So you've been learning Mandarin Chinese. And you've come to the conclusion that, wow, this language is so easy! Nouns never change gender, there are no plurals and no declensions. Verbs never change conjugation or tense, and I just add the same handful of particles to change the meaning of all verbs.

But why then when you speak to Chinese people they give you the strangest looks, as if you're speaking an alien language? You're pretty sure you got your pronunciation and tones right, but they still have no idea what you want to say?

Mandarin Chinese is easy — up to a limit. Since Chinese has very little that changes at the word level, like European languages, it makes syntax that much more important. In other words, all the grammar of Chinese happens at the phrase level!

The reason why you're getting strange looks is probably because you're putting Chinese words in the wrong order. Not only that but sometimes English (along with other European languages) require a lot more words to describe what can be said with very few syllables in Mandarin Chinese. Always try to deconstruct what you want to say into the fundamental units, then reconstruct these into a Chinese way of saying them.

How Adding Different Elements Affects Word Order

Mandarin Chinese is classified as an SVO (subject + verb + object) language. This is a very common word order found in many languages such as English and the Romance languages. Because of this, you might think word order rules are similar in Chinese and English. That’s correct to some extent, however, when you start adding elements such as time, place, and manner words into the sentences, the order of Chinese words can change drastically.

General Rule 1: in a series of items, always state the largest item or container first: year > month > day, country > region > town. English tends to do the opposite.

General Rule 2: always think of time as progressing vertically from top to bottom: last month (up/上), next month (down/下). English tends to think of time as progressing horizontally or forward.

  1. Placement of Time (Subject + Time Word + Verb + Object): In Chinese, time words are placed at the beginning of a sentence, before or right after the subject. NEVER put them at the end of a sentence.
Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
我一月去夏威夷。 wǒ yíyuè qù xiàwēiyí. I January go Hawaii. I went to Hawaii in January.
一月我去夏威夷。 yíyuè wǒ qù xiàwēiyí. January I go Hawaii. In January, I went to Hawaii.

Alternatively:

一月 夏威夷。
yíyuè xiàwēiyí.
I January go Hawaii
I went to Hawaii in January
一月 夏威夷。
yíyuè xiàwēiyí.
January I go Hawaii
In January, I went to Hawaii.
  1. Placement of duration phrases (Subject + Place Word + Verb + Duration Phrase): Three years, a month , or four hours are not time words but phrases that indicate duration. When you are talking about duration, it has its own word order rules. The phrase is complementary to what has just been stated.
Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
她在美國住了八年。
她在美国住了八年。
tā zài měiguó zhùle bā nián. She LOC U.S. live-[already] eight years. She has lived in the U.S. for eight years.

Alternatively:

在美國 住了 八年。
在美国 住了 八年。
zài měiguó zhùle bā nián.
She LOC U.S. live-[already] eight years.
She has lived in the U.S. for eight years.
  1. Placement of Location (Subject + Time + Location + Verb) : Usually, Location is placed between Time and the verb. Note: this requires a good deal of practice to get used to it.
Chinese Pinyin Literal Translate English
我昨天在家看電視。
我昨天在家看电视。
wǒ zuótiān zài jiā kàn diànshì. I yesterday LOC home watch TV. I watched TV at home yesterday.

Alternatively:

昨天 在家 看電視。
昨天 在家 看电视。
zuótiān zài jiā kàn diànshì
I yesterday LOC home watch TV.
I watched TV at home yesterday.
  • Exceptions: Some verbs encode Location as a bound complement due to the meaning of the verb. What these verbs share in common is that they are single syllable verbs: 留 (stay +Loc), 放 (put +Loc), 住 (live +Loc), 裝 (pack +Loc), 關 (be enclosed +Loc), 坐 (sit +Loc), 站 (stand +Loc), 躺 (lie +Loc). If you add a resulting complement to these verbs (下/到/著/了/過/起來/...), then you need to move the Location and Object before the verb.

  • Here is an example of a single syllable verb 住 followed by the Location. At the end of this article, we'll show you how to move things when a verb like this has a resulting complement.

Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
他們住在巴黎。
他们住在巴黎。
tāmén zhù zài bālí. They live LOC Paris. They live in Paris.

