Bring Perfect Order to your Chinese Sentences
Getting the order right with Chinese sentences
by John Wang
Why do you seem to keep making mistakes even though you’ve been learning Chinese for many years?
How can you make a perfect Chinese sentence?
What is the right order of words in Chinese sentences, and why?
Hang on, you’ll know soon.
First, here’s the basic order of words to create a correct Chinese sentence: It is Who + When + Where + What. You can switch Who and When; it doesn’t matter. A very simple example in English is: ”We will have dinner at KFC at 2 pm.”
In Chinese, you should say: “We will at 2 pm at KFC have dinner.” Cool! That’s the right order. It’s easy to make the correct sentence by just using the four Ws structure.
So, why are you still making mistakes?
Do you forget to use this simple rule?
Or, does it takes you a long time to figure out the order of the structure before you can say it?
What’s also interesting is that this structure and the meaning behind it are related to Chinese culture.
The logic behind the basic rule is that in Chinese, you should put the thing you really want to do at the end. Why? Do Chinese people think doing something is not the important part of a sentence?
Here’s the answer: We do think it’s important and that’s why we put it at the end. As you know, compared with Westerners, Chinese people are shy and introverted. People talk indirectly, especially when we ask people to help with or do something together.
Instead of requesting something directly, we worry about a lot of other things. We worry about whether you have time, whether you are busy with your own plans, and whether you will think the location is too far from you. So, we may ask you all these things first, then we will tell you what we want you to do. In reality, we don’t ask all these questions one-by-one because it’s too time-consuming. So, we ask everything in only one sentence, and in a certain order.
Take the KFC example above. We ask: “We at 2 pm at KFC have dinner, ok?” We will make this process very slow, like slow motion in a movie. Suppose you’re the person I’m inviting for dinner.
(I’m kind of giving you time to consider if you are free at 2 pm.)
YOU: You think, Okay, that time is no problem for me.
ME: + The Where, “at KFC”
YOU: The hamburgers and chicken wings come to your mind.
ME: + The What, “have dinner”
YOU: You think to yourself, “Yes, perfect, we’re eating there, not just meeting and leaving.”
*(This is because if “The What” is not included, it would be implied that we would just meet there and then decide what to do next)*
ME: + The Question Word, “Okay?”
YOU: You say, “Yes!”
Of course, if you don’t have time or you don’t like having dinner at KFC, you’ll say no. I assume you’re a shy Chinese guy or girl, so I give you plenty of time to think about it. If you’re too shy, I will ask these questions separately next time.
I will start with, “Are you free at 2 pm?” I won’t bother to tell you what I want to do if I get a negative answer. So please, don’t feel confused when Chinese people ask you these questions. They are worrying about tons of things on your behalf. Another thing is that since you are speaking Chinese, try to do the same thing, at least, in the right order.
The good thing is that China is changing. People are beginning to realize it’s much more efficient to ask and answer a question directly, especially in business and especially with the younger generation.
But, the language can’t change fast enough, so remember the rule: put the main thing you want to say at the end!