Chinese Grammar: No Rule is the Rule


A foreigner friend once told me that he could never be able to learn Chinese. According to him Chinese was such a difficult language and I would laugh at his mistakes. I tried to give him a boost by telling him that he could never make a mistake in speaking or writing Chinese because as far as Chinese grammar is concerned “No Rule is the Rule”. The same cannot be said of English or Spanish. Often times I was told by my Spanish friends that “Brandon, I understand you but let me correct your grammar”.

That is why new words are “invented” in Chinese virtually everyday. It is especially the case in Hong Kong with its Chinese being heavily influenced by other cultures as well as its local alternative cultures. For instance, to quantify hours by 粒 (pellet) was totally unacceptable a few years ago in Hong Kong, but it is now considered a chic thing to say.

A key feature of Chinese grammar is that all words have only one grammatical form, as it has no conjugation of verbs. For instance, go is applicable to all tenses. “I go yesterday”, “I go now”, “I go tomorrow”, “I would be go by then” are all correct in Chinese. It is only the time adverbs, i.e. yesterday, now…, which tell the difference.

Further, where nouns in English might be distinguished by singular and plural (“woman” and “women”) or verbs by number or person (“I go”, “he goes”), Chinese are typically invariant in those respscts.

Chinese grammar may appear quite simple, however, Chinese displays a very high level of complexity in its syntax. Chinese is an analytic language, which is a language where syntax and meaning are shaped more by other means.

There are no set rules as to how a sentence in Chinese is to be formed. So don’t be afraid to make mistakes in Chinese grammar, and as a matter of fact, none can be made. The best way to learn Chinese is by trial and error. The bottom line is to make the reader or listener understand what you write and say and you are home free.

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