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Grammar Notes Mandarin

The general structure of the Chinese language particularly Mandarin when compared to other Languages, on a fundamental level, is actually very simple. Each word normally stays the same; thus there are no conjugations, no plural forms, no genders and no articles. Whereas the English verb "to know somebody" might have different forms like knows, knew, known etc., the equivalent Chinese verb 认识 [rèn shí] itself always stays the same, regardless of the context. However there are also elements in the Chinese language that we do not have in many Western Languages.

Chinese words

The Chinese you are learning here is the official language of China, which is also called Mandarin Chinese. It is different from another popular Chinese language, Cantonese, which is mainly spoken in Guangdong province and Hong Kong. Mandarin Chinese consists of characters / standard script (你), phonetic script (ni), and tone marks, e.g. (ˇ) 你 (nǐ). Characters are used everywhere in daily life, such as books, newspapers, signs, etc…

Phonetic scripts and tones, together are called Pīnyīn, these are used in dictionaries and textbooks to guide learners to learn the pronunciation of the characters.


One of the most difficult element for the learner of the Chinese language is the correct pronunciation of the four phonemic tones: the first tone (ˉ), the second tone (′), the third tone (ˇ), and the fourth tone (‵); because the concept of Tones is not existing in many European Languages including English. The best way to practice the tones is to listen carefully and to repeat the words and sentences.

Nouns are pretty simple in the Chinese language. They do not have articles or genders, and there is no distinction between singular or plural. As for countable nouns, to express or to emphasize plural or numeral, various measure words, such as 辆 [liàng] (measure word for vehicle), 个 [gè] (measure word for general use), and 艘 [sōu] (measure word for ship), need to be added in front of a noun: numeral + measure word + noun.

For example, 女人 [nǚ rén] can be understood as "a/one woman" or "women". Since Chinese does not have articles, "a woman" is equal to "one woman", in Chinese it is 一个女人; "three women" is 三个女人.

One way to present plurals in Chinese is the use of the following words:

些 [xiē] / some
一些 [yì xiē] / some
这些 [zhè xiē] / these
那些 [nà xiē] / those
有些 [yǒu xiē] / some

These words are placed in front of a noun.

[nà xiē nǚ rén]
those women.

Verbs are also pretty straight forward in Chinese! They do not change with person, tense, number and there are no participles.

In Chinese there is one important kind of verb that you need to learn which is called optative verb, 会 [huì] / (be able to/ can). Optative verbs are used to present capabilities, possibilities, authorization or prohibition. In English, optative verbs would remind you of the words (can), (be able to), (will), (be willing to), etc.

The optative verb 会 [huì] is used to present skills that are acquired through learning or training.

[nǐ huì shuō yīng yǔ ma?]
Can you speak English?

Note that optative verbs are placed in front of a verb in Chinese.

Another optative word is 可以 [kě yǐ] which is used to present authorization.

[wǒ kě yǐ yòng xìn yòng kǎ fù zhàng ma?]
Can I pay with credit card?

The negative form of 可以 is 不可以.

Moreover, please keep in mind that the negative form of 有 [yǒu] is 没有 [méi yǒu], rather than 不有 [bù yǒu] (it is wrong because it doesn’t mean anything).

Another kind of optative verb is, 能 [néng] / (be able to/can) which is used to present capabilities, but focus on general skills that does not require special learning or training.

[wǒ néng chàng gē.]
I can sing.

The negative form of 能 [néng] is 不能 [bù néng] / cannot. 能 [néng] is also used to present possibilities or authorization, like 可以 [kěyǐ] / (can/may).

我不能买东西, 我没有钱
[wǒ bù néng mǎi dōng xi, wǒ méi yǒu qián]
I cannot do shopping, I do not have money.

However, when 能 [néng] is used to present authorization, its negative form is 不可以 [bùkěyǐ] / cannot.

[zhèr bù kěyǐ xīyān.]
Smoking is prohibited here.

Verb tenses will be discussed in details in Chapter 6.

