Beginner Level Grammar: Chinese Sentence Structure

Even though Chinese is considered one of the hardest languages to speak due to its tones and characters, one aspect that is a relief for English speakers is the Chinese sentence structure, which at its base follows English very similarly.

This is as opposed to Japanese or Korean speakers, whose sentence structure is very different, and who find this aspect of the language as hard as English and other similar languages (but easier due to the similar vocabulary, as well as use of characters in the case of Japanese).

We would like to explain how building sentences in Chinese works here.

Chinese Sentence Structure #1 – Basic Chinese Sentence

Chinese Sentence Structure #2 – Location Markers

Chinese Sentence Structure #3 – Time Markers

Chinese Sentence Structure #4 – Pre & Postpositions

Chinese Sentence Structure #5 – Complements

Chinese Sentence Structure #6 – FAQ’s

Basic Chinese Sentence Structure

At its base, Chinese is an SVO language.

That is, (S)ubject (V)erb (O)bject. This is similar to English and most European languages.

In English we would say: Adam eats an apple.

In Chinese you would say: 小李 吃 苹果 (xiǎo lǐ chī píngguǒ).

Subject (Xiao Li) + Verb (Eat) + Object (Apple)

At the most basic level, Chinese is actually quite easy to start speaking, as long as your sentences are short and all structures are in the present tense.

You might also notice that Chinese does not necessarily require articles, such as A car or AN apple, even though they can be used: 小李 吃 一颗 苹果 (Xiao Li Eats One [Measure Word] Apple).

Chinese Sentence Structure
EnglishCharactersPinyin
Bella rides a bike (lit. Xiao Hong Rides Bike)小红 骑 自行车xiǎohóng qí zìxíngchē
The dog bites the man (lit. Dog Bites Person)狗 咬 人gǒu yǎo rén
More examples!

Chinese Sentence Structure – Location Markers

Here, things get a little more complicated, only just a little. Don’t worry, we’re here to walk you through it!

In the case of English, whenever you wish to say that something is done in a certain location, you would put the location at the end.

For example, I study Chinese in a university.

In the case of Chinese, whenever there is an action happening, the location will be put right before the verb, so:

我在大学学中文:

Subject (I, ) + Location Marker (in University, 在大学) + Verb (Study, ) + Object (Chinese, 中文)

SubjectLocation MarkerVerbObject
在大学中文
Iin UniversityStudyChinese
我在大学学中文 is pronounced – wǒ zài dàxué xué zhōngwén

More examples:

  • He kicks a ball outside
  • 他 在 外边 踢球
  • tā zài wàibian tī qiú
  • Lit. He In Outside Kick Ball
  • Mother cooks food at home
  • 妈妈 在家 做饭
  • māmā zàijiā zuò fàn
  • Lit. Mama At Home Make Food

Chinese Sentence Structure – Time Markers

Similarly to Location Markers, Time Markers are also put right before the verb:

He went to school yesterday – 他 昨天 去 学校.

Subject (He) + Time Marker (Yesterday) + Verb (Go) + Object (School)

In the case of a combination of both Location and Time Markers, while it is not grammatically incorrect to put Location before Time, it is considerably more common to put the Time before Location. Let’s see the following example:

他昨天在大学踢球 tā zuótiān zài dàxué tī qiú

He kicked the ball in the university yesterday
SubjectTime MarkerLocation MarkerVerbObject
昨天在大学
HeYesterdayIn UniversityKickedThe ball

More examples:

  • I played the guitar on the stage yesterday
  • 我 昨天 在舞台上 弹 吉他
  • wǒ zuótiān zàiwǔtái shàng dàn jítā
  • Lit. I Yesterday On Stage Play Guitar
  • Father will eat pizza at home tomorrow
  • 爸爸 明天 在家 吃 披萨
  • bàba míngtiān zàijiā chī pīsà
  • Lit. Papa Tomorrow At Home Eat Pizza

Chinese Sentence Structure – Prepositions & Postpositions

As you might have noticed in the examples above, there are no indicators of past and future tense in Chinese.

