The surprising truth about Chinese grammar, 3

We have already seen that grammar doesn’t just mean changing the form of words.

check out our previous posts here.

This is one thing that grammar can do (and some languages do a lot of it).

But grammar can mean many more things. Come let’s have another look.

Isn’t Chinese grammar optional?

“Never mind all that!”

I hear you saying. Grammar can be whatever it wants to be, but in Chinese, it’s still optional!

“Sure, one way might sound better or more educated, but the other form isn’t ‘wrong’. Not like in other languages with their many strict rules.”

When Chinese speakers mention these “strict rules” they often refer to the many word forms of the more inflectional languages, in which words simply must correlate.

As in this Spanish example:

Muchas manzanas rojas y redondas

All the words simply must end in “-as”, anything else is simply wrong.

But as we have seen, grammar is much more than this, and Chinese has its own set of musts!

“Can” you handle the truth?


A Chinese speaker who is used to making a clear distinction between 會, 可以 and 能 might ask about how to say these different words in English, she will only to be met with a shrug. “Just say ‘can’!”

But “No!” she insists. “There is a crucial difference in nuance here. I want to say 會 not 能.

Again, the answer is that “can” is good enough, and why do you insist on this difference?

“Why do you complicate things that are easy?”

The grammar of Chinese is simply more complicated in this case.

In Chinese words just randomly make sentences

I have heard this one from Taiwanese native Mandarin speakers and from foreigners alike. As a Taiwanese friend of mine expressed it:

“The Chinese lack of grammar makes Chinese so much more flexible.”

I honestly have no idea where this comes from.

There is a universal rule for human language: They have to make sense!

Generally speaking, the listener needs to know what was done, who did it and to whom. Additionally when and where it happened.

Now, all of these parts have to be distinguished from each other.

Some languages simply solve this by gluing some kind of suffix or prefix to all the words to mark them clearly. Such as Latin.

Popilius virgā quam in manū gerēbat circumscrīpsit rēgem.
Popilius stick which in hand held wrote-around king.

But honestly, any order works here.

Quam gerēbat in manū circumscrīpsit rēgem Popilius virgā.
Which held in hand wrote-around king Popilius stick.

The language of the Romans was truly flexible! Chinese and most other languages are much less so.

Word order, is this grammar?


A language without word markers such as suffixes needs to use other tricks to make the meaning clear for its listeners. This means word order.


Time comes before the verb

Duration follows the verb

Chinese word order is strict, and you can’t really reorder sentence structures as we saw in Latin.

English speakers have a more relaxed attitude to this.

I will go to Paris to visit my cousin next year
Next year I will go to Paris to visit my cousin
I will go to Paris next year to see my cousin

In Chinese this kind of word order is not a matter of choice or emphasis. It’s a matter of grammar.


Changing the word order

It is possible to reorganize things in Chinese of course. There are different grammatical structures, but you can’t just reorder the exact same words.


Since Chinese doesn’t have a flexible word order such as English (or Latin!) it has to use some other grammar instead. Yes, grammar.

Sentence “hang-ons”

Many languages have small words or phrases that indicate meta-information about the sentence.

You prefer the chocolate cake, right?
Just do it, ok?
Just do it, will you?
You didn’t lose it, did you?

In English most of these are “tag questions”, and they aren’t strongly felt to be part of the grammar. This is because they can often be interchanged, or expressed in some other way.

In Chinese though, sentence particles are strongly grammaticalized.

There are already many articles about this, so I will just do a short recap here:

嗎 Question
吧 Suggestion / question
呢 New topic / question

You all know how this works.

Your native language never has any grammar

Finally, it’s easy to think that Chinese doesn’t have any grammar if it is your native language.

When you speak your native language you don’t have to think in terms of grammar, because it has already become so internalized. So speaking Chinese effortlessly might lead you to think that this is because of a lack of grammar!

Some Chinese speakers think grammar can’t be that necessary after all and try to speak English “without grammar”.

What they’re actually doing is speaking English with Chinese grammar!

Unfortunately, native English speakers might not understand this language mix.

The Key

@nickhil / Unsplash

The key to mastering language learning and grammar is to have good language habits!

We at LingSpark are dedicated to just that. We offer classes that will help to build you up as a proficient language learner.

We are your language Personal Trainers!

We will explain to you exactly how languages work, and how to build up your language muscles, step by step, and always with your goal in mind.

See you around, and get ready to learn your new language!

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