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Learning Chinese already seems like a daunting task what with 5 (sort of) spoken tones and Chinese characters, and although the word ‘grammar’ might make you want to head for the hills, once you learn some basic sentence patterns, you’ll be well on your way to making sentences in Chinese.
Obviously, there are other sentence patterns to learn, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. Master these 10 sentence patterns for beginners of Chinese first before moving on to the bigger fish (and they’re not really that big).
Once you’ve gotten to grips with these patterns, check out some of the more advanced articles listed throughout and at the end of this article!
1. 是 (shì) means ‘to be’ and joins two noun phrases.
N + 是 (shì) + N
他是学生。(tā shì xué sheng) He is a student.
我是老师。 (wǒ shì lǎo shī) I am a teacher.
Negate 是 (shì) with 不 (bù):
N + 不是 (bú shì) + N
她不是美国人。(tā bú shì měi guó rén) She is not American.
这本书不是我的。(zhè běn shū bú shì wǒ de) This book is not mine.
Note: You may notice that by itself, 不 has the 4th downward tone (bù), but when together with 是 has a second tone (bú). Once you’ve mastered these 10 basics, you might want to take a look at how some tones change depending on the arrangement of characters. Don’t stress out about this though, it’ll come naturally over time!
N + 很 (hěn) + Adj
他很聪明。(tā hěn cōng ming) He is smart.
2. Use 在 (zài) to indicate location
在 (zài) has many usages, but is most commonly used as a verb meaning ‘at’. Use it in between a ‘something’ and a place to show where something is.
Subject + 在 (zài) + Place
他在家。(tā zài jiā) He is at home.
我的裙子在衣柜里面。(wǒ de qún zi zài yī guì lǐ miàn) My dress is inside the wardrobe.
Negate 在 (zài) with 不 (bù) :
我不在咖啡店。(wǒ bú zài kā fēi diàn) I’m not at the coffee shop.
3. Use 有 (yǒu) to say ‘to have’
有 (yǒu) means ‘to have’ and can be used when the subject possesses something.
Since there is no conjugation of verbs in Chinese, 有 (yǒu) is used for both ‘have’ and ‘has’.
Subject + 有 (yǒu) + object
我有一个妹妹。(wǒ yǒu yī gè mèi mei.) I have a younger sister.
他有白头发了。(tā yǒu bái tóu fa le) He has had white hair already.
Negate 有 (yǒu) with 没有 (méi yǒu) .
Subject + 没有 (méi yǒu) + object
我没有哥哥。(wǒ méi yǒu gē ge) I don’t have an older brother.
4. Use 要 (yào) to say ‘want’
要 (yào), in my opinion, may be the most important verb in Chinese, since it can used in many ways, and is also pretty essential to day-to-day conversation.
Subject + 要 (yào) + Object
我要一个苹果。(wǒ yào yī gè píng guǒ) I want an apple
要 (yào) can also be used to describe something that will happen in the future:
我要吃蛋糕。(wǒ yào chī dàn gāo.) I want to eat cake.
Negate 要 (yào) with 不 (bù):
Subject + 不要 (bù yào) + Object
他不要吃蛋糕。(tā (bù yào chī dàn gāo) He doesn’t want to eat cake.
5. Use 不 (bù) and 没有 (méi yǒu) to negate verbs
不 (bù) / 没 (méi) + verb
不 (bù) is used to negate adjectival, stative and modal verbs.
他不喝茶。(tā bù hē chá) He doesn’t drink tea.
我不喜欢吃肉。(wǒ bù xǐ huan chī ròu.) I don’t like to eat meat.
没 (méi) is used to negate the verb 有 (yǒu):
她没有时间。(tā méi yǒu shí jiān) She doesn’t have time.
我还没有吃饭。(wǒ hái méi yǒu chī fàn.) I still haven’t eaten.
6. Use 的 (de) to indicate possession
To say that someone has something use the particle 的 (de). 的 (de) does have other uses, but for now, let’s just stick with possession.
If you’re curious about how else 的 (de) is used, you can take a look at our article about 的 (de) and his 2 brothers (they’re real characters) 得 and 地.)
possessor + 的 (de) + possessed noun
他的手机。(tā de shǒu jī) His mobile phone.
Possessed noun + possessor + 的 (de)
这本书是你的。(zhè běn shū shì nǐ de) This is your book.
Quite often, you can associate 的 (de) with an apostrophe in English, indicating possession.
小猫的眼睛。 (xiǎo māo de yǎn jing) The cat’s eyes.
7. 吗 to ask yes-no questions
When 吗 (ma) is added to the end of a question, a statement becomes a yes-no question:
她是法国人吗？ (tā shì fǎ guó rén ma?) Is she French?
你会说中文吗？ (nǐ huì shuō zhōng wén ma?) Can you speak Chinese?
你们有草莓吗？ (nǐ men yǒu cǎo méi ma?) Do you have strawberries?
The response to these questions can often just be the statement minus the 吗 (ma) and with the addition of the negation (不 or 没) depending on the situation:
她不是 (法国人)。(tā bú shì ( fǎ guó rén)) She isn’t (French).
(我们) 没有 (草莓)。((wǒ men) méi yǒu (cǎo méi)) (We) don’t have (strawberries).
You might want to recap #5 to learn how to negate verbs.
8. Time Phrase position
Subject + time phrase + predicate
我每天都要工作。(wǒ měi tiān dōu yào gōng zuò) I work every day.
If time is emphasized, it can come before the subject:
Time phrase + subject + predicate
昨天他不太舒服。(zuó tiān tā bù tài shū fu) Yesterday he wasn’t well. (a bit uncomfortable)
9. Verb + 了 (le) to indicate a change of state.
Since verbs don’t change in Chinese, the 了 (le) particle can be used to indicate that something has been done or completed.
Verb + 了 (le)
你瘦了。(nǐ shòu le) You’ve lost weight.
我懂了。(wǒ dǒng le) I understand! (now)
他去上课了。(tā qù shàng kè le) He had class.
10. Begin with the Subject
Most of the time, the subject goes at the beginning of a sentence. The subject is the person or thing that is doing something.
你去哪儿？ (nǐ qù nǎr?) Where are you going？
这是什么? (zhè shì shén me) What is this?
她是谁？(tā shì shéi?) Who is her?
你现在有空吗？(nǐ xiàn zài yǒu kòng ma?) Are you available now?
If you’re comfortable with these 10 rules, you might want to look at the following posts on more specific Chinese sentence patterns:
- 比 bǐ and 没有 méi yǒu: Making Comparisons in Mandarin Chinese
- A Simple Guide to Chinese Sentences: Sentence Types
- A Simple Guide to Chinese Sentences: Structure
- The Different Uses of 在 zai in Chinese
- What’s the Difference Between 有点儿 youdianr & 一点儿 yidianr?
- You & Me. This & That: Pronouns in Chinese