Word order is one of the most basic and yet trickiest grammars in Chinese. Straightforward word order is simple enough, but there are lots of variations, and the rules that govern how words are ordered are often less than obvious.
There is one principle that governs ordering of information in Chinese which is quite simple, though, and that is the principle of going from background information to focal information. This principle can be applied on a grammatical level, but this post is going to look at a few easy cases where one single rule allows you to remember how to handle a wide range of information relating to time, location and names.
The general rule is that Chinese puts the biggest (relating to background information) first and the smallest (often more focal information) later.
Let's look at a few examples from each category:
Time – 时间
Time in Chinese is given with the largest unit first, usually years, then followed by month, day, hour, minute, second and so on. This is different from many other countries. In the United States, 9/8/2015 means September 8, 2015, for example. In Chinese this would be:
中文里的时间是以最大的单位开头，通常是年份，然后再跟上月份、日期、小时、分钟和秒等等。这一点与其他国家都不一样。例如，在美国，"9/8/2015"指的是"September 8, 2015"，而中文则是：
If you want to write out hours, minutes and seconds, you need to use the appropriate Chinese words:
Remember, the rule is putting the biggest unit first.
Location – 地点
The same rule holds true for giving information about location, such as addresses or information about where a city is. Let's look at the second case first. In English, we would say:
He has moved to Melbourne, Australia.
In Chinese, it's the other way around and one would say:
tā bāndào àozhōu de mòěrběn le.
Note that the largest unit comes first.
The same is true for addresses. This is the address of the Beijing Language and Culture University: 北京市海淀区学院路15号.
Let's break that down:
Names of people in Chinese are also ordered in this way, with the largest unit (family name) placed before the smallest unit (personal name). For example:
zhāng xiǎo sì
"张" is family name and "小四" is personal name.
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