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Chinese 101: Basic Grammar, Pronouns, & Questions

Manzai May 21, 2011 User blog:Manzai

So here's the next Chinese 101 entry, and this is the format I'm going to use for the rest of these posts (of which there will probably be 3 more): introduce some vocabulary, and follow that up with some points about grammar in order to show you how to manipulate the vocabulary words.



Your (honorable) surname


Honorable, noble, expensive


To be surnamed, to have the surname of

I, me

You (singular)

He, she, it


Particle of subordination and modification


My, mine

wǒ mén

We, us



nǐ mén

You (plural)


His, hers, its

tā mén

They, them





Person, Human being








Given name, full name


Call, to be called


To be, is, are

No, not

bú shì

Is/are not


Right, correct



Interrogative partice




Or (for choice)


Tall, high


Both, all, in all cases


And, with


So, thus, therefore









Zhōng guó

China (lit. “middle-country”)



Měi guó

America (lit. “beautiful-country”)


1. All Chinese verbs are tenseless. You can usually tell what time is referred to from other words in the sentence, or from general context.

2. Guì means “honorable, noble” or “expensive”. Xìng is a verb, meaning “to have the surname of.” You can ask someone his/her surname by simply saying “Guìxìng?” However, when answering you MUST say “Wǒ xìng ___,” as in “Wǒ xìng Bei Fong.” It is considered very rude to say “Wǒ guìxìng ___,” as in “Wǒ guìxìng Bei Fong.” (…Well, Toph might be rude enough to say that).

3. The modifier .de is used between a modifier and a noun. Chinese modifiers always precede what they modify. (It’s the same as the situation we usually encounter in English, as in “the blue car,” but the opposite of the Spanish “el coche azul”).

· Wǒde péngyǒu —My friend

· Tāde míngzì —His/her name

4. Chinese nouns do not need articles (e.g. “the,” “a”).

Tā shì xuéshēng —She is (a) student.

5. Shì is not pronounced like “she”, but more like “shr” as in “shrill”. Bù is used to negate something. It is usually placed before verbs and modifiers. It can be placed before most words to imply their negation. Notice that bù itself it 4th tone, but in bú shì it is 2nd tone. This is just an aesthetic thing, because two of the same tone repeated in rapid succession apparently sound strange to the Chinese-speaker’s ear. When speakers pronounce the word, they will usually change the first syllable’s tone like that.

6. Jiào is a verb meaning “to call” or “to be called” (again, it’s tenseless). To give your full name or given name (your míngzì), the expression is “Wǒ jiào ___” or “Wǒ míngzì jiào ___.” You don’t say “Wǒ míngzì shì____”.

7. Chinese is a Subject-Verb-Object language (meaning that in a sentence the parts of the sentence come in that order). English is also an SVO language. Note that even when asking sentences in Chinese, the subject ALWAYS comes first, whereas in English the way we make something into a question is usually to place the verb first.

8. Asking questions: There are two basic ways to structure a question in Mandarin:

1) What is called the “V-not-V question.” In this form, you offer the listener a choice between something and its negation.

Nǐ shì búshì Lièhuǒguórén?—“Are you from the Fire Nation?” (Literally, “You are or are-not Raging-Fire-Country-person?”).

You can also structure the question “Nǐ shìLièhuǒguórén búshì?”

To answer this type of question, you say either “V” or “not-V”. There are basically 4 ways to do this:

· Shì, wǒ shì Lièhuǒguórén / Búshì, wǒ búshì Lièhuǒguórén —“Yes, I am from the Fire Nation (Literally, “Am, I am Fire-Country-person”)/ “No, I am not from the Fire Nation (Literally, “Am not, I am not Fire-Country-person).

· Wǒ shì Lièhuǒguórén / Wǒ búshì Lièhuǒguórén

· Wǒ shì / Wǒ búshì.

· Shì/ Búshì

There is not really a word equivalent to “yes” in Mandarin. That is, there is no word for a general affirmative response. The closest equivalent is to simply restate the verb, as in the fourth bullet point there (e.g. “Shì,” “Jiào”, “ Xǐhuān,” etc.)

