Act natural

In this article I want to discuss several aspects of Chinese sentence construction that don’t always come naturally to English-speaking students.

When learning a foreign language, textbooks are good at getting the grammar right, but not so good at conveying which correct sentences are the most natural.

In this article I want to discuss several aspects of Chinese sentence construction that don’t always come naturally to English-speaking students. While these two structures don’t have to be used, when used often they make the speaker sound more fluent. Those two structures are the pre-transitive 把 (bǎ) and the topic- comment sentence.

Direct and indirect objects

First, some preliminary discussion of the basic grammar issue with respect to (). In all languages as far as I know, the simplest of all sentences is Subject-Verb. (I ate.)  Almost as basic is Subject-Verb-Object. (“I ate dumplings.” “I ate dinner.”) Once these three basic elements are in place, lots of other things – in English, verbs, prepositions, possessive, relative or objective pronouns, etc. – can be added to make the meaning more complex or more precise.

Many languages also distinguish between the direct object and the indirect object — I gave him the book, book being what was given, the direct object of gave, and him being the recipient of what was given.  Chinese makes this distinction, but always introduces its indirect objects with the character (gěi). For example, “I bought her that Chinese book”: 我给她买了那本中文书 (Wǒ gěi tā mǎi le nà běn Zhōngwén shū). Note that -IO can be placed either before the verb or after the direct object, so that 我买了那本中文书给她 (Wǒ mǎi le nà běn Zhōngwén shū gěi tā) is also acceptable. In English, the recipient of the book can be put after the verb and the direct object, but here the object now becomes an object of a preposition rather than an indirect object – “I bought that book for her.“ Native English speakers can judge for themselves whether the emphasis or feel of that sentence is different. I’m not sure “I bought for her that book” is wrong, but at least I know it sounds unnatural.

Note that while performing this indirect-object-marker function, when used as a verb itself (gěi) also means “to give.”  Whether this reflects a greater value attached in Chinese culture to doing things on behalf of other people (thus “giving” them the gift of that action) I cannot say; this general claim that language determines or reflects culture is not universally shared among linguists.


In any event, there is one difference in how Chinese can place objects that really marks the student as someone who speaks more sophisticated Chinese. That marker is .

English divides verbs into transitive and intransitive. A transitive verb takes at least a direct object – for example, “I did that homework.” (It might also, but need not, take an indirect object.) A nice-sounding Chinese equivalent of this sentence (call it sentence 1) is 我把那个功课做完(Wǒ bǎ nà ge gōngkè zuòwán le) Note first the order of this Chinese sentence: first comes the subject (I, , wǒ), then ,  which alerts the listener or reader that an object is coming. Then comes the object itself (that homework, 那个功課, nà ge gōngkè), and only then the verb plus what is called a complement, i.e. a V-C, indicating some result of Verb-ing (here , to finish, so that the entire Chinese “verb” is 做完, do-finish; in standard English “finish doing”).

English generally has nothing similar to the complement. The idea expressed in the Chinese complement is expressed in English in a variety of ways – for example, directly in the verb itself. (死掉, sǐdiào, has the English translation of “to die,” expressing the additional meaning of “out,” “disappearing,” “being eliminated”). The tense can also be adjusted, as in “did” in the English version of sentence 1. Auxiliary words that vary depending on the complement can also be added. For example, 做好 is translated as “to do (something) well.”

Whenever is used, the verb must have such a complement (there are many) attached to the verb. Reflecting the deep way in which this verb+complement thinking runs through the grammatical instincts of native Chinese speakers, when Chén laoshī and I were discussing this article in Chinese, she used the mixed phrase “delete ,” which in English would have to be translated as “delete out,” something a native English speaker would never say. “Delete” itself already includes the idea of (diào).

As an aside, at the end of the above sentence, because this is an action that has been completed, there is the character . How to use this last character (it has other uses beyond marking a completed action) is a topic for another day. I have had all kinds of trouble with it over the years; Chén lǎoshī could tell you stories…

So one possible Chinese sentence order, in contrast to the English one, is not S-V-O but S O-V-C.

This post merely introduces (bǎ). There are many places online where you can get further guidance on how to use it properly. (In written Chinese the character 将 (jiāng) can often also be used to perform the same function.) But here I want to talk about natural Chinese. It is true that sentence 1 can also be written in the English order without (bǎ), 我做完那个功课了, Wǒ zuòwán nà ge gōngkè le. (Call this sentence 2.) While Chinese is very flexible in this regard, please don’t assume that Chinese grammar has no rules, although it has fewer than English and all other languages I have studied.

But as far as I am concerned (and I remember one of my teachers many years ago saying much the same), 我做完那个功课了 (Wǒ zuòwán nà ge gōngkè le), while not grammatically wrong, just doesn’t sound as authentic, as elegant.

The topic-comment sentence structure

The sequence of parts of speech in Chinese is pretty flexible, although not without limit. In addition to sentence 1, another common sentence form for the above thought is seen in: 那个功课, 我做完了 (Nà ge gōngkè, wo zuòwán le) (sentence 3).

This sentence directly translates as “That homework, I finished it,” with the order O-S-V (). In English one will probably only use that sentence in conversation and not in writing, and only if one had been talking about homework previously, switched topics and then wanted to refer back to the topic of that homework. (That homework, I finished it by the way.) Or maybe one would use it if through tone of voice one wants to imply the homework was unusual in some way —very hard or very easy, for example, in which case it would be the two sentences “That homework? I finished it.”

In Chinese, however, this practice of putting the topic that you want to talk about at the front of the sentence and then adding what you wish to say about it (including the subject, which generally comes first in English) is common.

So the Chinese topic in a topic-comment sentence, in other words, need not be the same as the English subject, which in all three sentences was “I.” The subject in English is often the taker of the action, and often the remainder of the sentence emphasizes what action that taker took. Chinese sentences, in contrast, sometimes don’t even need a subject. While all three sentences discussed here are grammatically acceptable in Chinese, the one that most closely resembles the English structure, with the default subject-verb-object pattern, is, in my opinion, the least smooth translation.

One doesn’t want to turn every sentence into topic-comment or use in every sentence where it can be used, but frequent use of the structures makes one sound more natural. It’s a judgment call of course, and I can’t claim to have made the right judgment all the time.

Some Thing I've Learner on the Way

Evan Osborne (歐思博) is a professor of economics at Wright State University in Ohio. He has studied Chinese off and on for almost 30 years. Once for three months in Taiwan he had Chen lǎoshī as a teacher, and considers her to be the best of the well over 30 teachers he has had in the various languages he has studied.

Posted by Evan Osborne

Learn Chinese - Some Things I've Learned on the Way

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: