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What are the major differences between Chinese and English grammar?

What are the major differences between Chinese and English grammar?


During the journey of learning English, I found that actually Chinese grammar and English grammar have many shared features, especially concerning the part of the syntax. They both have general simple sentences in the order: Subject + Verb + Objects. For example, Wo xihuan paobu. 

I like running. 

In both writing and speaking forms of Chinese Mandarin, SVO is the correct grammar, so this  is one of the similarities shared by the two languages. 

Another shared feature in both languages is the word order in a noun phrase. English has  adjectives precede the noun, the head of the noun phrase. The same thing happens to Chinese  Mandarin. For instance, 

Haochide cai. 

Tasty dishes. 

We can see that English and Chinese Mandarin are similar to each other. Therefore, when I first came in contact with English, I didn’t find many difficulties in learning these basic grammars. However, as I got deeper into this language, I discovered some differences between Chinese syntax and the English one. The position of the word “than” in a sentence is the first thing that I recalled when preparing for this paper. In English, simple sentences usually have the order of Subject + Adj. + than + Object, but in Chinese Mandarin, the order seems to be inverse: Subject+ than + Object + Adj. An example might be more telling to show this fact:  

Wo bi ni geng yonggong. 

I thank you for being more hardworking.  

“I am more hardworking than you.” 

This example tells us that “than” comes to precede the adjective in Chinese Mandarin, which is just a reverse of the English syntax. Another note-worthing fact is that there is no “be”, or verb, in the “than” sentence based on Chinese grammar. This is probably because people use the word “than” as a verb instead of a preposition or a conjunction. According to my personal experience, this happens frequently, so this could be another difference between the two languages.  

2. Language and Thought 

The word “wear” in English is convenient: “wear” can precede any type of clothes. Instead, in Chinese, different verbs are used to describe objects that belong to different body parts. For example, for objects that are worn below the neck, such as trousers, shirts, and shoes, we have the character “chuan”, for objects that are worn above the neck, such as hat and glasses, we have the verb “dai”, for objects that are worn on the back, such as a cape, we have the verb “pi”. Linguistic Determinism states that the structure of a language determines how the speakers of that language think.

In this sense, as the Chinese language has more words for “wear” than English does, it could be reasonably predicted that Chinese people might be more sophisticated and fastidious in wearing than other people who speak English. However, this is not the case. At least based on my worldview, the English speakers do as well as the Chinese in the region of clothing. A single “wear” is similarly as good as the three characters “chuan”, “dai”, “pi”. What’s more, people have their unique comprehension of fashion, so it is unfair to say one’s dressing is better than the other’s. As a result, linguistic determinism  seems to be groundless based on the word “wear” between these two languages.  

3. Acquisition  

When acquiring English, one aspect that troubled me is the use of past tense. Chinese  grammar doesn’t include this feature, and the Chinese people only indicate that time is in the  past, and hold all other grammars the same as present tense. For example,  Wo gang cai qu cesuo. 

I went to the bathroom a minute ago. 

“I went to the bathroom a minute ago.” 

Stamps of Taiwan. Apr 6, 1995. Calligraphy by Su Shi: detail of File:寒食帖.jpg.

This example is based on my personal experience. I remembered that in my first English class  in high school, because I was late my teacher asked me, “Where did you go?”, and I replied, “I  go to the bathroom.” He seemed to correct me unconsciously, “oh, you went to the  bathroom,” but that was a bit embarrassing.  

Therefore, when I want to tell something that has happened, I have to intentionally remind myself of the use of past tense, or I would unconsciously jump back to use the present tense of verbs. This is unavoidable as I first learned English at the age of 7, far away from the critical age, but what is interesting is that for some technical terms, I can only explain them in English.

For example, if you ask me what a hydrogen bond is (belongs to chemistry), I can explain that it is an intermolecular force between a hydrogen atom and another carbon, nitrogen, or fluorine atom. However, it’s very hard for me to explain it in Chinese, even though it is my native language. I need to think for a while and give a strange translation of my English form. This might be because I learned and practiced all these terms in English in high school. Students use Chinese for communication at school, and we usually discuss daily lives and stories instead of academic materials. Therefore, only in classes or doing homework students use these terms, both of which are in English. This might be the major reason. 

4. Profane and Abusive Language  

Profane expressions in Chinese are diverse, including sex, family members. Sex 

1. 肏(cao). This means “fuck”, but is not as offensive as fuck. Based on different situations,  the tone of the word could result in different meanings. For example, the second tone  could be interpreted as surprise, and the fourth tone means anger. 

2. ⽇(ri). This also means “fuck”, but is only a little vulgar. 

Basically, all of the profane words that belong to sex is less offensive than if there is a family  member follows them. For example, 

Cao ni ma  

Fuck your mother 

Then this phrase is way heavier than a single character “cao”. The same thing happens to “ri”. Family members 

3. 他妈的(ta ma de) Literally, this means “his mother”, but this almost serves the same  function as “fuck”. This one is offensive, and is one of the earliest swear words in Chinese  with thousands of years of history. 

I believe all these three are expected in the inventory of profanity, as sex and family members are two that are common in obscenity across languages. Also, almost all people, young and old, female and male, use these words. Of course, some people never say any profane words, but these three that I listed are the most common three used among Chinese people.  


This paper again helps me understand the knowledge of language better. Like the first paper, after writing this paper, I feel more familiar with my native language, and figure out more interesting facts in English. This is a valuable chance to dig into an area which I never think about.  

Written by Yujun Song

What are the major differences between Chinese and English grammar?