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Syntax in English and Chinese
Transcript of Syntax in English and Chinese
By: Hsiang-Yi Chung
March 8, 2014
Can people translate word by word from Chinese to English?
The actual meaning of this two sentences are:
Top one: take good care of your child.
Bottom one: be careful not to fall into water.
Not on all of the sentences because of the differences in syntax. Let's see a funny translation!
Translating word by word from Chinese to English
Meaning of Each Word
Note: it means take good care of the child.
One possible reason that the word "good" did not appear in the translating is that it acts as a modifier of the verb "take," which is not that significant.
The combination of "take" and "good" follow by a person means take good care of that person. The meaning of "care" was implied by the combinations of these words. Thus due to the difference in syntax, if translate word by word, some meaning can be lost and leads to confusion.
Meaning of Each Word
Note: it means be careful not to fall into water.
It means the opposite if translate word by word in this example. The word "not" was also implied in this sentence from the combination of these words. This is also because of the difference between Chinese and English syntax.
So what's the similarities and differences between Chinese and English syntax?
Subject in a Sentence
The placement of the subject in a Chinese sentence is similar to an English sentence that in general, it is in the beginning of the sentence. For example:
English: I am doing my homework right now.
(I now doing my homework)
Both subjects "I" are the first word of the sentence.
Here is another example:
English: Is she going with us?
(She is with us going?)
The subjects "she" are both in the beginning of the sentences.
Past, Present, and Future Tenses
The way to show the tenses in Chinese sentences are very different than that of English. One main concept is that the Chinese verbs do not change form according to tenses. Instead, there are words to be added to show tenses.
In Chinese, the words that signify time such as yesterday or last year can be used to show past tense,
adding the word or means in the past.
English: I ate lunch.
(I eat lunch)
Notice that the verb did not change in Chinese whereas in English the word "eat" change to "ate" for past tense. Instead of changing the verb, the word was added to show past tense.
Here is another example:
English: I went to school yesterday.
(I yesterday go to school)
This example shows that adding word "yesterday" is another way to show past tense, but the verb never changed form.
Present tense in Chinese is just the normal sentence without any additional words.
English: I ride my bike.
(I ride my bike)
The verb is just the regular verb for Chinese.
For future tense in Chinese, similar to past tense, adding words that shows time such as tomorrow,
adding the word can show future tense.
English: I will do my homework.
(I [will] do my homework)
The added word "will" shows future tense in English, and similary in Chinese, the added word shows future tense.
The Way to show Location
In English, usually prepositions are used to show location or to show "where." In Chinese, the word
serves the same function as prepositions, and it is placed right before the object of preposition just like English. One of the major difference is that in English, different prepositions are used with different cases.
1. I eat the cookie(on) the table.
2. She puts her bottle (in) the kitchen.
3. He finishes his homework (at) school.
The above shows three different prepositions being used in English. However, they all are the word same when translating to chinese.
The italicized (where the arrows point to) words are the preposition, and they are all the same word. In addition, just like English, the object of preposition, which are the underlined words, follows right after the prepositions.
Adjectives and Adverbs
Adjectives and adverbs serve as modifiers in a sentence. In most of the cases, adjectives and adverbs are before the words they modify in Chinese.
English: I have a beautiful, blue jacket.
(I have a beautiful blue jacket)
Just like English, adjectives (red underlined part) are before the noun (green underlined part) they are modifying. However, adverbs are a little different.
Here's another example,
English: I run quickly.
(I quickly run)
Adverbs (red underlined part) in Chinese sentences are still before the verb (green underlined part) they modify even though in English it can be placed after the verb.
The main difference between English and Chinese proper nouns is that the first letter of a proper noun in English is capitalized, whereas in Chinese, the form of a proper noun is the same as a normal noun.
Like English, Chinese has pronouns that show first, second, and third persons in singular or plural forms, and their placements are similar that usually subject pronouns go before the verb and object pronouns go after the verb. However, there are several differences.
1. In Chinese, subject pronouns are the same words as object pronouns.
2. In Chinese, adding the character right after the singular pronouns turn them into plural.
Below is a diagram of the pronouns in English and Chinese:
English: he, she, it
English: him, her, it
Words to show Time
The way to show "when" something happens in Chinese is pretty similar to English. However, the placement of the word is different. The words that show time such as today or tomorrow usually are placed in the beginning of the sentence or right after the subject in Chinese. Here are some examples:
English: I am going to school tomorrow.
(tomorrow I am going to school)
*the red underlined word means tomorrow,
and it is in the beginning of the sentence.
(before the subject, which is the green
Another way to say the same thing is:
(I tomorrow am going to school)
*in this case, "tomorrow" is placed after the
In English, conjunctions are used to connect parts of a sentence together. Similarly, there are conjunctions in Chinese that do the same function. They are placed in the sentence just like English that they are between independent or dependent clauses.
Here is an example:
English: I forgot to set my alarm, so I was late.
(I forgot to set my alarm,
I was late)
In this example, the italicized word in chinese means "so" and it connects both of the independent clauses together just as English.
Let's look at parts of speech and their placements in a sentence
Short Description about Me and the Project
I am currently an undergraduate student studying Electrical Engineering at UC Davis and came from Taiwan few years ago. After taking LIN 1 Introduction to Linguistics, I have learned a lot of new concepts. One of the most interesting topics was syntax. I learned that every sentence can be analyzed by using a syntax tree, separating noun and verb phrases and so on. This topic then motivated me to do my term project on how English and Chinese syntax are similar and different. The term project would have the comparisons on how different parts of speech are used and placed in Chinese and English sentences, and how to construct sentences in Chinese.
What is Syntax?
According to Oxford Dictionaries,
After knowing different parts of speech and their general placements in a sentence, the video on the left would be a great guideline of how Chinese sentences are contructed.
"Word Order." Chinese Grammar Wiki. AllSetLearning, n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2014. <http://resources.allsetlearning.com/chinese/grammar/Word_order>.
Hugh, Grigg. "Mandarin Sentence Structure: Guidelines." East Asia Student. N.p., 2012. Web. 11 Mar. 2014. <http://eastasiastudent.net/china/mandarin/sentence-structure>.
Su, Qiu Gui. "Mandarin Chinese Sentence Structure." Mandarin Language. About.com, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <http://mandarin.about.com/od/grammar/a/sentencestruct.htm>.
"Conjunctions." Conjunctions. Capital Community College Foundation, n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2014. <http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/conjunctions.htm>.
As described in the video, Chinese words order in a sentence is different from that of an English sentence. Also the video mentioned that there is a general "golden rule" for constructing a sentence in Chinese, which is the following:
"Subject + When + Where + How + Action"
This general rule is really helpful when constructing a complicated sentence. However, there are still other variations that a Chinese sentence can be constructed, and one example that the video shows is that "when" can be placed before the "subject" if needed in a sentence.
In conclusion, there are some similarities between the syntax in English and Chinese sentences, but there are also differences between them. One of the similarities is that usually the subject in a sentence is in the beginning of the sentence in both Chinese and English, and one of the differences is that adverb in Chinese is placed before the word that it modifies whereas in English, adverb can be placed before or after the words it modifies. In addition, as describe in the video, the words order can be different, and specially, certain combinations of words in Chinese can mean something really different or even opposite from the meaning of each words as shown in the "take the child, fall into water carefully" example. Hence, the syntax in Chinese and English sentences are not fully the same.