In the Chinese language if you like to describe certain things, the adjective normally follows the noun.

[zhè jiàn lán sè de chèn shān shì xīn de.]
The blue shirt is new.

In this example there are two adjectives following the noun shirt 衬衫 [chèn shān]:
1. 蓝色的 [lán sè de] indicates the color blue (note that 蓝色的 [lán sè de] acts as an adjective).
2. 新的 [xīn de] indicates that the shirt is new.

Take note that 这 [zhè] refers to the place of the shirt (like the English word "this"). 件 [jiàn] is the measure word for cloths (like the English word "a piece of").

Present Progressive Tense

In Present progressive tense we just need to use the basic form.

The following are the words used to emphasize the present progressive tense:

1. First is the word 着 [zhe] / particle which is put behind the verb.

[nà gè nǚ rén zhàn zhe]
The woman is standing.

2. Second is the word 在 zài and is placed in front of the verb. Sometimes, 着 is also used in a present progressive tense, either together with 在 or alone in a sentence, to be placed behind the verb.

3. Third is the word 在 / be at which is used to emphasize on the verb, in another word, to emphasize on the happening of the behavior, while 着 / particle is used to emphasize on the circumstance.

Take a look at the difference of these words using the example sentences below:

1. 我在穿蓝色的裤子 [wǒ zài chuān lán sè de kù zi] / I am putting on blue pants.
2. 我穿着蓝色的裤子 [wǒ chuān zhe lán sè de kù zi] / I am wearing blue pants.

To make a sentence’ negative meaning in a present progressive tense, 没有 [méi yǒu] / don’t have/ doesn’t have or 没 [méi] / don’t have/ doesn’t have is used.

Past Tense

Past tense is indicated by 了 [le] – (article for past tense) which is placed after the verb.

nà pǐ mǎ tiào le.
The horse jumped.

Another useful word which is often used in past tense is the word 已经 [yǐ jīng] / already. It is placed in front of a verb.

A good past tense structure for this is: Sub. + 已经 [yǐ jīng] + V. + le + (Obj.).

[nà gè nán rén yǐ jīng pá shàng shān le.]
The man has climbed the mountain.

Future Tense

Future tenseis indicated by 将要/要 [jiāng yào/yào] / (will/be going to do) which is placed in front of the verb.

[nà pǐ mǎ jiāng yào tiào.]
The horse is going to jump.


Prepositions in Chinese grammar are 上面 [shàng miàn] / on, 里面 [lǐ miàn] / in, or 下面 [xià miàn] / under.

One important concept is the use of the prepositional verb 在 [zài] to indicate "to be (in, at, on under + a place/location)".

So 在 [zài] is positioned in front of prepositions, together to form a predicate, such as "在 + a place/location +上面 [shàng miàn] / on","在 + a place/location +里面 [lǐ miàn] / in", and "在 + a place/location +下面 [xià miàn] / under".

一个 婴 儿 在 车 里面.
[yī gè yīng ér zài chē lǐ miàn.]
A baby is in a car.

In the above sentence you notice that "is in a car" is translated as "在车里面 [zài chē lǐ miàn]". "在… 里面" means "is in ...", therefore, the verb "is" does not need to be translated additionally.

In addition, retroflex ending is unique in Chinese. The pinyin of 儿 is ér, e.g. 婴 儿 [yīng ér] / baby; but when it is placed behind a noun to form a retroflex ending, "é" needs to be omitted, e.g. 女 孩儿 [nǚ hair] / girl, and 男 孩儿 [nán hair] / boy.


Some of the Personal Pronouns in Chinese are:

她 [tā] / she/her [tā] is the same for both she/he in pronunciation.
他 [tā] / (he/him).

In Chinese, to give a sentence a negative meaning just put the word 不 [bù] / (no/not) in front of verbs /adjective. When [bù] is followed by a last tone word, e.g. 是 [shì] / yes, [bù] needs to be changed to second tone—[bú]. 不是 is read as "bùshì / be not", instead of "bùshì".

