If you need to include the place where an action takes place, you can use 在 (zài). Just pay close attention to word order, as this is one case in which Chinese word order is quite different from English.
To indicate the location that a verb takes place in, 在 (zài), followed by a location, comes before the verb.
Subj. + 在 + Place + Verb + Obj.
Notice that the location is placed before the verb in Chinese, whereas in English it appears afterwards.
Wǒ zài Shànghǎi shàng dàxué.
I went to college in Shanghai.
Nǐ yīzhí zài zhè jiā gōngsī gōngzuò ma?
Have you always been working in this company?
Wǒ zhōumò xiǎng zài jiā shuìjiào.
On the weekend, I want to sleep at home.
Bù yào zài chuáng shàng chī dōngxi.
Don't eat food on the bed.
[Special note: In addition to "在" you need a "上" to indicate the location "on the bed."]
Nǐ xiǎng zài nǎr kāi shēngrì pàiduì?
Where do you want to have the birthday party?
Tā xǐhuan zài cèsuǒ lǐ chōuyān.
He likes to smoke in the bathroom.
[Special note: In addition to "在" you need a "里" to indicate the location "in the bathroom."]
Hěn duō rén zài dìtiě shàng chī zǎofàn.
Many people eat breakfast on the subway.
[Special note: In addition to "在" you need a "上" to indicate the location "in the subway."]
- 现在我们在 KTV 唱歌。
Xiànzài wǒmen zài KTV chànggē.
Now we're singing songs at karaoke.
Lǎobǎn zài huìyìshì jiàn kèhù.
The boss is seeing the client in the meeting room.
Nǐ zài wàimiàn chī guo wǎnfàn le ma?
Did you eat dinner outside?
Remember: in English we usually put the location at the end of a sentence. In Chinese, we put the location after the subject but before the verb. The location before the verb in the sentence is what I will call the “adverbial phrase” location. Adverbs, and adverbial phrases, always go right before verbs in Chinese. Locations are a type of adverbial phrase, since they provide more specific information about the circumstances in which the action denoted by the verb happened.
Getting More Specific with Locations
Rather than just using 在 (zài) to mean "at" a location, you might want to use it to mean "in," "on," or "under" a specific location. To do this, you'll need to add an extra word after the location. We’ll learn more about these types of characters later on. For now, you can refer to the examples shown above that have notes on which characters need to be added in certain situations.
Use of Special Characters with 在 (zài)
Sometimes, a special character, 里 ('inside'), follows the noun associated with 在 (zài). Whether or not to use this character depends on how much the speaker wishes to emphasize the spatial relationship being described.
Consider the following two phrases in English:
- "in this company"
- "in the bathroom"
For these two examples, one phrase literally means "inside" the bathroom, while the other means only "within the group or place considered the company" and not literally inside a spatial location. In English, the relationship between worker and company is likewise a little more figurative and less spatially specific, when we say "work at a company" or "work for a company."
The phrase that requires more specificity about the spatial relationship contains the character 里 ('inside') while the other does not.
Here is another way to analyze these same two examples:
- 在这家公司工作 ('work at this company' or 'work for this company')
[Note: MW = measure word]
- 在厕所里 ('in the bathroom')
Using 在 (zài) to Talk About Where You Study
Question: I'm having trouble figuring out how to say, "I study at the University of Hawaii at Hilo". Can I just say 我学习夏威夷大学？According to Google Translate, it says I'm supposed to say 我在夏威夷大学学习。Are any of these correct?
Answer: You do need a term equivalent to "at" when saying this in Chinese, which in this case is 在 ("at"). The sentence that Google Translate has given you is acceptable. Here's a word-by-word analysis of that sentence:
Wǒ zài Xiàwēiyí dàxué xuéxí.
I at Hawaii University study
"I am a student at the University of Hawai'i."
You could also specify that you study at UH Hilo. To do this, it's helpful to understand that 夏威夷大学 (University of Hawai'i) can be abbreviated as 夏大 ("UH"). Thus, "University of Hawai'i at Hilo" is 夏威夷大學希洛分校, and "UH-Hilo" is 夏大希洛分校 (literally, "UH Hilo branch school") or, if you've already established 夏大希洛分校 in the context of a conversation, then later on you could refer to it as just 夏大希洛 ("UH-Hilo").
Therefore, you could say:
Wǒ zài Xiàdà Xīluò fēnxiào xuéxí.
I at UH Hilo branch-school study
"I am a student at UH-Hilo."
Alternatively, let's say you were responding to someone who doesn't necessarily understand that Hilo is on the Big Island. In that case, in your response you could further specify that you go to college on the Big Island, as follows:
Wǒ zài Xiàwēiyí dà dǎo de Xiàdà Xīluò fēnxiào xuéxí.
I at Hawai'i Big Island DE.belonging UH Hilo branch-school study
"I am a student at UH-Hilo."
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If you have any questions about this grammar point, please ask in the class forums!