Learn chinese: grammar 6

The modal particle

In the vocabulary, we said that le is a modal particle indicating that the state is new (change of state). It is placed at the end of the sentence and is therefore also called "final le" (this particle can also be placed behind the verb, but with another nuance on the time of the action).

To see more clearly, observe the two examples below:
他学汉语。 Tā xué hànyǔ. He studies chinese. (There is no particular indication of time, whether it has been a long time since he started or not. This is a very simple sentence).
他学汉语了。 Tā xué hànyǔ le. He began to learn Chinese. (The indicates that the state is new, that he did not study Chinese before and that he did start recently).

In the above example, the meaning can be easily rendered into English, but this is not always the case:
你多大? How old are you ?
你多大了? How old are you ? (In the sense of "Now, how old are you?")
现在几点? Xiànzài jǐ diǎn ? What time is it right now ?
现在几点了? Xiànzài jǐ diǎn le ? What time is it right now ? (Reinforces the idea of "now", to emphasize the fact that the situation has now changed).

The use of the modal is not always obvious for a beginner. However it comes quite naturally with practice. It is therefore important to learn standard sentences by heart and to repeat often after audio recordings.

Here are more examples:
他去中国。 He goes to China. (Maybe he's getting ready or is already at the airport).
他去中国了。 He went to China. (That's it, it's done, he's gone.)
我看见他。 Wǒ kànjiàn tā. I see him.
我看见他了! Wǒ kànjiàn tā le ! I see him (now)!

The negation in a past context is méi already seen in sequence 2 in the expression 没关系 méi guānxi "Never mind". le must not be added in that case.
他没去中国。 He did not go to China.
我没看见他。 I have not seen him.

On another hand, the expression 不.....了。 bù ......le. means "no longer":
他不学汉语了。 He no longer studies Chinese.


In Chinese, punctual time (and not duration) is constructed with diǎn:
一点 yì diǎn one o'clock.
两点 liǎng diǎn two o'clock.
三点 sān diǎn three o'clock.
十一点 shí yī diǎn eleven o'clock.
十二点 shí èr diǎn twelve o'clock.

Two remarks:
1- To express the time, you must use liǎng and not èr to translate the digit 2 but this only applies to number 2, not to any other numbers combined with 2 such as 12, 22, etc.
2- when a syllable beginning with a vowel (like èr) is preceded by another syllable, they must be separated by an apostrophe: shí'èr 12; tiān'ānmén Tian'anmen Square, etc.

To refer to time "on the dot", we can add zhōng after diǎn, but it is not compulsory:
七点钟 qī diǎn zhōng 7 o'clock on the dot

The minutes are marked with fēn:
八点五分 bā diǎn wǔ fēn 8:05

In Chinese, we can say 13:00 十三点, 14:00 十四点. But it is better to say 2 o'clock in the afternoon, 9 o'clock in the morning, etc. The word "morning" 上午 shàngwǔ or "afternoon" 下午 xiàwǔ is placed before the time:
上午九点二十五分 9:25 am
下午六点钟 6 pm on the dot

The question to ask the time is 现在几点了? Xiànzài jǐ diǎn le ? We can remove the to give less force to the meaning of "now".

It is quite possible to answer by using 现在:
现在三点了 It's three o'clock.

The punctual time

We have seen in Lesson 4 that the position of the complement of place (where the action is taking place) is before the verb of action:
她在中国学中文。 She studies Chinese in China.

It is a general rule in Mandarin Chinese that adverbial phrases are placed before the verb of action (we must first place the setting before talking about the action).

Punctual time can function as an adverbial phrase and thus follows this rule:
我今天打电话。 I call today.
我明天去看他。 I'll see him tomorrow.
李小姐星期三下午三点学日语。 Miss Li learns Japanese on Wednesday afternoon at three o'clock.

The question is 什么时候 shénme shíhou: when?

Like almost all interrogative words in Mandarin Chinese, it occupies the same position as the answer word:
你什么时候回家? When are you coming back home?
我明天上午回家。 I'm going home tomorrow morning.

When both complements (adverbial phrases) of place and time are found in the same sentence, which comes first?
As time is considered more general than space, it thus takes the first place:
我明天在你家打电话。 I'll call tomorrow at your home.

Notice that Chinese does not have tenses. There are time words instead that set the event in time, present, past or future.

