10 basic Chinese grammar points for beginners

Here are ten basic Chinese grammar points that everyone interested in the language should know. If you’ve recently started learning Chinese, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re familiar with these points.

The grammar points listed here might make a nice refresher if you’ve already got a few Chinese lessons under your belt. Once you’ve been studying for a while, they’ll probably seem very obvious!

Basic Chinese Grammar 101

Talk about locations with 在 (zài)

To talk about things being in places, use the word 在 (zài). This is actually a verb, so you don’t need to use any other words to talk about something being somewhere.

The structure is:

[something] 在 [place]

Have a look at some example:

我在这里。

Wǒ zài zhèlǐ.

I am here.

你在那里。

Nǐ zài nàlǐ.

You are there.

上海在中国。

Shànghǎi zài Zhōngguó.

Shanghai is in China.

猫在沙发上。

Māo zài shāfā shàng.

The cat is on the sofa.

Notice how English uses the verb “to be” where Chinese uses 在. English also uses prepositions - “to be in” - whereas Chinese often just uses 在.

Use measure words with nouns

Measure words are used whenever you talk about quantities in Chinese. You can’t attach numbers directly to nouns - you have to put a measure word in between.

There are different measure words for different categories of things. For example, the measure word for books is 本 (běn), whilst the measure word for flat things is 张 (zhāng).

Luckily, there is also a general purpose measure word: 个 (ge). This can be used for pretty much everything, but it’s better to use more specific measure words when you can.

Talk about having things with 有 (yǒu)

You can talk about having things with the word 有 (yǒu) - “to have”. Remember that you don’t need to conjugate (change) verbs in Chinese, so 有 is always 有 no matter whom you’re talking about.

The structure is simply:

[subject] 有 [object]

Let’s have a look at some example sentences. Notice that the nouns in the sentences have measure words before them: 个 (ge), 本 (běn) and 把 (bǎ).

我有一个妹妹。

Wǒ yǒu yī gè mèimei.

I have a younger sister.

我有一本书。

Wǒ yǒu yī běn shū.

I have a book.

他有一把枪!

Tā yǒu yī bǎ qiāng!

He has a gun!

Hopefully you won’t ever have to use the last example sentence there.

是 (shì) is not exactly the same as “to be”

The closest equivalent of the English word “to be” in Chinese is 是 (shì). This is used to link nouns to other nouns. The structure is:

[noun] 是 [noun]

Let’s have a look at some examples:

我是学生。

Wǒ shì xuéshēng.

I am a student.

他是老师。

Tā shì lǎoshī.

He is a teacher.

她是医生。

Tā shì yīshēng.

She is a doctor.

这是书。

Zhè shì shū.

This is a book.

Notice how 是 is used to talk about one noun being another. You can’t use 是 to link adjectives to nouns, though, as in “this book is heavy”. To do that, you have to use 很 (hěn).

The basic structure for 很 (hěn) is the same as for 是, but 很 is used with adjectives. Have a look at some example sentences:

这本书很重。

Zhè běn shū hěn zhòng.

This book is heavy.

她很高。

Tā hěn gāo.

She is tall.

我们很高兴。

Wǒmen hěn gāoxìng.

We are happy.

Sometimes 很 is translated as “very”, but opinions vary on how accurate this is. We think it’s simply used to link adjectives to nouns, whilst others think it also intensifies the adjectives.

Talk about wanting things with 要 (yào)

You can talk about directly wanting something with the word 要 (yào). This word is also used to talk about the future, as in “I’m going to do” something.

要 is quite versatile and can be used with nouns or verbs:

[subject] 要 [noun]
or
[subject] 要 [action]

Have a look at some examples:

我要一个三明治。

Wǒ yào yīgè sānmíngzhì.

I want a sandwich.

我要吃三明治。

Wǒ yào chī sānmíngzhì.

I'm going to eat a sandwich / I want to eat a sandwich.

