Key Chinese grammar structure: modifier + de + noun (的)

This grammar structure is one of the most basic and important features of Chinese grammar:

modifier + 的 + noun

This comes up all the time in all sorts of sentences in Chinese. It follows the general rule that what precedes modifies what follows - first the modifier, then 的 (de) to link them, and then the noun.

Noun + 的 + noun

This may be the most basic grammar structure with 的. By placing 的 between two nouns, you can indicate possession. That is, the second noun belongs to the first. Some examples:

你的衣服

nǐ de yīfú

your clothes

小李的朋友

Xiǎo Lǐ de péngyǒu

Xiao Li's friend

他们的钱

tāmen de qián

their money

You can think of 的 as being similar to ’s (apostrophe s) in English. It marks possession in the same way and appears between the two nouns. More example of 的 behaving like ’s:

小王的房子

Xiǎo Wáng de fángzi

Xiao Wang's house

赵先生的自行车

Zhào Xiānshēng de zìxíngchē

Mr Zhao's bike

老张的猫

Lǎo Zhāng de māo

Old Zhang's cat

And now some full example sentences with 的 showing possession between two nouns:

这是你的吗?

Zhè shì nǐ de ma?

Is this yours?

那是他们的。

Nà shì tāmen de.

It's theirs.

我喜欢你的帽子。

Wǒ xǐhuan nǐ de màozi.

I like your hat.

This noun + 的 + noun structure is one of the most basic grammar structures in Chinese. It should be one of the first structures that learners get familiar with.

Adjective + 的 + noun

As well as marking actual possession between two nouns, 的 is also used to modify things more generally. What it actually does is attach attributes to things.

One way 的 can attach attributes to things is by appearing between an adjective and a noun. This simply links the adjective to the noun to describe it. Some examples:

红色的衣服

hóngsè de yīfu

red clothes

好吃的菜

hǎochī de cài

tasty food

漂亮的花

piàoliang de huā

beautiful flowers

You could think of this as literally saying e.g. “red’s clothes” or “clothes that belong to red”. This is the standard way of linking adjectives to nouns in Chinese grammar.

Some full example sentences for this adjective + 的 + noun grammar structure:

我喜欢很辣的菜。

Wǒ xǐhuan hěn là de cài.

I like spicy food.

她是个很无聊的人。

Tā shì ge hěn wúliáo de rén.

She is a very boring person.

这是一种很浓的咖啡。

Zhè shì yìzhǒng hěn nóng de kāfēi.

This is a very strong kind of coffee.

By now you can see that 的 is a very versatile linking word in Chinese. It appears all over the place, and is generally considered the most commonly used Chinese character.

clause + 的 + noun

Finally, we’ll have a look at a slightly more complicated 的 grammar structure. Because 的 can be used to attach pretty much anything to anything else, you can use it to link entire phrases to things. The phrase then becomes a description or quality.

This sounds complicated but it will probably become clearer with some examples:

我买的茶

wǒ mǎi de chá

the tea I bought

他喜欢的那个女孩

Tā xǐhuan de nàge nǚhái

that girl he likes

你最喜欢的颜色

nǐ zuì xǐhuan de yánsè

your favourite colour (the colour you like the most)

In those examples, rather than a noun or an adjective, we have a phrase (e.g. 我买 - “I buy”). The phrase is linked to a noun using 的, and becomes a description or attribute of the noun.

Some more examples of this modifying clause / phrase with 的:

他弄丢的东西

tā nòng diū de dōngxi

the thing he lost

我不认识的一个人

wǒ bù rènshi de yīge rén

someone that I don't know

我们第一次见到彼此的地方

wǒmen dì yī cì jiàn dào bǐcǐ dì dìfāng

the place where we first met

昨天跟我一块儿吃饭的那个人

zuótiān gēn wǒ yīkuàir chīfàn dì nàge rén

the person with whom I ate yesterday

Notice how you can attach quite complicated things to a noun using 的. That whole complex phrase just becomes an attribute of the noun. Have a look at some full example sentences for this structure:

他们买的自行车很便宜。

Tāmen mǎi de zìxíngchē hěn piányi.

The bike they bought is very cheap.

这是我看过最好看的书。

Zhè shì wǒ kànguò zuì hǎo kàn de shū.

This is the best book I've ever read.

你是第一个这样做的人。

Nǐ shì dì yī gè zhèyàng zuò de rén.

You are the first person to do it this way.

See also

Other articles about 的

  1. When should you put 的 (de) after adjectives in Chinese grammar? A2
  2. Key Chinese grammar structure: modifier + de + noun (的) A1

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  2. Key Chinese grammar structure: modifier + de + noun (的) A1
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