2) Using the interrogative particle .ma. Placing .ma at the end of a sentence turns the preceding statement into a question, kind of like putting a question mark at the end in English.

Kuzon shì xīn xuéshēng ma?—“Is Kuzon a new student?”

This type of question is answered differently though. You must use either one of the words for “yes” (shì, shìde, or duìle) or one of the words for no (búshì, búduì). Whether you choose a yes or no response depends on the sense of the verb in the question. Basically, instead of “yes”, shì or duìle give the sense of “That is correct.” For example if you want to answer the question above in the affirmative (Kuzon is a new student) you say:

Shì, Kuzon shì xīn xuéshēng.

However, if the verb in the question is negative, like this

Kuzon búshì xīn xuéshēng ma?

and if Kuzon is, in fact, not a new student, you answer like this

Shì, Kuzon búshì xīn xuéshēng.

If you’re curious, the V-not-V question form is more common, but the .ma form is also totally acceptable. It depends on the sense you want to convey with the question.

9. Háishi is only used when asking someone to choose between alternatives. The English sentence “Are you a middle-school student or a high-school student?” can mean 1) “Are you one or the other?” or it can mean 2) “Are you either of the two, or not?” But a Chinese sentence using háishi definitely means the first option.

10. Yě is an adverb. Since Chinese modifiers always precede the words they modify, yě must be placed directly in front of the noun it is to modify. It can’t move around in the sentence as the English “also” or “too” can. Adverbs also cannot appear without a corresponding verb, so you cannot say something like “Me too,” where there’s no verb. For example, in English you can say “Aang is our friend too,” or “Aang is also our friend,” but in Mandarin you MUST say “Aang yěshì wǒménde péngyǒu.” Dōu is an adverb meaning “in all cases,” but is most commonly used like the English “both.” Like yě, it must preced the verb it modifies.

11. Normally Chinese nouns have no distinction of number, e.g. péngyǒu can mean “friend” or “friends.” (This is also true of Japanese nouns, BTW). However, pronouns (wǒ, nǐ, and tā) usually use the suffix -mén to indicate that they are plural. Mén should generally only be used with pronouns, although it can be used to pluralize a few regular nouns, xuéshēng being one. Notice that xuéshēng can be singular or plural, but xuéshēngmén is definitely plural. Even when you are talking about multiple students, it’s far more common to just use xuéshēng.

12. Gēn means “and” or “with.” However, it can be used to connect nouns or pronouns only, not verbs or clauses or anything else the way “and” can in English.

Correct: Mai gēn Ty Lee dōushì Lièhuǒguórén —“Mai and Ty Lee are both Fire-Nation-people.”

Incorrect: Using gēn for “and” in any of these sentences—

· “Katara is smart and pretty.” (two adjectives or modifiers)

· “Sokka went fishing and caught nothing.” (two verbs or situations).

· “Bumi is old, and so is Pakku.” (also two modifiers or clauses—although you could say Bumi gēn Pakku shì laǒ to express the same idea).

13. Subjects of Chinese sentences can sometimes be omitted when they are understood. It’s fairly common in Mandarin (much more than in English). These are called “minor sentences.”

14. Guó is the word for country. Zhōngguó (“middle country”) is the most common Chinese name for China (in antiquity, China believed it lay at the center of the world). Also, on this very wiki you’ll find the Mandarin names for the Fire Nation (Lièhuǒguó—“Raging-Fire-country”) and the Earth Kingdom (Tǔguó—“Earth Country”). For the Chinese names of other (real-life) countries, they usually use a syllable that mimics the phonetics of the country’s name. America is called “Měi guó” (“beautiful country”) because the “Měi” mimcs the me in America (although my professor tells me Chinese people do actually consider America to have beautiful landscapes and such). England is “Yīng guó”, and coincidentally Tǔguó is also the name for the country of Turkey. When talking about a citizen or native of a certain country, you add rén to the end, as in “Zhōngguórén”, “Tǔguórén”.

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