她要去北京。

Tā yào qù Běijīng.

She's going to go to Beijing.

我们要走了。

Wǒmen yào zǒu le.

We're going to leave.

Be careful when using 要 to mean “to want”, as it could be quite abrupt, just as in English.

Negate 有 (yǒu) with 没 (méi)

To talk about “not having” something, you negate the word 有 (yǒu) with 没 (méi). Remember this important point: if you negate 有, always use 没. The two words go together.

Examples:

我没有车。

Wǒ méiyǒu chē.

I don't have a car.

他们没有钱。

Tāmen méiyǒu qián.

They don't have money.

他没有学位。

Tā méiyǒu xuéwèi.

He doesn't have a degree.

That’s how you negate 有. But there’s a different word for everything else!

Negate everything else with 不 (bù)

Every other verb apart from 有 is negated with 不 (bù). 不 is pretty much equivalent to “not” or “don’t” in English. It goes before a verb and negates it.

Some examples:

我不喜欢啤酒。

Wǒ bù xǐhuan píjiǔ.

I don't like beer.

我不要去纽约。

Wǒ búyào qù Niǔyuē.

I'm not going to New York.

我不想念他们。

Wǒ bù xiǎngniàn tāmen.

I don't miss them.

Remember to negate 有 with 没, and everything else with 不.

Mark possession with 的 (de)

The most common character in Chinese is 的 (de). That’s because 的 is used all the time to mark possession. That means that it’s used to talk about things belonging to other things, or to attach qualities to things.

的 is extremely versatile in Chinese. Pretty much any relationship where one thing belongs to another, or is the property of another, can be described with 的.

的 is kind of equivalent to ’s (apostrophe s) in English. It goes between two things to indicate possession. But it’s used very widely to attach any kind of quality or possession.

Some examples:

这是你的。

Zhè shì nǐde.

This is yours.

那是小李的书。

Nà shì Xiǎo Lǐ de shū.

That is Xiao Li's book.

这是我的电话号码。

Zhè shì wǒde diànhuà hàomǎ.

This is my phone number.

这是他们的房子。

Zhè shì tāmende fángzi.

This is their house.

这条裤子是黑色的。

Zhè tiáo kùzi shì hēisè de.

These trousers are black.

她是一个很重要的人。

Tā shì yīgè hěn zhòngyào de rén.

She is a very important person.

You might want to have a look at a more challenging example sentence for 的. Don’t worry if this is beyond your ability at the moment, though:

我今天学的东西很有意思。

Wǒ jīntiān xué de dōngxi hěn yǒuyìsi.

The things I have learnt today are very interesting.

The main point to remember is that 的 can attach pretty much anything to anything else. You’ll get more used to it the more you read and listen to Chinese.

The most common way to express “and” in Chinese is probably 和 (hé). Remember, though, that 和 can only be used to link nouns. You can’t link verbs together with 和.

和 is used to link nouns in the same way “and” is used in English. Some examples:

我和我哥哥要去北京。

Wǒ hé wǒ gēgē yào qù Běijīng.

My brother and I are going to Beijing.

我喜欢米饭和面条。

Wǒ xǐhuan mǐfàn hé miàntiáo.

I like rice and noodles.

我和你一样。

Wǒ hé nǐ yīyàng.

You and I are the same.

Link nouns with 和 but not verbs. Linking verbs in Chinese is a bit more complicated so we won’t look at it here.

Ask yes/no questions with 吗 (ma)

Finally, use 吗 (ma) to ask yes / no questions in Chinese. These questions are also known as polar questions or binary questions. You can turn any statement into a yes / no question simply by putting 吗 at the end.

Some examples:

你喜欢他吗?

Nǐ xǐhuan tā ma?

Do you like him?

这是你的吗?

Zhè shì nǐde ma?

Is this yours?

你要去上海吗?

Nǐ yào qù Shànghǎi ma?

Are you going to go to Shanghai?

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