Friday, May 11, 2012

Charlie Brown teaches Chinese sentence structures

I recently wrote an article entitled "The sentence with (the girl with (the dragon tattoo) )" where I spoke about how Chinese sentences are sometimes put together.  I presented a set of 13 examples where I showed how the ability to (mentally) apply brackets to a sentence makes it much easier - indeed makes it possible! - to understand what is being written.

What I didn't want to give is the impression that these structures are not common - in fact it was because they are so common that I decided to write about them in the first place.

So, to make my point (and to make it in a fun way) I paged through a Chinese version of the Peanuts cartoon strip, starring our little hero Charlie Brown.  Here are some frames which give more examples of  "(require brackets)'d sentences"   :-)

By the way, if you're not at the level of reading as many Chinese characters as this, don't worry about it. Focus on the English versions of the sentences, to start to get a feel for how they are constructed in Chinese.

(click on the images for clearer shots)

Frame 1:

This first frame is a great example of just how long the 'middle' phrases can be, and if you don't spot the opportunity to put in some brackets, then the sentence is going to seem like garbage (like it did with me, when I first saw this frame):

I want to tell you some (...) things
I want to tell you some (I have never told anyone before) things

I guess the clue is that after the words 一些 ('some') it seems to immediately begin a new sentence (我以前 ...) without any preposition or conjunction. That should get you thinking about brackets!

Frame 2:

Can you put them in a (...) place?
Can you put them in a (I am able to remember) place?

Frame 3:

I can see a (...) dumb child
I can see a (sitting inside a pumpkin patch) dumb child

I used a double-brackets in the Chinese sentence to emphasise how prepositions (like 里=inside) are applied in Chinese, if that's not quite obvious to you yet.

Happy reading (subjects that you find interesting)'d texts.


  1. I already knew about this construction in Chinese (though I'm still working on producing it well :)) but the other day I was watching a Chinese movie and definitely thought of you and your blog! Thanks for helping me keep my Chinese sharp. ;) Also, are the Peanuts comics in Chinese available online that you know of? That'd be awesome.

    1. Lexi, thanks for dropping by - glad the post helped your movie pleasure.

      I haven't been able to find Peanuts online in Chinese, no. The pics in this post were just photos from a book I found browsing in the HK Library - something about "50 years of Peanuts" (in Chinese). (Let me know if you find a site thought :-)

  2. Hi All,
    The Chinese sentence structure is quite different than English or other European languages. The word order is very important in Chinese sentences. It is often the only indication in Chinese to tell who is doing what to whom. There is always a fixed and single form in each word, regardless of time, number, person of the subject. Due to the lack of inflectional morphology, Chinese grammar is mainly concerned with how words are arranged to form meaningful sentences. Most important is reading newspaper everyday. Thanks...
    Study in China

    1. Hi Michael. I certainly agree with your aspiration to read a Chinese newspaper every day, but I think the average student will take a while to get to that stage ... but even just practising identifying some of the characters should be a great start.

  3. Thanks Greg! This was very helpful. Believe it or not, I only knew a basic form of this structure until now. Thanks!

    1. Good to see u back more regularly Kara. And pleased it was helpful.

  4. Shucks it really requires getting your head around it, doesn't it? The more I see the less I know.

    All I can say is thanks for highlighting this. Now I know more than ever before what I've left myself in for, and in saying so, I realise that I am EXTREMELY naive. Either way - 谢谢你 :)

    1. Don't worry Peckish, one of these days you will be reading a long sentence, and with the "mental-brackets" it will just fit into place ... and you'll realise you actually know a lot more than you realise!

      (Haha, I'm sure I've naive, which is why I'm still learning Chinese too :-)