Western Mind-Chinese Grammar

Posted on June 27, 2015

Chinese grammar hurts my head.

I have a rather classical education. Did Latin for 6 years, (ancient) Greek for 3; studied English, French, and German. The first two years of high school we had a subject that focused exclusively on grammar (albeit in the context of Dutch). As part of my computer science degree I studied formal (mathematical) grammar. I thought I understood language structure.

Then I started learning Chinese.

Completed actions

Chinese does not have a concept of tense (it does not make a grammatical distinction between past tense, present tense and future tense). Instead it marks verbs for aspect: is the action completed (了), in progress (在), an ongoing state (着), something you experienced in the past (过)? An example of a completed action:

I went to school. 我去学校了。 (lit.: I go school 了)

This by itself is not hard. Things get a little trickier however when we add a time reference into the sentence. Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

I went to school today. 我今天去学校了。 (lit.: I today go school 了)
I went to school at 9am. 我是九点去学校的。 (lit.: I 是 9am go school 的; “I am one who went to school at 9am”)

Apparently to a Chinese mind there is a clear diference between “I went to school today” and “I went to school at 9am”. This 是…的 structure is typically used for emphasis; for example

I was born in Taiwan. 我在台湾出生。 (lit.: I in Taiwan born)
I was born in Taiwan. (Emphatic) 我是在台湾出生的。 (lit.: I 是 in Taiwan born 的; “I am one who was born in Taiwan”)

Perhaps this explains why we need 是…的 for “9 am” but not for “today”; after all, in “what did you do today?” there is much less emphasis on the time than in “What did you do at 9am?”.

It gets more confusing still when we add the question word “what”. Consider

What did you do? 你做了什么? (lit.: You do 了 what?)
What did you today? 你今天做了什么? (lit.: You today do 了 what?)
What did you do this evening? 你今晚做的什么? (lit.: You this evening do 的 what?)

What’s going on here? Is this the same emphasis construction again? No, it is not. Although it is indeed true that 是 can be omitted in the 是…的 construction, we can not say ❌你是今晚做的什么?

This is in fact a different construction altogether. In a sense 是 is omitted from this sentence, but the sentence is actually short for

What did you do this evening? 你今晚做的(事情)是什么? (“The (thing) you did this evening is what?”)

In other words, the subject of this sentence has shifted from “you” to “the thing you did this evening”.


This shift in subject happens in other places too. For example, compare

I have read 20 more books than you. 我比你多看了 20 本书。 (lit.: I compare you more read 了 20 <mw.> book)
I have read more books than you. 我看的书比你的多。 (“The books I have read outnumber the books you have read”)

Note how the subject shifts from “I” in the first sentence to “the books I have read” in the second.

In fact, deciding what exactly is the subject of a sentence can be rather confusing to my Western mind. Partly this is because Chinese often does not make a difference between active and passive voice3. For example, 无聊 can either mean “boring” or “bored”.

Where 了 marks completed actions, the aspect marker 在 indicates an ongoing action, and 着 indicates a “state resulting from an action”. For example1

She is putting on an overcoat. 她在穿大衣。 (lit.: She 在 put on overcoat)
She is wearing an overcoat. 她穿着大衣。 (lit.: She put on 着 overocat)

In this example 着 is changing the meaning of 穿 from “to put on” to “to be wearing”. This is all straight-forward so far, but now consider

to lock the door 锁门 (lit.: lock door)
the door is locked 门锁着 (lit.: door lock 着)

It seems not only did the aspect change, but we also changed from active voice (to lock something) to passive voice (to be locked). This change from active to passive can occur with or without 着:

He is preparing dinner. 他在做饭。 (lit.: He 在 prepare dinner)
Dinner is ready. 饭做好了。 (lit.: Dinner prepare successful 了)

Again, the meaning of 做 seems to shift form “to prepare” to ”to be prepared”.

But it gets weirder. Consider2

There is a vase of flowers on the desk. 书桌上放着一瓶花。 (On the desk put 着 vase of flowers)
There are a lot of people standing in the street. 街上站着很多人。 (In the street stand 着 a lot of people)

How are we to understand these sentences? We can again consider the meaning of 放 to shift from “to put” to “to be put”, but even then there is something strange going on here: 一瓶花 (a vase of flowers) seems to be in the object position in the sentence here, not the subject position. If the vase of flowers is the object, what is the subject? And while it’s perhaps not so strange for a vase of flowers to be the object of “to put”, are we really to think of “a lot of people” to be the object of “to stand”?

One way out is to regard this as an ergative structure: we consider the “vase of flowers” or the “lot of people” still to be the subject of the sentence, it just so happens that in this sentence the subject appears in the object position; then “on the desk” and “in the street” are just location expressions。

Not everyone agrees with this interpretation, however. Maybe we really can think of “on the desk” or “in the street” as the subject of the sentence; a bit like this perhaps2

There are three hotels nearby. 附近有三个旅馆。 (“The area nearby has three hotels”)

Here it is not so strange to think of “three hotels” as the object of “to have”. And we can sort of do this in English with other verbs as well; for example, we can say “This table seats 4 people”. Perhaps by analogy we can think of 街上站着很多人 as “This street stands lots of people” (although the meaning isn’t quite the same of course: it doesn’t mean the street has capacity for lots of people, but rather than there really are lots of people standing on the street). This would stretch the meaning of 放 pretty far: not just “to put” and “to be put”, but also “to have something put on” (like the table having the vase put on it); similarly, 站 would both be “to stand” and “to have something stood on”.

Whichever explanation you prefer (I prefer thinking of this as an ergative structure myself, it makes much more sense to me), part of what makes this so frustrating for me is that most textbooks introduce examples such as “There is a vase of flowers on the desk” in the chapter on 着 simply alongside an example such as “She is wearing an overcoat.” without any comment; as if we didn’t just change from active to passive voice, as if this isn’t a very strange sentence structure. Possibly to a Chinese mind there really isn’t much difference between these two sentences, but to my mind they are completely different.

In a next life

Reading these Chinese examples poses no real difficulty: their meaning can be guessed easily enough. But constructing sentences is hard. Chinese makes distinctions between sentences that to my Western ears have precisely the same structure: for past tense, do I use 了 or 是…的? Moreover, it carves up the world in different slices; the subject of an English sentence might not correspond to the subject of its Chinese translation; should the subject be “I” or “the thing I did tonight”, “lots of people” or “in the street”? The meaning of Chinese words seems very flexible, stretching in ways their English translations cannot.

They say that being bilingual widens your perspective. I am fluent in English and Dutch, but I’ve always thought it doesn’t make much of a difference. But perhaps these two languages are so similar it doesn’t really count. Perhaps my perspective will indeed have changed once I become fluent in Chinese. I will let you know. In a next life, perhaps.

With many thanks to all the poor native speakers that I regularly subject to interrogation in my desperate attempts to make sense of Chinese grammar.


1. Chinese: An Essential Grammar, second edition, Yip Po-Ching and Don Rimmington. Routledge, 1997.
2. Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar, second edition, Claudia Ross and Jing-heng Sheng Ma. Routledge, 2006.
3. The Languages of China, S. Robert Ramsey. Princeton University Press, 1987.