Thursday, July 8, 2010

Life Sentences - a new series

This is the first part of a new series about sentences in Mandarin Chinese.

For a few months now, I have been on a new journey in my Mandarin learning. The previous one was working through Heisig & Richardson's first book (simplified or traditional, affiliated links) on learning how to read and write Chinese. I made it through 1500 characters in about 3-4 months, and I had great support from all of you as I did so.

But now being able to read & write characters, and having learned a whole bunch of compound words (through flashcards), I have extended this into understanding how Mandarin sentences are constructed. In my opinion, this is the least intuitive part of learning Chinese, and it's what keeps me from having coversations which flow as smoothly as I'd like.

Don't believe people who tell you that Mandarin is the same as English: subject-verb-object.  I mean, it is. Kinda.

The problem is that when you first get past "I drink beer" (我喝啤酒, wǒ​ hē​ pí​jiǔ) (subject-verb-object, in both cases), things get a bit fuzzy and non-intuitive. But once you've got a feel for Chinese sentences, it starts to come back into focus, and you realise that to a large degree (again!) it is S-V-O.

Just to show you what I mean about this being non-intuitive, take a look at the following sentences, which are arranged as follows:
   Simplified Chinese
   Traditional Chinese
   Literal translation

S1. What should I give him as a gift?
wǒ gāi sòng shénme lǐwù gěi tā?
(I) (should) (give) (what gift) (give him)?

S2. She enjoys sharing her experience of learning the Chinese language.
Tā hěn xǐhuan gēn biérén fēnxiǎng tā xuéxí Zhōngwén de jīngyàn.
(she) (very likes) (with others) (share) (her) (study Chinese)'s (experience).

S3. People who want a tattoo must go to a proper tatto parlour.
要文身的人, 必须去专业的文身店。
要文身的人, 必須去專業的文身店。
yào​ wén​shēn​ de rén​, bì​xū​ qù​ zhuān​yè​ de wén​shēn​ diàn​.
(want tattoo)'s (people), (must) (go to) (professional)'s (tattoo parlour)

Certainly not intuitive, but definitely learnable.

The purpose of this series is to get you as quickly from the "newbie S-V-O" to the "more advanced S-V-O" phase, without getting too stuck in the middle. And this is as much to document my learning for myself, as it is to share my learning for your benefit.

To make sure you don't miss out, ensure you subscribe to Mandarin Segments. I look forward to your active participation.

Copyright acknowledgement: Over time I have collected a variety of sentences, and loaded them into my flashcard system. By this stage, I no longer have any idea where they came from. Some are of my own construction, or from friends who have emailed or instant-messaged me. Others have been copied from websites along the way. To make sure I give credit where due, the following sites are the most likely external sources:
   About Mandarin
   Bing Search
   20,000 Mandarin Sentences
   Nciku Dictionary
   Popup Chinese
   Collins (paper) dictionary

Articles in the Life Sentences series so far:

To see all posts in the "Life Sentences" series, click here


  1. S3 is a "topic-comment" sentence. A topic-comment sentence begins with the (always definite) topic, and the rest of the sentence is a comment on it.

  2. Can't wait for this series, Greg! ;D

    (Also, my video's not uploaded on Youtube yet, I'll try to get it soon!)

  3. hey hey! You busy boy. Just landed from extended time abroad and here you are busily educating us all :D

  4. pkd: I didn't know that was the name, thanks! Yes I've seen this structure a lot, and it's a great example of how non-obvious it can be going from English to Mandarin, yet Mandarin to English in this context is really easy.

    Kara: I look forward to your ongoing input through the series.

    BtM: Haha - actually I drafted a lot of stuff on my iPad in quiet moments through my trip, but haven't found a decent blogging tool for actually loading it on online including pics. Yet. (Let me know if you find one ...)

  5. The first sentence is a sentence with something we've called a "suffix-verb" in class at Uni. It just means a few verbs (成、在、给 and 到, if I remember correctly) can function as a resultative complement for verbs like 送 in this case. Anyway, my point is that the example is correct:

    S1. What should I give him as a gift?

    However, there are at least two more options:

    S1. (S-V-Compl-O1-O2)

    S1. (Topic-S-V-Compl-O1)

    Of course, SVO is the main order, but as the Objects become increasingly defined, there is more of a tendency towards topicalization.

    Let me know what you think about this.


  6. Thomas, thanks for that clarification. I can't claim to know the various parts of speech in the study of lingustics (being limited to nouns, verbs and gerunds :-) - so thanks for that clarification.

    From my point of view, the structure I'm likely to use is whatever structure was used by the particular flashcard from which I learned the sentence. Over time, it'll become more instrinctual I guess.

    I actually typed the three sentences into Google, and got the following counts: 366000, 16000, 0. So it's good to know that there are other correct approaches, even if they're not common. This slightly reduces the probability that I'm wrong, even when I make a mistake!!