5.6: Lesson 4 Grammar - Chinese word order with time, place, and attributives
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You may have heard that word order in Chinese is similar to that of English and, compared to a language like Japanese, it is. Fairly quickly, though, you'll realize there are quite a few ways that the word order of even relatively simple sentences simply don't match in Chinese and English.
The Basic SVO Sentence
On the most basic level of how subjects precede verbs, and objects follow verbs, Chinese word order very closely matches English word order. "SVO" stands for "Subject-Verb-Object”, and both Chinese and English use SVO word order. For extremely simple sentences like "I like pandas” or “he drinks tea,” the word order of Chinese matches that of English, literally, word for word. Keep in mind that "SVO" doesn't include little details like articles (a, the, etc.) or prepositions (to, for, etc.).
Subject + Verb + Object
SVO word order examples
- Subject > Verb > Object
- 我 爱 你 。
S V O
I love you.
- 你 吃 饭 。
S V O
You eat food.
- 他 踢 足球 。
S V O
He plays soccer.
This concept shouldn't take long at all to master, but you can see more examples in our basic sentence order article. For the most part, this word order makes sense "by default" for English speakers.
Adding extra information to a sentence
More details can be added to the basic sentence structure. How to do this is demonstrated below.
Placement of time words in a sentence
Time words, the WHEN part of a sentence, have a special place in Chinese. They usually come at the beginning of a sentence, right after the subject. Occasionally you'll see them before the subject, but the place you won't be seeing them is at the end of the sentence where they frequently appear in English.
Placement of Time Words
- Subject > Time when (TW) > Verb phrase
- 我 今天 工作 。
S TW V
I am working today.
- 你们 每天 洗澡 。
S TW V
I shower every day.
- 他 星期二 来 。
S TW V
He is coming on Tuesday.
Placement of place words in a sentence
When you want to tell WHERE something happened in Chinese (at school, at work, in Vegas, on the bus, etc.), you're most often going to use a phrase beginning with 在. This phrase needs to come after the time word (see above) and before the verb. Pay attention to this last part: before the verb. In English, this information naturally comes after the verb, so it's going to be difficult at first to get used to saying WHERE something happened before saying the verb.
Placement of place words
- Subject > Time when (TW) > Place word (PW) > Verb phrase
- 我 在上海 工作 。
S PW V
I work in Shanghai.
- 你们 星期六 在家 看 电影 。
S TW PW V O
I watch movies at home on Saturdays.
- 她 1980年 在美国 出生 。
S TW PW V
She-1980-in the USA-born
She was born in the United States in 1980.
For some common exceptions to this word order, please see the following section.
Exceptions to the normal placement of place words
There are some special verbs which seem to be allowed to break the rules (see also location complements). For these special verbs, the WHERE information comes after the verb rather than before. Generally, this is when the post-verbal place word denotes a destination or place someone or someone could or did move to in order to do the action denoted by the verb.
It's important to remember that these verbs are exceptions. If you're not sure where the place phrase should go, it's usually safer to put it before the verb. This is the normal way to modify a verb in Chinese.
Exception to place word location in sentences
- Subject > Time when (TW) > Place word (PW) > Verb phrase > Place word (PW)
- 我们 住 在中国 。
S V PW
We live in China.
- 他 走 到外面 。
S V PW
We walked outside.
- 他 刚才 坐 在房间里 。
S TW V PW
He-just now-sit-at the room in
He sat in the room just now.
Placement of duration in a sentence
Whenever you talk about FOR HOW LONG, you're getting into duration. It's not the same as a regular time word; it has its own rules.
Placement of duration
- Subject > Time when > Place word > Verb phrase > Place word > Time duration (Dur)
- 我 住 在中国 三年 了。
S V PW Dur LE
I-live-in China-three years-LE
I have lived in China for three years.
- 我 去年 在北京 学习 了 三个月。
S TW PW V LE Dur
I-last year-in Beijing-study-LE-three months
Last year I studied in Beijing for three months.
- 他 上个星期 在家里 看 电视 看 了 二十个小时。
S TW PW V O V LE Dur
He-last week-at home-watch-TV-watch-LE-twenty hours
Last week he watched television at home for twenty hours.
Order of attributives
Sometimes, a noun will have more than one detail that you want to express. When this is the case, Chinese has a specific order for the attributives that describe the noun. It's important to keep this order in mind as you are describing something.
- Possessives such as "my," "his," or "Sarah's."
- Demonstrative pronouns (这 'this' or 那 'that'), number, and measure word.
- Any adjectives that you want to use to describe the noun.
- The noun or noun phrase
Remember, it isn't necessary to include every single one of these attributes, but when they are all present , this is the order that they should come in. If some are missing, just jump over that section and move onto the next. The examples below will help make this clearer.
- 我的 这 三个孩子 都 很听话。
my-these-three kids-all-very obedient
These three kids of mine are all very obedient.
- 这个 红色的 小 盒子 里面 有 什么？
What is inside this little red box?
[adapted from AllSet Learning Chinese Grammar Wiki, Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA 3.0]
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