Grammar - Chinese Word Order

Word order refers to the linear ordering between words (and more generally constituents of various sizes) in a sentence.  Perhaps as a consequence of its lack of case endings for nouns, word order is very important in Chinese. For English speakers, the importance of word order may be self-evident. But there are languages in the world such as Latin and Russian that do not depend on word order as much but rather rely on cases to convey the idea of who does what to whom.  The importance of word order in Chinese can perhaps be best illustrated with the following pair of three-word sentences with identical words and minimal difference in the ordering of two of the words:


Lái rén le.

Come person LE (=aspect particle indicating completion/change)

‘Some /person people have come.’


Rén lái le.

Person come LE

‘The person/people (whoever we are expecting) have come.’


The interesting thing is that the difference in meaning between the two sentences, i.e., definiteness versus indefiniteness of the noun phrases (some person/people versus the person/people) is not expressed by having different words (definite and indefinite articles in English) but by changing the ordering between words.  As with the case of reduplication and tone changes we looked at in word structure, the change in meaning does not depend on having some words with tangible sounds, but rather comes from the process of change (be it ordering, copying or tonal change) itself.  Another example of the same kind is:


Zhuōzi shang yǒu shū.

table on have Book

‘There is/are book(s) on the table.’


Shū zài zhuōzi shang.

Book at table on

‘The book(s) are on the table.’


Both sentences are about the relationship between two objects, i.e., table and book.  They can even be considered as describing the same state of affairs, namely, book being on the table.  But due to the differences in word order, in one case the book is any book that is being introduced by the sentence for the first time and in the other case, the speaker and hearer are aware of the book(s) (which may have been introduced earlier).  In English, the difference is between the indefinite book(s) and the definite the book(s).


And word order in Chinese is very different from English.  A recently heard political joke may just help to drive the point home.  (Political jokes now abound in China, possibly as a result of liberalization, targeting various political figures. This particular joke makes fun of the much-despised former prime minister Li Peng, who was instrumental in ordering the bloody suppression of the Tiananmen student movement in 1989.  As a Russian trained technocrat educated in the 50’s, Li’s English is poorer than that of President Jiang Zemin, who grew up before the communist take-over in 1949, when English and American influences were stronger in China).  Jiang questions Li about the meanings of the following simple questions.  Li dutifully translated them (some say with the aid of a dictionary).  The first question goes:


Who are you?

Shéi shì nǐ


The sentence in Chinese does not make sense.  The right way to ask the question is to switch the position of the words for who and you, namely, ni and  shei.  The strangeness of the sentence foreshadows the greater hilarity to come:


How are you?

Zěnme shì nǐ?                “How come is you!”


How old are you?

Zěnme lǎo shì nǐ?          “How come is always you!”


Such is the result of following the English word order.  The idiomatic Chinese translations of the questions not only have different ordering between the words but possibly different words as well:


            How are you?à Nǐ hǎo ma?/Ni zenme yang?

                                       You good MA/you how


            How old are you?àNǐ duō dà/jǐsuì?

                                            You how big/how many years



There is a commonality between English and Chinese word order, however.  Both languages have the SVO order for the major sentence constituents, i.e., subject preceding verb which in turn precedes the object.   The following example shows this clearly:


I study Chinese.

Wǒ xué zhōngwén.

Subject Verb Object


Not all the languages in the world have SVO order.  In fact, SVO is not even the dominant type.  Many languages such as Turkish, Japanese and Korean have SOV order.  The following Japanese sentence illustrates this:


Watashiwa Chugokugoo benkyoshimas.

I           Chinese language study

Subject                          Object                  Verb


There are also VSO languages, such as Arabic, Hebrew and Welsh, in which the verb starts the sentence. 

The SVO ordering in Chinese and English however has exceptions. In English WH-questions, the object (which is also the question word) typically is at the beginning of the sentence, as in 'What did you eat?'; in yes-no question, the verbal elements may not all be after the subject, as in 'Do you want to eat now?' or 'Are you a student?'. In Chinese, there is a BA construction, which has the object before the verb, as in 'Ta ba fan chi le.' (lit. he BA food ate LE)  


Modifier before the modified

Chinese partly part company with English in how modifiers are ordered with respect to what they modify.