Alternatively:

他們 在巴黎。
他们 在巴黎。
tāmén zhù zài bālí
They live LOC Paris.
They live in Paris.
  1. Placement of manner: Manner deals with HOW you do something, as in quickly, happily, silently, secretly, etc. It’s good to remember that “manner” is usually an adverbial (an adverb or even a whole adverb clause) and is not necessary for the core meaning of the sentence. These are optional, but they have their appropriate slot for insertion in a sentence:
Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
他買到食物後開心地走了。
他买到食物后开心地走了。
tā mǎidào shíwù -hòu kāixīn de zǒule. He buy-[achieve] food -afterwards happy-[ly] leave-[already]. He left happily after having bought food.

Alternatively:

買到食物 開心地 走了。
买到食物 开心地 走了。
mǎidào shíwù -hòu kāixīn de zǒule.
He buy-[achieve] food -afterwards happy-[ly] leave-[already].
He left happily after having bought food.

If you delete this adverbial, you should fill this empty slot with :

Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
他買到食物後就走了。
他买到食物后就走了。
tā mǎidào shíwù -hòu jiù zǒule. He buy-[achieve] food -afterwards [then] leave-[already]. He left after having bought food.

Alternatively:

買到食物 走了。
买到食物 走了。
mǎidào shíwù -hòu jiù zǒule.
He buy-[achieve] food -afterwards [then] leave-[already].
[-] He left after having bought food.
  1. Placement of instrument: Instrument refers to USING WHAT to do something. It’s usually placed before the verb and is preceded by 用 (to use) in Chinese, whereas, in English, it’s often seen at the end of the sentence and preceded by ‘with’.
Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
她用刀子切菜。
她用刀子切菜。
Tā yòng dāozi qiē cài. She INSTR knife cut veggies. She cuts veggies with a knife.
(Literally: She uses a knife to cut veggies.)

Alternative:

用刀子 切菜。
用刀子 切菜。
yòng dāozi qiē cài.
She INSTR knife cut veggies.
She uses a knife to cut veggies.
She cuts veggies with a knife.

Topic-Comment Relation Sentences

Mandarin Chinese isn't the easiest language to classify when it comes to word order. As a topic-prominent language, sentences around topics are emphasized rather than subjects and objects, which can sometimes make it hard to identify the subject in a sentence. For example:

Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
麵包還有很多。
面包还有很多。
miànbāo hái yǒu hěn duō. Bread still EXIST very much. There is still a lot of bread [left].

Alternatively:

麵包 很多。
面包 很多。
miànbāo hái yǒu hěn duō.
Bread still EXIST very much.
There is still a lot of bread [left].

If you directly translate from English but switch the first two words, it would be:

很多 麵包。
hái yǒu hěn duō miànbāo.

which is grammatically correct, but this is not as natural as the example we gave you above.

Linguists say that sentences like "There is [something]..." has neither a subject nor object; neither doing an action nor receiving an action. Instead, the something here is called the theme of the sentence.

Common Mistakes Made By Chinese Learners

Many Chinese learners have the tendency to make mistakes with Time and Location by translating the word order from their native language. For example:

Chinese Mistake Pinyin Literal Translation English
*我有英文課今天下午。
*我有英文课今天下午。
wǒ yǒu yīngwén kè jīntiān xiàwǔ. I have English class; today afternoon. I have an English class. This afternoon...

(The * asterisk means an unacceptable sentence to native speakers)
Alternatively:

*我 英文課 今天下午。
*我 英文课 今天下午。
yǒu yīngwén kè jīntiān xiàwǔ.
I have English class; today afternoon.
I have an English class. This afternoon...

The example above is a common mistake made by non native Chinese speakers as they directly translate the sentence from their native language. The correct way to form this sentence should be:

Chinese Correction Pinyin Literal Translation English
我今天下午有英文課。
我今天下午有英文课。
wǒ jīntiān xiàwǔ yǒu yīngwén kè. I today afternoon have English class. I have an English class this afternoon.

Alternatively:

今天下午 英文課。
今天下午 英文课。
jīntiān xiàwǔ yǒu yīngwén kè.
I today afternoon have English class.
I have an English class this afternoon.

Another common mistake:

Chinese Mistake Pinyin Literal Translation English
*我昨天看電視在家。
*我昨天看电视在家。
wǒ zuótiān kàn-diànshì zài jiā. I yesterday watch TV; LOC home. I watched TV yesterday; At home...

