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Chinese grammar

All Chinese dialects share a similar grammar system, different from the one employed by European languages. All words have only one grammatical form, as the language lacks conjugation, declension, or any inflection at all (there are minor exceptions). Concepts like plural or past tense are expressed in a syntactical way.

(All of the examples in this section are provided in standard Mandarin, but the principles outlined apply to all Chinese dialects.)

Tenses are not indicated grammatically; their sense are clarified with adverbs of time ("yesterday", "later") or aspect particles or prepositions(such as 了,在,要; le,zai,yao respectively in Mandarin) indicating completion of an action or change of state (along with several other context-dependent meanings). Particles are also used to form questions; the syntax of a question is exactly the same as a declarative statement (basically Subject Verb Object) with only the appended particle, such as 吗 (ma) in Mandarin, making it a question. Similarly, the plural is not indicated grammatically except in pronouns and polysyllabic nouns referring to people.

Because of the lack of inflections, Chinese grammar may appear quite simple compared to that of the Romance languages to a speaker who is used to inflected languages. However, the bulk of the complexity to be found in Chinese lies in its syntax, whose convoluted complications far exceed those of heavily inflected languages like Latin.

Chinese is considered to be a topic-comment language, where the topic of the sentence (defined as "old" information whereupon the sentence is based) takes precedence in the sentence. For example, the following sentences do not seem to follow normal subject-first word order, but adhere perfectly to the topic-comment structure:

This book I have read.

In the yard is parked a car.

Today climb mountains, tomorrow camp outdoors.

Swim[ming] I am the best.

Chinese has a unique complement of aspects: for example, there are two perfectives, 了(-le) and 過 /过(-guo) which subtly differ in nuance.

LE (perfective)
I became a soldier (and I still am).
He watched three ballgames (and he probably watched many more during his lifetime).

GUO (experiential perfective)
I've been a soldier before (but no longer am).
He watched three ballgames (and that is the sum of all the ballgames he has ever watched.) +++++

Another category of devices unique to Chinese are the modal particles (). Among them, the most important are:

LE (inceptive) {| |- |我||没有||钱||了。 |- |wo3||mei2 you3||qian2||le. |} As of now, I have no money. (I've gone broke.)

NE (pending) -- frequently coordinates with 还 HAI (still) {| |- |他||还||没有||回||家||呢。 |- |Ta1||hai2||mei2 you3||hui2||jia1||ne. |}

He still has not returned home. (There has been no change in the old situation)

The perfective LE and the inceptive LE are two different words. The Chinese linguist Y.R. Chao (Zhao` Yuan/ ren4) traces the two "le" back to two entirely different words. The fact that they are now written the same way in Mandarin can cause confusion. Consider the following sentence:

{| |- |妈妈||来||了! |- |Ma1ma||lai2||le! |}

The aspect marker LE comes after a transitive or intransitive verb. The modal particle LE comes at the end of a sentence and governs the entire sentence. When an intransitive verb comes at the end of a sentence, then the only way to determine whether the LE at the end of the sentence is perfective or inceptive is to look at the social context. The sentence given above can have two different meanings. In one case, someone is perhaps engaged in a long distance telephone call with Mama. He is trying to convince her to travel to where he is for some celebration. He hangs up the phone and says, "Mama lai le!" That sentence gives the information that Mama had not previously agreed to travel here, but the situation has changed and she will be coming after all. If, however, there is a knock on the front door and someone who has gone to answer the door shouts, "Mama lai le!" it means that she has come.

The two imperfectives, 正在 (zhengzai-) and 著/着 (-zhe) also differ in nuance:

ZHENGZAI/ZAI (dynamic)
I'm hanging pictures up. (The "hanging" is a continuous dynamic event.)

ZHE (static)
A picture's hanging on the wall. (The "hanging" is a continuous current state.)

Chinese also uses a complex system of suffixes to distinguish the direction, possibility, and success of an action. For example:

literal: he walk-up-close-PF.
He came up (by walking).
(directional suffixes indicating "up" and "close".)

literal: he OBJ-plate hit-break-PF.
He hit/dropped the plate, and it broke.
(double-verb where the second verb, "break", is a suffix to the first, and indicates what happens to the object as a result of the action.)

literal: This movie I look-no-understand.
I can't understand this movie (even though I watched it.)
(double-verb as well, where the second verb, "understand", suffixes the first and clarifies the possibility and success of the relevant action.)

Finally, Chinese nouns require "counters" (or "Unitary") in order to be counted. Hence one must say 兩頭牛 [两头牛] "two head of cattle", not two cows, with 頭[头] "head" being the "unitary", or unit of measurement, or measure word. There are dozens, if not hundreds of counters in Chinese and these must be memorized individually for each noun. However, usage also depends on personal preference and dialects. For example, some people use 三部車 and others use 三台車 (three cars), with 部 and 台 being interchangeable measure words.

Parts of speech:

See also: