Sunday, April 29, 2012

The sentence with (the girl with (the dragon tattoo) )

One thing that made Chinese slow for me to pick up was the sentence structure - it is far less linear than English, or indeed than the couple of other languages I learned at school.

The subject of this article is stated somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it gives an idea of how I had to start perceiving Chinese sentences before I could work out what was going on. I've had this article in my mind for sometime now, but every time I've tried to write it I've ended up getting frustrated at my (in)ability to put into words what had become more natural to me after studying hundreds off sentences through flashcards, and reading even more through casual (low-level!) reading.

Learn by Example

So I've decided rather to just give a few example sentences, in the hope that by highlighting this for you - especially if Chinese is not yet natural-feeling for you - it might add value. If you have alternative explanations, or other examples, or better linear translations, please leave your comments below.

tl;dr: Try to think in terms of bracketing phrases to more easily understand Chinese.

(Note that if my explanations confuse you, just ignore them - put the sentences in your flashcard pack and learn them. What? You don't use flashcards yet??? Well now is a great time to begin ...)

A. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
龙纹身的女孩 龍紋身的女孩"
lóng wénshēn de nǚhái

The literal translation of the above sentence is "dragon tattoo'd girl". If we tried to stick with English, we might do something like 女孩龙纹身 or 女孩龙纹身, but according to a native-speaker I was chatting with, this sounds more like there is a girl, and there is a dragon tattoo. Separate things.

B. People who want tattoos should go to a professional tattoo shop
yào​ wénshēn​ de rén​, bìxū​ qù​ zhuānyè​ de wénshēndiàn​

Since we're chatting about tattoos, here's another sentence from my flashcard pack. What I remember clearly about this sentence when I first learned it (2 years ago, according to Anki :-) was that the opening phrase was translated as "(want tattoo)'d people", rather than what I instinctively tried to say, which was roughly "那些人要文身,他们必须...". Clearly mine was clumsier.

We see the same format in the second part: "(professional)'d (tattoo shop)", but that is more obvious to us English-speakers because we mentally identify 'professional' as an adjective. What I'm saying here is we could see the part of 'wanting a tattoo' as an adjective to 'people', and things would make more sense.

C. From the moment that I met her, I hated her
zìcóng wǒ rènshi tā de shíhou, wǒ jiù hèn tā

Again, showing brackets into the sentence to show what is happening, we get:
     From (I met her)'s time, I hated her
This is so much nicer than literally trying to say "From. the. time. that ...".  Once you're more comfortable with Chinese, there won't be anything amazing about this sentence - it will feel very natural - but it clearly is a bit of a leap from a linear translation of the sentence.

D. What's a pretty girl like you doing here all alone?
xiàng nǐ zhèyàng de měinǚ zěnme huì luòdān?

I've used this sentence in a previous post, but this time focusing on the sentence structure. Using brackets, it looks like this:
     like you (this kind of girl) how come alone?
I'm frustrating myself again trying to describe what is happening, rather than just leaving you to read the sentence, and see for yourself. So I'll now leave you simply to read the sentence and see for yourself ...

E. He is a man full of adventure
ta shi yige chōng​mǎn mào​xiǎn jīng​shén de ren

This is another really simple sentence, which is simply:
     he is a (...)'d person
I think that trying to linearly translate this would produce something like the following, which is terrible:
     he is a man, his characteristics are to be full of adventure

F. I met my wife on a blind date
wǒ hé wǒ de qīzǐ shì tōngguò xiāngqīn rènshi de

Literally this is:
     me and my wife are (through blind-date)'d met
Sorry for the grammatically incorrect use of " 'd " but I hope it's helpful to identify the adjectival phrase which is happening. (And yes, I'm also aware it should be "My wife and I ...")

It's worth noting that I'm not saying this is the only way to translate this sentence, and in this case you might be able to come up with a relatively good linear translation. However, the key is that when you're listening to someone, or reading Chinese, your brain needs to act relatively quickly to put these notional brackets into place to allow the concepts to be sorted and understood.

G. People should have the ability to think for themselves
rén yàoyǒu dúlì sīkǎo de nénglì

People should have (independent thinking)'d ability

H. There are many things which can cause heart disease
zàochéng xīnzàngbìng de yuányīn yǒu hěnduō

(causing heart attack)'s causes are many

I. Avoid being subjective and one-sided when looking at problems
kàn wèn​tí de shíhou yào bì​miǎn zhǔ​guān piàn​miàn

(look at problems)'s time, you should ...

J. The houses are sold out within this price range
zai zhege jiàwèi fànwéi zhīnèi de fángzi yǐ shòuwán

Note how the whole phrase about a being within a certain price range, is turned into an adjectival phrase which applies to the houses:
     (within this price range)'d houses are already sold

K. Insurance companies do not cover any accident which is caused by an act of God
bǎoxiǎn​gōngsī bùhuì lǐpéi rènhé yóu tiā​zāi suǒ yǐn​qǐ de yìwài​shìgù

insurers do not pay any (caused by an act of God)'d accidents

L. When we decide which sickness rates we need, I will ask you to help provide it.
dāng quèdìng xūyào nǎ jǐ xiàng jí​bìng de fā​shēng​lǜ shí, wǒ zài qǐng nínmen bāng​máng tí​gōng

This is an extract from an email from a client of mine, where the clarifying phrase applies to time again.      (when we decide which sickness rates we need)'d time, I will ask you ...