Alternatively:

*我 昨天 看電視 在家。
*我 昨天 看电视 在家。
zuótiān kàn-diànshì zài jiā.
I yesterday watch TV; LOC home.
I watched TV yesterday; At home...

As you can see, the learner has put the Location after the single-syllable verb (看) which already has a complement (電視). Move the Location before the verb:

Chinese Correction Pinyin Literal Translation English
我昨天在家看電視。
我昨天在家看电视。
wǒ zuótiān zài jiā kàn-diànshì. I yesterday LOC home watch TV. I watched TV at home yesterday.

Alternatively:

昨天 在家 看電視。
昨天 在家 看电视。
zuótiān zài jiā kàn-diànshì.
I yesterday LOC home watch TV.
I watched TV at home yesterday.

What should I do when I'm not sure where to put the Location?
It’s always safest to put it before the verb.

Where to Put Things When Verbs Have Complements

As you may have noticed, verbs that are longer than one syllable or that have complements do not like to have other pieces of information following. This is quite similar to German word order where the first helping verb occurs early in the sentence, but everything else will then precede the rest of the participles and modal verbs.

If we start with a simple verb-object complement such as 關門 (close the door), and then add a complement to 關 (close) -起來 (up), it results in 關起來 (close up or close shut), but there is no longer a slot to put the door. If we want to still indicate door, we need to put it in front of this complex verb and indicate that the action is happening to the door with 把 (have/make/let).

Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
[關門]。
[关门]。
[guānmén]. close-door Close the door.
把門[關起來]。
把门[关起来]。
bǎ mén [guān-qǐlái]. have/make door [close-up]. Close the door shut.

Alternatively:

把門 [關起來]。
把门 [关起来]。
bǎ mén [guān-qǐlái].
have/make door [close-up].
Close the door shut.

Interrogative Sentences with Quantity

In Chinese, the interrogatives 幾 and 多少 represent quantity meaning "how many" and "how much". In English, question words move to the front of the sentence but no such movement occurs in Chinese. In other words, the question word remains where you would normally state the quantity in a normal (declarative) sentence. To help make the transition easier, think about substituting x-amount-of before the word money. It is obvious by this example that the English word order is the one that becomes complex.

Chinese Pinyin Literal Translation English
你有多少錢?
你有几块钱?
nǐ yǒu duō shǎo qián?
nǐ yǒu jǐ kuài qián?
You have how much money?
You have how many dollars?
How much money do you have?
How many dollars do you have?

Alternatively:

多少 錢?
yǒu duō shǎo money?
You have how much money?
How much money do you have?
几块 錢?
yǒu jǐ kuài qián?
You have how many dollars?
How many dollars do you have?

A frequent question that we get:

Is there any difference between China and Taiwan Chinese?

There is no difference in grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation in the examples provided in this article. Pronunciation and nuances of some vocabulary will differ slightly when you encounter more of the language. We provide Chinese characters in both traditional and simplified for each example.

If you intend to learn more of the language to an intermediate or advanced level, it's important to choose one accent and stick with it, rather than mixing, which may confuse people you speak to. We provide training by native speakers in both accents on the Glossika platform.

The Glossika team, based in Taipei Taiwan, takes syntax and word order seriously. We believe that expression is unique in each language and translating sentences literally or verbatim leads to errors and miscommunication.

We provide bilingual training of sentence structures in more than 50 languages, including half a dozen Chinese languages and dialects. We analyze the syntactic-semantic relationship of each sentence at a deep level, then translate back to the surface using the most natural word choice and word order in each language. We do not encourage students to guess or translate into a target language on their own in order to minimize early bad habits. We believe that the correct structures can only be learned through enough exposure and repetitive practice (reps) from native speakers.

With the bilingual sentences, this helps the learner notice differences in the order of Chinese words and word choice. It's possible to learn everything you need to know in sentence formation through training the thousands of sentences on Glossika. Since Glossika is an audio-based training platform, you will boost your listening and speaking in many Chinese languages faster than any other method.

Sign up today and get 7-day full access with 1000 reps for free.

Learn to speak Chinese (China) or Chinese (Taiwan) today!