In Chinese, the modified element always follows the modifier, no matter what kind of modifier it is and how long the modifier is. The following two examples contain two modifiers, one short, one long, to the same noun:


Wo de shu

I DE book   (DE precedes a noun and follows a nominal modifier)

‘My book’


Wo zai shudian mai de shu

I at bookstore buy DE book

‘the book I bought at the bookstore’


As can be seen, the noun shu in Chinese always occurs at the end of the noun phrase.  But in the English glosses, the noun book occurs at the end of the short noun phrase, but at the beginning of the noun phrase when it contains a long modifier, in this case a relative clause.  

The difference between Chinese and English with respect to the ordering between modifiers and what they modify can be seen also in verbal modifiers.  In Chinese all the adverbs and adverbials, which are modifiers for verbs and verb phrases respectively, occur before verbs and verb phrases.  But in English, they can occur either before or after verbs or verb phrases.  The contrast between English and Chinese can be seen in the possible ways to construct sentences with adverbs and adverbials expressing the same meaning.  First, the Chinese version:


Wo zuotian zaijia yonggongde xuexi.

I yesterday at home conscientiously study

Sub. Time adv. Place adv. Manner adv. Verb


Zuotian wo zaijia yonggongde xuexi.


*Wo zuotian zaijia xuexi yonggongde. (*=impossible sentence)

*Wo zaijia yonggongde xuexi zuotian.

*Wo zuotian yonggongde xuexi zaijia.


The only two possible sentences both have adverb(ials) modifiers before what they modify.  But the same sentence in English can be said in quite a few more ways:


I studied conscientiously at home yesterday.

I conscientiously studied at home yesterday.

Yesterday I studied conscientiously at home.

Yesterday at home I studied conscientiously.

Yesterday I conscientiously studied at home.

Yesterday at home I conscientiously studied.


Run-on sentences with stacked modifiers

An interesting consequence of the difference between Chinese and English is with respect to run-on sentences with stacked modifiers.  In English, after a noun you can add infinitely many modifiers of the phrasal or relative clauses variety.  The results are the so-called run-on sentences:


            The man in the house in the forest by the mountain ….

This is the cheese that is eaten by the mouse that is chased by the cat that is …..


But since in Chinese the noun occurs last, if you want to have infinitely many modifiers before the noun, you may not get to say the noun at all!  This is why run-on sentences do not exist in Chinese.

            In practical terms, the difference between Chinese and English has consequences for speech planning.  Speakers of English can improvise while speaking, i.e., to think about what modifiers to add after they uttered the noun or verb.   Chinese speakers, however, need to do careful pre-planning, i.e., to think about all the modifiers and say them before saying the noun or verb. 


Prepositions and Postpositions

Another difference between Chinese and English has to do with the ordering between noun phrases and prepositions. As the term suggests, prepositions in English occur before noun phrases (hence pre-position), as in 'on the table' and 'in the park'. In Chinese, however, in addition to prepositions, there are also postpositions, which occur after noun phrases. The prepositions and postpositions in Chinese occur sometimes in conjunction with each other, sometimes independent of each other, as the following examples show:


Preposition in conjunction with postposition: Wo zai yuanzi li wan. 'lit. I at yard in play.'

            Only preposition: Wo zai jia chifan. 'lit. I at home eat'

Only postposition: Zhuozi shang you qian. 'lit.table on there-is money.'


There is a further difference between Chinese and English with respect to prepositions. In English, prepositions are distinct from verbs; in Chinese, however, many prepositions can be verbs as well. For this reason, they are also called Coverbs. The following pairs of examples illustrate the dual functions of the preposition zai:


            Zai as verb: Wo zai jia. 'lit. I am at home'

            Zai as coverb: Wo zai jia chifan. 'lit. I at home eat'




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