Indicators of past and future tense in Chinese normally occur based on the context of the sentence.

In certain cases, when it is necessarily to put such indicators, those will act as prepositions and postpositions before or after the verb. We cover these in more detail in another lesson, but for now, you can note some common ones here:

  • 我 会 去 美国
  • wǒ huì qù měiguó
  • I will go to America
  • 会 = Future/Certainty Marker
  • 他 走了 很 长 时间
  • tā zǒule hěn cháng shíjiān
  • He walked for a long time
  • 了 = Marker of Completion
  • 你 正在 做什么?
  • nǐ zhèngzài zuò shénme?
  • What are you doing?
  • 正在 = Marker of Continuous Action

Chinese Sentence Structure – Complements

Another aspect of sentence structures, that is a bit more complex, are Complements.

These are grammar points that indicate HOW an action was done, working similarly to Adverbs, and marked by the Postposition 得.

These are a bit more complex, and are covered more in detail in our sections on the various Complements:

  • 狗 跑 得 快
  • gǒu pǎo dé kuài
  • The dog runs quickly
  • Potential Complement – in what manner an action is done
  • 你 吃 得 完 吗?
  • nǐ chī dé wán ma?
  • Can you finish eating?
  • Resultative Complement – What is the result of an action
  • 爸妈 走 得 出来
  • bàmā zǒu dé chūlái
  • Mom and Dad are walking out
  • Directional Complement – In which direction is an action happening

That’s your lot! We’ve covered the basics of Chinese sentence structures, but as you’ve probably guessed, there is always more to learn.

Check out our full Chinese Grammar Guide for more structures, and our Basic Mandarin Phrases blog for more sentence examples.

Here are some more useful resources if you are in the early stages of Chinese learning, or would like to refresh your knowledge:

Teacher Alwin teaches about Chinese Stroke Order, so you can write characters the correct way!

Discover the 20 most common Chinese Measure Words with full translation and sentence examples.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

How are Chinese sentences arranged?

At its base, Chinese is an SVO.

That is, (S)ubject (V)erb (O)bject, similar to English and most European languages.

Is Chinese an SVO or SOV language?

Chinese follows the SVO format (Subject + Verb + Object).

Example: Xiaoli eats an apple 小李 吃 苹果 (xiǎo lǐ chī píngguǒ)

Subject (Xiao Li) + Verb (Eat) + Object (Apple)

Is Chinese sentence structure hard?

Chinese sentence structure is not hard in the sense that the words follow the same order as in English (Subject+Verb+Object).

Basic structures are easy to learn, and we give you lots of examples for you to practice, so you shouldn’t worry about them.

Once you master the basic structures you can start studying more complex ones, such as the 把 (bǎ) Sentence or Negative Form of Verbs.

How difficult is Chinese grammar?

As for any language, Chinese grammar can be a bit confusing at first, but when you master the basics, you have a strong base of knowledge to build on.

The Chinese language is a very logical language, you’ll be surprise at how easy the grammar can be.

How can I learn Chinese effectively?

To learn Chinese effectively you can start by learning about the characters and the pinyin, then master the tones as early as possible and learn some basic vocabulary and structures to start putting sentences together.

Most importantly, find good resources to rely on, if you can get yourself a private teacher or some Chinese classes, and finally never give up on your studies.

How long does it take to learn Chinese?

The time required to learn and master Chinese will depend on a lot of various elements, such as consistency, motivation, quality or study resources, teachers etc.

To give you an idea, a student enrolling into a Semester Program at LTL is expected to reach level HSK 3 in 18 weeks of group class study (20h/week).

It is possible to get to a higher level if the student stays with a Chinese homestay or go out with Chinese friends, for example.

Chinese Grammar Bank

  • Dates in Chinese

    Grammar

    Writing the date in Chinese is not easy at first, especially because the format is not the same as in the West! Learn how to talk about the date in Chinese.

    Learn More

  • Asking Questions

    Grammar

    An essential part of learning any language is the ability to ask questions. A good thing today we will introduce you questions in Chinese then!

    Learn More

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    Johan Brandal, Student Advisor

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