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Back to front: sentence structure in Chinese

chinese sentence structure, learning chinese

Mel Patching (British)

It always amazes me how Chinese can be so exactly opposite to English sometimes. Names are written surname first, dates come with the year first, month then date. What took me the longest to get used to though, was sentence structure.

Usually when we have something to say, we come out with the main point of the sentence first, and then fill in the minor details:

"I went to New York (main point) last summer (minor detail)." 

This is not strictly always the case, but instead of delving into the scary depths of English grammar, I think we are safe to say for now that this structure is used the majority of the time.

In Chinese, however, it is another story.  The secondary details of when, where, and why come first. 

"去年夏天(minor detail),我去了一趟纽约(main point)."

(qùnián xiàtiān, wǒ qùle yítànɡ niǔyuē)

This structure tripped me up a lot when I was still at the '你好's and '在哪儿's stage, because I wasn't patient enough to deal with details first. As a result, my grammar was continually erroneous, especially when I was in a hurry to communicate something important. 

Listening to my friends often proved arduous experience too, because I would get stuck on a few obstacles at the beginning of the sentence and by the time I figured out what the words meant, I had missed all the juicy gossip:


(Zuó wǎn zài wǒ nán péngyǒu xīn mǎi de fǎ lā lì  lǐ…)

(Last night in my boyfriend's new Ferrari…) 

That is as far as I got, because it took me a good two minutes to figure out that 'fǎ lā lì' meant 'Ferrari' (although now it seems perfectly obvious), so whatever they ended up doing in that Ferrari will have to be left to the imagination. 

Being invited out can also prove trying on the nerves, because this manner of stringing out the details first gives a girl dangerously ample time to speculate a whole spectra of scenarios about what this boy could be asking her:

"周五…" (zhōuwǔ…)

Oooo, Friday night! Must be something good

"…晚上…" (…wǎnshàng…)

Ok, evening…could be dinner, drinks, a movie, a concert… 

"…六点半左右…" (…liù diǎn bàn zuǒyòu…)

6 pm? Ok probably not drinks, must be dinner. I hope he takes me to that expensive new Japanese restaurant – actually, maybe not – I don't look my best when eating sushi… 

"…你可以跟我一起去商场…" (…nǐ kěyǐgēn wǒ yìqǐqù shāngchǎng…)

Shopping centre? Oh yes, now he's talking!

"…帮我选份漂亮礼物…" (…bāng wǒ xuǎn fèn     piàoliàng lǐwù…)

Choose a gift? For me? Wow this is getting better and better!

"…给我女朋友吗?" (…gěi wǒ nǚ péngyǒu ma?)

Ugh, no thanks.

If it ever comes to giving a police report (knock on wood), God help you. 


(Gānggāng zài gòuwù zhòng xīn sān lóu de kāfēi tīng lǐ, zài chuānghù pángbiān de zhuōzi, wǒ hóngsè de qiánbāo bèi tōule!)

(Last night at 9pm in the shopping mall in the third floor café on the table by the window, my red wallet was stolen!) 

You might as well kiss goodbye to your wallet – the thief will be long gone by the time you get to 'shopping center'. 

However, once you have grasped this grammar point, you can use it to your advantage, and it may actually make your life easier.

Now, when I am listening to lengthy speeches (as you do), I keep nodding and smiling even if I don't understand what they are saying, until they finally arrive at the point. Once I understand that, I usually have to go back and ask about the details again, but it saves a lot of unnecessary dictionary checking for sure.

Also, at the cinema for instance, those incredibly long Chinese subtitles will flash up on screen just long enough for you to identify a few '他's, '我's and '你's before its gone and you are left trying to figure out who they are talking about and why.

My trick is to go straight to the last few characters of the line and BAM – the whole plot of the story is suddenly revealed, clear as day. Ok maybe not that clear, but you will at least get the point of the sentence, e.g. the guy died. You may have missed how exactly it happened, when it happened, or who it was who died, but you got that he died. Now you can cry on cue, instead of sitting there like a brick wall when all your Chinese friends around you are shedding buckets.

Hopefully this will save you a step in your journey to Chinese fluency. Send us in more back-to-front examples you find along the way in the comments section below.


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