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Basic word orders and exceptions in Chinese

Basic sentence structures and exceptions in Chinese.jpg

Although Chinese is not the only language where the sentence words order is important, it is extremely important to take care of the right Chinese sentence order. A slight difference in the words order may result in a completely different sentence and meaning. For example:

Some person/people have come


lái rén Le

The person (we expecting to) has come.


rén lái Le

The meanings are different in the two sentences. Also, the Chinese sentence words order is very different from English, like this example:

English: who are you?

Chinese: 你是谁?(nǐ shì shéi?)

So a word-by-word translation from English to Chinese would result in meaningless sentences in Chinese. There is no way to make sense of the Chinese words order from English. The aim of this article is to explain clearly and intuitively the rules of the Chinese sentence structure and point out some important exceptions. Let’s take a look.

The basic sentence pattern in Chinese is similar to English and it follows this:

Subject + Verb + Object (S-V-O)

Here is an example of what this would look like:

He is reading a Chinese book.

他 看 中文书

tā kàn zhōng wén shū

Subject + Verb + Indirect Object + Direct Object (S-V-O-O)

He bought me a dog.

他 给我 买了 一只狗

tā gěi wǒ mǎi Le yī zhī gǒu

He smiled to me.

他 对我 笑了 一笑

tā duì wǒ xiào le yī xiào

He sent me a book.

他 送 我 一 本 书

tā sòng wǒ yī běn shū

Differences from Chinese and English

The Location of Prepositions

Now we will look into differences in the Chinese grammar compared to English. Prepositions (介词) are words that come before nouns and pronouns to expressing time, place, direction, objective, reason, means, dependence, passivity, comparison, etc. Common prepositions in Chinese are:

在zài (in/on), 从còng (from),向xiàng(towards),跟gēn(with),往wǎng(to, towards),到dào (to a place, until a certain time),对duì(for),给gěi (to, for),对于duìyú(regarding ),关于guānyú(concerning ,about),把bǎ(to hold),被bèi(by),比bǐ(particle used for comparison ), 根据gēnjù (based on),为了wèile (in order to ),除了chúle (except for)……

Preposition always occur right before the verb and its objects:

Subject + preposition + verb + direct object

Here are a couple of examples on Chinese preposition:

Add milk to the flour.

往 面粉里 加 牛奶

wǎng miàn fěn lǐ jiā niú nǎi

The Adverb Placement

Adverbs (describes the verb) in Chinese typically occur at the beginning of the predicate before an adjective, verb and preposition. Here are examples of adverbs:

只zhǐ(only),才cái (only ,only then),都dōu (all),肯定kěn dìng (sure), 一定yīdìng (surely, certainly), 很hěn (very),太tài (too much, very),够góu(enough),非常fēicháng (extremely), 已经yǐjīng (already),经常jīng cháng(frequently), 将要jiāngyào(will, shall), 最后zuìhóu(finally),当初dāng chū(at that time / originally),可能kěnéng (maybe), 大概dàgài(approximate), 或许huóxǔ(perhaps , maybe),几乎jīhū(almost)

Here is a few ways of how it would be used in Chinese:

They all can speak Japanese.

他们 都 会说 日语

tāmen dōu huìshuō rì yǔ

The Location Word

The location word almost always occurs before the verb in Chinese. There are exceptions we will discuss them in a next lesson. Here is the structure frame and an example of how it is used.

Subject + location + verb

I work in Beijing.

我 在 北京 工作

wǒ zài běi jīng gōng zuó

The Placement of ‘time when’

Unlike English, a word that indicates the ‘time when’ a situation in Chinese is placed at the beginning of the predicate.

Subject + time when + predicate

For a few examples:

I had a dinner yesterday.

我 昨天 吃了晚饭

wǒ zuōtiān chīle wǎn fàn

When a sentence includes both a ‘time when’ and a location, ‘time when’ generally occurs before location. Both of them will come before the verb in the sentence frame like the examples given.

Subject + time when + location + verb

I swim in swimming pool every day.

我 每天 在 游泳池 游泳                                                     

wǒ měi tiān zài yóu yǒng chí yóuyǒng

The Time Duration Words

Duration of time word indicates the length of time that an action occurs. Time duration directly follow the verb. Unlike English no preposition is associated with it. See the following structure and examples

Subject + verb + time duration

I slept for two hours yesterday afternoon.

我 昨天下午 睡了 两个小时。

wǒ zuōtiān xià wǔ shuìle liǎng gè xiǎo shí

I run every day.

我 每天 跑步

wǒ měitiān pǎobù

In summary, The Chinese sentence structure is as follows:

Subject + time preposition + Time + location preposition + Location (from the biggest to the smallest) + how (can be adverb or a phrase containing a preposition.) + Verb + time duration + indirect object + Object

Important Exceptions in the Chinese sentence order

As we know the basic Chinese sentence order is: Subject + Time (when) + Place + verb. There are some special verbs, which seem to be allowed to break the rules. These verbs are put before the place and not after it as usual. For these verbs we have the structure:

Subject + Time (when) + verb + Place                        

Which verbs are breaking the rules? There are two kinds of these verbs:

Verbs implying movement or location:

住(zhù/live), 放 (fang/put), 坐 (zuó/sit), 站 (zhàn/stand), 走 (zǒu/walk), 去 (qù/go), 达到 (dá dào/arrive), 来 (lái/come), 飞 (fēi/fly), 扔 (rēng/throw), 待 (dāi/stay), etc.

Verbs that express variability from one situation to another in this place:

结 (jiē/ bear fruit ), 积累/积 (jī lěi / accumulate) , 生长 (shēng zhǎng/ grow ), 烹饪(pēng rèn/cooking), etc.

Here are several exception examples:

The food is put on the stove


(shí wù fàng zài lú zi shàng)

Kids always like sitting on the ground.

孩子 总是 喜欢 坐 在 地 上

(hái zi zǒng shì xǐ huan zuó zài dì shàng)


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