning, but adding 呢 ne makes it feel softer and less direct.
This particle is added to sentences to convey a feeling of enthusiasm or excitement, like this:
- 好 Hăo Good, (Ok)
- 好啊！Hăo a! (Great!)
This particle is found at the end of a statement, usually the answer to a question, to indicate that the question was stupid and the answer is obvious.
Here’s an example:
- (a) 你怎么会说中文？ Nĭ zĕnme huì shuō zhōngwén? (How come you speak Chinese?)
- (b) 因为我是中国人呗！ Yīnwèi wŏ shì zōnguórén bei! (Because I’m Chinese!)
This list of particles is far from complete, but it should give you a flavour of how they are used.
#3 Tense And Time In Chinese
I’ve already mentioned that Chinese words don’t change, which means there are no verb tenses. So how does Chinese express time?
The simple answer is that Chinese just uses the equivalent of “I go yesterday”, “I go today” and “I go tomorrow” without making a big fuss about when it happened.
However, there is slightly more to it than this because you can also indicate when something happened by using time markers.
For example, you can indicate the future by adding 要 yào or 会 huì to the sentence. Normally, these words mean “want” and “know how to” respectively, but here they just indicate that an action takes place in the future, like this:
- 明天我要去 Míngtīan wŏ yào qù (I’ll go tomorrow)
- 明天我会去 Míngtīan wŏ huì qù (I’ll go tomorrow)
Talking About The Past In Chinese
For the past, the particle 了 le is often used. This particle is among the most complicated aspects of Chinese grammar and has many uses.
I don’t have nearly enough space to talk about them all here, but one use is to express the idea that something has already happened, for example:
- 他已经走了 Tā yĭjīng zŏu le (He has already gone)
In this sentence, the addition of the word 已经 yĭjīng, “already”, also helps reinforce the idea that the action happened in the past and is often found with 了 le.
It’s important to note that 了 le shouldn’t be thought of as some kind of Chinese past tense. Since it is used to express things that have happened, logically, it can only appear in positive sentences.
However, because many beginners mistakenly see it as being the equivalent of the past tense, they also use it with negative sentences, which is not possible.
If you want to say that something hasn’t happened, you use the word 没 méi. (没 méi is a special word used to negate 有 yŏu, (have) – the usual word to express a negative is 不 bù, but with 有 yŏu, you must use 没 méi instead.)
Here’s an example:
- 他还没走 Tā hái méi zŏu (He still hasn’t gone yet)
Here, we also have the word 还 hái, which gives the meaning of “still not yet”, again reinforcing the idea of when the action took place (or rather, didn’t take place).
#4 How To Ask Questions In Chinese
A major part of any language is being able to ask questions, and in Chinese, there are a couple of ways.
We have already seen that one way to make a question is to add the question particle 吗 ma to the end of a statement.
- 你想去 Nĭ xiăng qù (You want to go)
- 你想去吗？ Nĭ xiăng qù ma? (Do you want to go?)
We have also seen that you can make “loaded” questions in a similar way using 吧 ba.
Repeat Positive And Negative Options
Another way to ask a question is to repeat the positive and negative options, like this:
- 你没明白，对不对？ Nĭ méi míngbái, duì bú duì? (You didn’t understand, right?)
The Chinese word 对 duì means “true” or “correct”, so in this question, after making the statement “you didn’t understand”, you make the question by saying “true not true”.
This works with other verbs too, like this:
- 走不走? Zŏu bù zŏu? (Are you going or not? (lit. “go not go”))
- 要不要？ Yào bú yào? (Do you want (to/some) or not? (lit. “want not want”))
In English, this sounds quite aggressive, but in Chinese, it’s a perfectly normal way to ask a question.
Note that with 有 yŏu (have), the form is 有没有 yŏu méi yŏu because 有 yŏu is always negated with 没 méi and not 不 bù.
Use Question Words
Finally, like in any other language, you can also ask questions in Chinese with question words like 谁 shéi (who), 为什么 wèishénme (why) and 什么 shénme (what, which).
- 谁告诉你？ Shéi gàosu nĭ? (Who told you?)
- 你为什么想去？ Nĭ wèishénme xiăng qù? (Why do you want to go?)
- 你要做什么菜? Nĭ yào zuò shénme cài? (Which dishes do you want to cook?)
In most cases, the question word comes in the same position as the answer would in the response. You can check out my post on Chinese sentence structure for a more detailed look at word order.
#5 Saying “Yes” And “No” In Chinese
As I mentioned at the beginning, Chinese has no word for “yes” or “no”, so how do you express these words?
If someone asks you a yes/no question in Chinese, you answer by repeating the verb in the affirmative to say “yes” or in the negative to say “no”.
Here are a few examples:
- 你是德国人吗？ Nĭ shì déguórén ma? (Are you German?)
- 是 Shì Yes (lit. “be”)
- 不是 Bú shì No (lit. “not be”)
- 这是你的手机，对不对？ Zhè shì nĭ de shŏujī, duì bú duì? (Is this your telephone?)
- 对 Duì Yes (lit. “true”)
- 不对 Bú duì No (lit. “not true”)
- 要不要看电影？ Yào bú yào kàn diànyĭng? (Do you want to watch a film?)
- 要 Yào Yes (lit. “want”)
- 不要 Bú yào No (lit. “not want”)
- 你有男朋友吗？ Nĭ yŏu nán péngyou ma? (Do you have a boyfriend?)
- 有 Yŏu Yes (lit. “have”)
- 没有 Méi yŏu No (lit. “not have”)
Chinese Grammar: Different From English, But Not Hard To Learn
Of course, in a post of this length, I can only give the briefest overview of a few features of Chinese grammar. However, I hope that from these examples, you can see that while Chinese grammar is very different from English, much of it is not too hard.
The best advice is to try to think directly in Chinese rather than translating from English – and with regular practice, you will find you master the basics in no time at all.
And as long as you keep immersing yourself in Chinese, whether that's by watching Netflix in Chinese for example, or reading and listening to Chinese stories, you'll be sure to pick up these five essential grammar features.