Learn chinese : grammar 3

The verb to be

The verb "to be" shì in Mandarin Chinese is much less used than in English.

Do you remember the adjectival stative verbs seen in sequence 1?

That is: hǎo "to be good, fine", 客气 kèqi "to be polite", lǎo "to be old" and 高兴 gāoxìng "to be happy".

We must remember 2 rules about these verbs:
1- in an affirmative sentence, they have a comparative meaning. For instance: 他老, "He's old when ....". To take the comparison out, we need to add the adverb "very" hěn: 他很老。 "He is (very) old." In writing, it is not possible to differentiate between "He's old." and "He's very old." The spoken emphasis on makes all the difference.
2. Adjectival verbs already contain the verb "to be". The verb shì is not to be used with adjectival verbs.

The following sentence is therefore false: 他是老。. Yet this is one of the most common mistakes made by Western students.

The verb "to be" shì will therefore only only be used with names:
他是老师。 He is a teacher.
他是谁? Who is he?
他是王先生。 He's Mr. Wang.

Wh question

We have already seen the yes or no question, which needs only yes or no answers without requiring any further additional information. This question is formed by putting ma at the end of a sentence:
For example: 你是王先生吗? Nǐ shì Wáng xiānsheng ma ? Are you Mr. Wang?

A Wh question or open question is a question answer which cannot be answered with just yes or no. This is a question that requires additional information:
For example: 他是谁? Tā shì shéi ? Who is he ?

To this question, we cannot answer yes or no, it is a Wh question.

What must be remembered about wh questions is that there is no inversion of subject: the interrogative word occupies the same position in the question as the answer to the question.

他是 Tā shì shéi ? Who is he ?
他是王先生 Tā shì Wáng xiānsheng. This is Mr. Wang.

你姓什么 Nǐ xìng shénme ? What is your last name? (Literally: You are called what?)
我姓 Wǒ xìng . My family name is Li.

Beware: you must not add to a wh question.

+ family name

In Mandarin Chinese, the family name appears is always placed before the first name: 李小明 Lǐ Xiǎomíng. Here the family name is LI and the first name Xiaoming.

Similarly, the name will always be placed before the title (sir/Mr., miss, teacher,...):
王先生 Wáng xiānsheng Mr. Wang; 李小姐 Lǐ xiǎojiě Miss Li; 王老师 Wáng lǎoshī Teacher Wang; 李同学 Lǐ tóngxué Student Li;

Note: "student" as an attribute is said 学生 xuéshēng. For example "He's a student." is said 他是学生。 Tā shì xuéshēng.
同学 tóngxué means "student" (or "classmate") as the title. We use it to specify the title of the person: 李同学 Lǐ tóngxué "Student Li". When calling or greeting a student: 同学们好! Tóngxué men hǎo. "Hello !" (from teacher to students).

In Chinese, "to be named" is said xìng. Thus, to ask for the family name, we will say:
你姓什么? Nǐ xìng shénme ?
Note: with xìng, we can only use the family name, not the first name.
我姓王。 Wǒ xìng Wáng. My family name is Wang.

As we saw above, the first name comes after the last name.

'To be called (using first name or last name and first name)' is translated jiào : in Chinese. For example: 他叫小明。 Tā jiào Xiǎomíng. His name is Xiaoming.

To ask the question, we have two possibilities:
你叫什么? Nǐ jiào shénme ?
你叫什么名字? Nǐ jiào shénme míngzì ?

The second possibility is more precise, because can also mean "to shout, scream". The first question can therefore also be translated as "What are you screaming?", even if it is not widely used. The context makes the difference.

Unlike xìng, jiào can be followed either by the first name on its own or by the family name and the first name. But the first name must be present: 我叫小明。 Wǒ jiào Xiǎomíng. My name is Xiaoming.
我叫王小明。 Wǒ jiào Wáng Xiǎomíng. My name is Wang Xiaoming.

You can also say: 我名字叫小明。 Wǒ míngzì jiào Xiǎomíng. Literally: "My first name is called Xiaoming." In Chinese, we often say "my belly is hungry", "my heart thinks", etc.

If someone asks you for your family name, you can also give your first name as follows:
你姓什么? Nǐ xìng shénme ?
我姓李,叫李小明。 Wǒ xìng Lǐ, jiào Lǐ Xiǎomíng My family name is Li, my name is Li Xiaoming. (The "I" does not need to be repeated.)

Finally, in forms, you will find a box with 姓名 "family name and surname". This is also what you will see at the top left of the writing sheets that you can download to practice in the "writing" part of each lesson.

The affirmative-negative question

We have seen the yes or no question that is constructed by putting ma at the end of a sentence and the Wh question that is constructed with an interrogative word (谁? shéi ?, 什么? shénme ?).

There is another structure for the yes or no question. The way to do it is to repeat the positive form of verb with its negative form (A-not-A question):

Subject + verb + negation + verb + object?

For example, the question with ma :
他是老师吗? Is he a teacher?
could very well be built:
他是不是老师? Is he a teacher?

This structure is called the affirmative-negative question.

    Two remarks:
  • do not add ma at the end of the sentence.
  • this question does not translate as "Is he a teacher or not?"

Therefore, it is not a negative question, which would anyway be constructed with ma :
他不是老师吗? Is he not a teacher?

In this case, what is the difference between the question with ma and the affirmative-negative question?

    There are two differences, one small and one far more important:
  • the small difference is that the affirmative-negative question is somewhat more used verbally and the question with ma is more used in writing.
  • the more important difference is that an adverb (很, 也) cannot be used with the affirmative-negative question.

Thus the following sentence is correct:
她也姓李吗? Tā yě xìng Lǐ ma ? Is she also named Li?
but the following sentence is incorrect:
她也姓不姓李? Tā yě xìng bú xìng Lǐ ?

Lastly, in an affirmative-negative question, if a verb is dissyllabic (comprising two syllables) such as 高兴 gāoxìng "to be content" or 客气 kèqi "to be polite", only the first syllable of the first verb is used (usually as it is not compulsory):
她高不高兴? Tā gāo bù gāoxìng ? Is she happy?
but we can also say:
她高兴不高兴? Tā gāoxìng bù gāoxìng ? Is she happy?

The structural particle

de is a structural particle of determination. This somewhat barbaric term refers to grammatical explanations rich enough, but which we do not need at present. One of the main uses of de is possession according to the structure:

owner + + possessed

For example: 老师的名字 lǎoshī de míngzì the teacher's first name

Notice that the order is the same as in English:
老师的学生 lǎoshī de xuéshēng the teacher's pupils
学生的老师 xuéshēng de lǎoshī the pupils’ teacher
(In Chinese there is nothing to distinguish the plural from the singular here, we could have translated学生的老师 xuéshēng de lǎoshī "the pupils’ teacher / teachers" )

It also works with personal pronouns:
我的名字 my name
他们的同学 their classmates

The possessed can be omitted:
我的 mine
李小姐的 Miss Li’s

Last modified: Wednesday, 12 May 2021, 3:42 PM