M. Don't disappoint your parents
不要辜负父母(对你)的期待 不要辜負父母對你的期待
bùyào gūfù fùmǔ duì nǐ de qīdài

I'll leave you to think about this one, but depending where you put the brackets it might look like your own expectations, or those of your parents. What should it be?

Use your Mental Brackets

If (you enjoy (the thoughts that I wrote down here)'d article)'s time, please (at (below-situated)'d area) leave comments.


  1. This was an AMAZING refresher for me, Greg. Your Chinese is impeccable -- I can't get over how much you've learned in such a short time! I've decided over the summer that I'm going to get back into studying Chinese nonstop again. I really, really do and have always loved it; it is the language that I was simply meant to learn. I hope to visit China plenty of times during my life and make it happen! Thank you so much for being an inspiration, Greg. You are truly phenomenal :)

  2. Hi Kara, you say the kindest things. I hadn't heard from you in a while - I hope all is good with you.

    Glad to hear you'll be working on Chinese again - you had got so far, definitely worth keeping momentum. I'm also pleased that this article has inspired someone - it's relatively technical and I was worried it would cause people to quit Chinese :-)

    PS. I can't take credit for producing the sentences, but I will take credit for studying & understanding them :-)

  3. Nice work! English subordinate-clause word order is a habit I'm still working on trying to break...

    Also, I'm going to write a post about habits one of these days, and I will probably link back to this...

    Also, it's interesting to me how often the apostrophe-/d/ you use in your English equivalents corresponds with 的. Is that a thing?

    Again, great work! :)

  4. Hi JP, always a pleasure

    Ah, "sub-ordinate-clause" ... will get around to studying linguistics when I'm happy enough with my Chinese :-)

    I also had a 'habits' article planned, but you go first. There was one about bad habits on the Lingomi blog which was good.

    Yeah, I (add)'d the ('d) to make it an adjective, since I couldn't think of a better way. In fact my article article that I drafted used a ... Ah, wait. Now I'm giving my secrets away. You'll have to wait for that to come out.

    And yes it is a thing. Well, it is now.

  5. Hi there..nice post.
    I'm a newbie to learn mandarin, I don't even memorize the alphabet. Can you show me, the easiest way to learn it tq.

    1. Hi Awin, thanks for your comment. I previously wrote a post about starting to learn Chinese ... you can find it here.

  6. Greg, everything's great! Moving onto my third year in my studies (psych with minors bio & philosophy). Other than that, just have been working. School ends this week so looking forward to summer :)

    And don't worry about the article being so technical -- if you quit a language or some other skill/ technique over something like this, you're not a hard enough worker to be learning it in the first place ;)


    1. Third year already? Fantastic - good luck! And I guess you're right about that "in the first place" thing. Enjoy your summer break!

  7. A very good post - very impressive Greg. Wow that you're using this with some of your clients.

    A lot of the sentences especially in the last half are too advanced for me, so I will have to check back again in the future - maybe two years... :) The concept of including brackets is cool. I haven’t thought of doing that - but it certainly does help simplifying it.

    My first taste of the usage of 的 (beyond indicating simple possessive form) was with sentences like ‘你做的饭很好吃‘ and ‘这是玻璃做的。
    The usage of 的 serves multiple purposes and it seems that words that exist in English like ‘of’, ‘which’ ‘that’, ‘whom‘ that connect clauses(whatever they’re called) don’t quite appear in Mandarin the same way so these sub clauses you’d put in brackets move their position from coming after the main noun in an Enlish sentence contruction to sit before the main noun in Mandarin sentences and the 的 then replaces words like ‘of’, 'which', 'with' etc. e.g. A. The Girl [with the Dragon Tattoo]
    So a few of my personal comments - just to show that I’ve taken the time to actually really look at this:
    I’m getting a bit more familiar with sentences similar to C e.g. I tweeted this the other day and I hope it was correct :)在2006我第一学的时候我用了繁汉字。但是只学三个星期。

    D - I don’t ever pick-up girls, so thought that was a good excuse to skip this one... ;D

    E. This one gets difficult too but I guess I’d translate it more directly as ‘he is a (full of) adventure spirit de person’. (Ignore my brackets - just not sure about that translation).

    F. More words in your sentence and most of them unfamiliar to me, but I think it’s the same sort of structure as this sentence which I often use. ‘我是从南非来的‘’.

    J & L (and some of the remaining ones) > Gulp... more gulps...

    M: to me it suggests the expectations the parents have of you or 你 in the sentence.

    1. Firstly Peckish, thanks for your write-up about 的 - it's like a post within a post. Very helpful.

      Thanks also for your additional sentences - great examples, and clear that you're bracketing already, although perhaps as your sentences get longer you will need to do it more consciously at first.

      For J & L, don't worry about the vocab. Most of those characters were new to me too when I first learned the sentences - that's why I learned them :-)

      And yes, as the English shows for M it is your parents' expectations that you're talking about ... but the first time I read that sentence, I thought it was this:
      不要辜负父母 对(你的期待)
      and not this:
      不要辜负 父母(对你) 的期待

      Hope that makes sense! And thanks again for taking the time to work through the article so carefully. I'm sure this will be obvious long before two years have elapsed.

  8. The real beauty of the language is revealed in the writing. There are thousands of Chinese characters, but they are not randomly constructed. There is a system to their design, and understanding that system makes it much easier to learn new characters. Thanks.
    Learn mandarin online

  9. I have just seen that "Confused Laowai" posted an article containing the Gangnam Style parody video called "Laowai style". In his post, he refers to this article, since so many of the lyrics in that video follow this style - thanks Niel!