这个电话不是红色的, 它是黑色的
[zhè gè diàn huà bú shì hóng sè de, tā shì hēi sè de.]
This telephone is not red, it is black.

There are a few different ways to make questions in the Chinese language.

Using the general question words 吗 [ma], in a question expecting yes or no answer, is one of them. This question word is just added at the end of the sentence.

[nǐ hǎo ma?]
Are you well? /How are you?

You can also make questions by using specific question words like 什么 [shén me] / what, 哪里 [nǎ lǐ] / where, 谁 [shuí] / who or 为什么 [wèishénme] / why.

These question words are positioned at where the answer word/words are to be placed in the sentence.

[nà gè nǚ rén zài zuò shén me?]
What is the woman doing?

To answer this question, we just need to remove the question word, which is 做什么 and replace with the answer:
[nà gè nǚ rén zài pēng rèn]
That woman is cooking.

As you noticed, the order of the rest of the words in the sentence remains the same.


The question word 哪里 [nǎ lǐ] / where is usually used to ask for a specific location.

[nà gè yīng ér zài nǎ lǐ?]
Where is the boy?

Just remember that the word 在 [zài] is also used since the question asks for a specific location. And same with 哪里 [nǎ lǐ], 哪儿 [nǎr] is also used to ask where.


Another question word is the word 什么 [shén me] / what.

[nà liàng qì chē shì shén me yán sè de?]
What color is the car?


The question word 谁 [shéi] which asks for who or whom are placed at the beginning of the sentence.

[shéi shì jì gōng?]
Who is the mechanic?

Comparing two things in Chinese, normally will come with the form Sub. + 比 [more than] + Obj. + adjective. This means Subject is more than Object.

[nà gè nǚ rén bǐ nà gè nán rén měi lì.]
The woman is more beautiful than the man.

Another form of comparison comes with a form Sub.+ 和 [and] + Obj. + 同样 [are the same as] + Adj.

[nà gè nán rén hé zhè gè nán rén tóng yàng gāo.]
That man is as tall as this man.

Superlative comparison (most) example:
[tú piàn shàng,dà xiàng shì zuì dà de dòng wù.]
The elephant is the biggest animal in the picture.

You can see that for "biggest" in Chinese, we use 最 [zuì] whereas 大 [dà] is the adjective (big) and 最大的 [zuì dà de] means the biggest to modify 动物 [dòng wù] / animal.

Counting in Chinese is very simple. After ten, the counting is repeatedly the same. However, what makes counting trickier is the use of measure words.

[nà gè nán háir yǒu yī gè qiú]
The boy has one ball.

You can see that the number 1 [yī] is then followed by the measure word for ball which is 个 (measure word for general use).

In the following table you will see that the building of numbers follows a very regular pattern:

0 [líng] 零
1 [yī] 一
2 [èr] 二
3 [sān] 三
4 [sì] 四
5 [wǔ] 五
6 [liù] 六
7 [qī] 七
8 [bā] 八
9 [jiǔ] 九
10 [shí] 十
11 [shí yī] 十一
12 [shí èr] 十二
13 [shí sān] 十三
14 [shí sì] 十四
15 [shí wǔ] 十五
16 [shí liù] 十六
17 [shí qī] 十七
18 [shí bā] 十八
19 [shí jiǔ] 十九
20 [èr shí] 二十
21 [èr shí yī] 二十一
22 [èr shí èr] 二十二
31 [sān shíyī] 三十一
41 [sìshí yī] 四十一.

Notice that for the number eleven, in Chinese it is understood as ten plus one 十一 [shí yī]. Accordingly, twelve is 十二 [shí èr], as ten plus two is twelve. This rule is very regular for numbers from eleven to nineteen, from twenty-one to twenty-nine, from thirty-one to thirty-nine, and so on. That is to say, counting from twenty-one to twenty-nine would be shí shí yī to shí shí jiǔ and shí shí shí yī would be thirty-one.