This is part of our How to Learn Chinese. Check out the How to Learn Chinese homepage to get a lot more tips on how to learn Chinese.
Chinese grammar is highly “pattern-based”. Learn these patterns and you’ll be able to communicate much faster than if you try to bolt together your own sentences.
First things first – let’s deal with the idea that Chinese doesn’t have grammar. This is nonsense. Chinese does have grammar -otherwise you could put a word in a sentence in any order and be understood, which you cannot. Chinese grammar is however very different to the grammar of European languages.
Chinese grammar instead relies on particles and structures that seem very foreign to us. The particle 了 is a good example. For one, it doesn’t really have a very good English translation because we don’t have anything like it. Broadly, it can be used as an aspectual particle and a modal particle.
Don’t know what a modal or aspectual particles is? This is the great thing about Chinese grammar: it doesn’t really matter. You can learn to use them by paying attention to their usage in patterns of speech and copying, as we’ll look at below.
If you are interested in grammar then AllSet Learning’s Chinese Grammar Wiki is your Shangri-La. It’s an amazing resource and well worth bookmarking.
The Chinese Sentence Magic Formula
The first (and most important) pattern to learn is that of the general Chinese sentence. There’s a relatively rigid structure that if you follow you won’t make errors.
Here it is:
Subject + When + How + Where + Negation + Auxiliary + Verb + Complement + Object
Follow that order – placing the different parts of the sentence into the right “place”- and you’ll be understood.
This is not the place to go into detail about what each of these is. This magic formula is adapted from this super useful and in-depth article over at East Asia Student. A lot more detail about what these components are is available there.
After the basic sentence pattern there are a number of supplemental patterns. These are the patterns you’ll find in the grammar section at the end of your textbook chapters. You know, those boring looking bits you tend to skip over?
The important thing is to realize that these patterns are very important. There are patterns in other foreign languages but they tend to be less set than in Chinese. If you learn the Chinese patterns and nail them then communicating becomes very simple – you simply replace parts of the pattern (subject, object, place, time etc.).
In European languages this would necessitate changes in verb conjugation and sometimes even in the structure of the sentence. This makes the patterns less useful, which may be why we tend to ignore them in Chinese as well! In Chinese it’s most often a matter of simply switching out a word which makes these set patterns very useful.
Want to know who is doing the action? Simply replace the subject with the word 谁 “who” and you are good to go – no further changes to the sentence required. This is what makes the patterns of Chinese grammar so powerful.
A lot of these patterns are used to cover things like conditionality (if this then that), emphasis and time concepts. These patterns take up the slack left by not having tenses (in the European sense) or conjugations. It’s just a different method to what we are used to.
You’ve probably seen some of these already: 是…的 for emphasis, 如果…就 for “if this then that”, 要是…就 for “if only this then that”, 但是…而且 for “not only this but that” etc.
How to Learn the Patterns
It’s hard to give a summary of all of these patterns so the best I can say at this time is to pay attention to them.
There are actually whole books based on learning these patterns. The best is probably Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar: A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors. Another is Common Chinese Patterns 330.
The second has more patterns but they aren’t in any particular order. Therefore it’s difficult to tell which ones are worth learning and which to ignore. Therefore it’s better as reference book. The first book has less content but goes through the patterns in a much more sensible textbook-like fashion.
Your current textbook is also a great source of this sentence patterns. If you already make flashcards for characters and vocabulary definitely think about adding flashcards for whole patterns. Go back through your old textbooks too and pick out the example sentences.
Practice switching out the elements (subject, object, where, when, how, verb etc.) of the pattern until you can quickly and rapidly makes these changes without having to think about it. The patterns will become a framework into which you can add meaning and be very easily understood.
Get the patterns mastered and your ability to communicate in Chinese will sky-rocket.
Hacking Chinese’s very in-depth discussion with experts about how best to learn Chinese grammar.
A FluentU article on the basic Chinese sentence structure
AllSet Learning’s excellent Chinese Grammar Wiki
Zhonewen Browser Plugin for Chrome/Firefox (now with built-in references to the Chinese Grammar Wiki)