The duration

Unlike punctual time, duration in Chinese is not considered as an adverbial phrase (which is placed before the verb), but as a verbal verb phrase complement which is placed after the verb:
我学汉语两年。 I studied Chinese for two years.

Notice the difference between:
我学汉语两年。 I studied Chinese for two years.
I have been learning Chinese for two years.
我学汉语两年了。 I have been learning Chinese for two years.

The final le combined with duration conveys the idea of "since" because le sets the situation in the present. There is a change of situation: up till now, two years had not yet elapsed, but now it has.

As the verb phrase complement is placed after the verb, the place of the object may vary. The strict grammar rule places it before the verb of action:
我汉语学两年了。 I have been learning Chinese for two years.
But spoken language is more flexible and the duration complement can be placed behind the object:
我学汉语两年了。 I have been learning Chinese for two years.

We must therefore remember these two sentences, which are often used:
你学汉语几年了? For how many years have you been studying Chinese?
我学汉语三年了。 I have been learning Chinese for three years.

Simple directional complement

In the vocabulary, we saw the verbs lái "to come" and "to go". indicate closeness and remoteness, which seems logical enough:
他去中国。 He goes to China. (The speakers are not in China.)
他来法国。 He comes to France. (The speakers are in France.)

Nothing very complicated here, but it is possible to add and to action verbs. They then indicate the direction of action from the perspective of the speakers. They then become "directionals". For example:
我回去。 I'm going back.
你回来了 ! You came back !
Here the action verb is huí (to return) which cannot be used alone.

But then, if we talk on the phone with someone who is not in the same place as us (one is in China and the other is in France), which directional do we choose? It will depend on which side you choose to position yourself (yours or the other person’s). Politeness requires that we should place ourselves on the side of the interlocutor. If, for example, you call your girlfriend and she asks you: 你什么时候回来? "When are you coming back?" and you reply 我现在回去。, you indicate that you do not place yourself at her side ... It would therefore be more polite to answer 我现在回来。

This is only a small difference from a language point of view, but this subtlety is of great importance in real life. Ponder and keep in mind.

The "action verb + directional complement" construction is called "simple directional". There is also a "complex directional" construction using a combined additional character which gives an indication of fundamental movements such as "going up", "going down", "crossing". It is not very complicated, but it is not in HSK Level 1 program.

Finally, if we want to specify the place in the simple directional construction, we must put it between the verb of action and the directional complement:

verb of action + place + directional complement

我回中国去。 I'm going back to China.
他回我家来。 He returns to my home.

Note : "to go home" is simply said 回家 huíjiā:
我下午六点回家。 I go home at 6pm.

The verb-object (separable verbs)

In Lesson 4 we saw the verb shuō "to speak". If this verb is followed by an object, it is used alone:
我说汉语。 I speak Chinese.

But if we simply want to say "to speak", we must add a "standard object complement" to this verb: huà "speech". To say "He speaks." The compulsory structure is 他说话。 and not 他说。.

These kinds of verbs that always require an object are called "verb-object". They are also called "separable verbs".

We have also seen "to write" xiě which requires the standard object complement :
她写字。 She writes.

Beware, it is absolutely necessary to remove the standard object object complement when another (object) complement is specified. The following sentence is therefore incorrect: 他说话汉语。.

A verb-object may be heard alone, but in this case the object complement is implied:
(汉语)我会说,不会写。 (Chinese) I can speak, but cannot write it.

and 一点儿

Finally, here are some details on 2 words of vocabulary.

néng indicates the ability to do something:
我能打电话。 I can call. (I am capable.)

There is a nuance between néng and huì "to know how to do something", even if their use is sometimes very close:
我能说话。 I can speak. (I have the physical capacity: mouth, tongue, etc.)
我会说话。 I can speak. (Because I have learned it, it is a skill and in this sense, the sentence can also be understood as meaning ‘to be eloquent, to be articulate’: "I know how to speak.")

néng is also used to express permission:
我能不能去看他? May I go and see him?
不能 No.

We have already seen 一点儿 yì diǎnr: a little, in the vocabulary. This word is a "verbal classifier". This only means that it is placed after the verb:
我会说一点儿日语。 I can speak a little Japanese.

Last modified: Wednesday, 3 March 2021, 4:00 PM