One believer in Chinese grammar

Sinoglot has mentioned the curious idea (entertained by some speakers of Chinese) that the language has “no grammar.” It’s a pretty widespread feeling, often among folks you’d think would know better. Just to balance the scorecard a bit, here’s one bigwig law firm partner who begs to differ. Not only does Chinese have grammar, but newly arrived attorneys mess it up:

我们招聘的时候,很多都是先问英语好不好,但我看实际上很多人连中文都没写利落。… 最差的是连语文都没过关,因为法律文件,不管中文英文,为了表达清楚你的观点,就会写长句。这时候往往连主语、谓语、宾语都搞错了,犯很多语法上的错误。有时候我觉得这种事情很好玩,就是有些人写英文的时候,还会特别注意语法,但他写中文的时候,就不注意了,就像讲话一样。

When we’re recruiting, there are a lot of questions about whether someone’s English is good or not. But really a lot of people don’t even write Chinese well. The worst thing is their language isn’t even up to standard, because in legal writing — doesn’t matter whether it’s English or Chinese — in order to make your points clear you might end up writing long sentences. And then the subjects, predicates and objects all have errors. Sometimes I think this kind of thing is really funny: I mean there are people who are very careful with English grammar who pay no attention when it comes to Chinese — writing just like everyday speech.

[from an interview I did recently]

It’s funny how international some things are. In my US work (also with attorneys), I used to hear this kind of lament all the time. I was surprised to hear it here when I heard it in China for the first time, but since the same sentiment has now been echoed by three other law firms in a row, I’m starting to think it’s not some individual tic.

Maybe Chinese education (like US) could benefit from a bit more emphasis on grammar basics.

8 responses to “One believer in Chinese grammar”

  1. Brendan says:

    The problem probably isn’t with their grammar, per se, so much as it is with their ability to handle different registers. You see the same thing from, e.g., college freshmen in the US who don’t know how to write an academic paper. Not to say that there aren’t young Chinese professionals with atrocious grammar — I’ve translated for plenty of them — but my guess is that the real problem is that they simply don’t read. It’s not that they’re dumb — I know some people who are pretty well-read in English despite not reading much at all in Chinese — it’s just that they aren’t familiar with the possibilities of their own language.

  2. Syz says:

    Yeah, it does sound like it’s largely a register issue. But that in itself could have a grammar component. They might run into the same kinds of problems you see with inexperienced writers in the US, that as soon as they start aiming for some register that’s above the reach of their experience, the grammar does really go to pot.

    I taught freshman comp when I was a grad student and came across more than one student who, even as a native speaker of English, would botch basic grammar — well beyond just the occasional verb-agreement error that we all make — because they felt like written English had to have lots of clauses and other complicated shit.

  3. John says:

    Agreed… The person quoted is not so much saying that “Chinese has grammar” as “written Chinese has grammar.” You could almost interpret the person as saying that spoken Chinese has no grammar to speak of, but written Chinese does.

  4. Bruce says:

    There are several simple explanations to illuminate the reasons why many lawyers who speak Chinese as a first language do not write it well.

    One is that the mastery of the “law” in any language requires a huge amount of time and effort. That often means the emphasis is on understanding, not expression.

    Another is that most Chinese law students are nowadays expected to “master” law in English as well as Chinese. This is also very time-consuming, and can force them to focus on English at the expense of improving expression in their mother tongue.

    The third reason is a bit more subtle. I find that many Chinese professionals who must study English intensively (for one reason or another) often come to see Chinese as “inferior” to English.

    A crystal-clear example of this is older HK lawyers who studied law prior to 1997. They had no choice, frankly, but the end-result was a mindset that made arguing the law in Chinese almost unthinkable; their very raison d’etre was to represent their clients in English in a colonial system where English was Number 1, and Chinese Number 2. Before I went to Taiwan and worked briefly for Tsar & Tsai in the late 1980s, several Hong Kong lawyers told me it was virtually “impossible” to discuss the subtleties of law in Chinese.

    Imagine how surprised I was to sit in on Tsai & Tsar meetings (my boss was a Harvard-educated Chinese), and never hear one word of English. The briefs and high court decisions I read and translated tended to be quite impressive.

    At any rate, back to my point. Many Chinese really DO believe that the Chinese language lacks grammar, and having been taught that English does have a very demanding grammar, many Chinese professionals (not just lawyers but also engineers, etc.) then proceed to either 1) Ignore finer Chinese grammar points (which they obviously do know, as native speakers), and/or 2) Consciously or sub-consciously apply English grammar to written Chinese in the belief that this would raise their status in the eyes of others.

  5. hsknotes says:

    I’m with John on this, but I don’t think he goes far enough:

    “You could almost interpret the person as saying that spoken Chinese has no grammar to speak of”


    I don’t think this is “you could almost interpret”, I think its the most likely interpretation.

    Let’s think about this. As native english speakers, do we even not 注意語法 and say, produce subject-verb disagreement in spoken english? Or use conjugate verbs in a way that is just clearly wrong? Yes, but rarely.

    The implication from this guy’s statement, however, is that this is some sort of common feature of spoken chinese, where there’s some right way to order the sentence, where the 賓語 has to go, etc, and native chinese speakers just fuck this up all the time by “not paying attention.”

    I don’t know about you guys, but I think someone who is going to think native speakers of their own language routinely fuck up their own language/grammar in speech has a pretty different definition of grammar than I do, or something. While he’s past the “grammar = verb conjugation” and “grammar = rules for foreign languages” phase, he doesn’t seem to quite be there yet. Or maybe I’m wrong, and chinese people who speak mandarin as a first for 1.5th language really are fucking up all the time when they talk and write.

  6. Syz says:

    @John & hsknotes: hmm, I still think the guy would have a basic understanding that Chinese (even spoken Mandarin) has grammar. What he’s talking about is register and inability to handle grammar in that register.

    @Hsknotes alone: same comment applies to why I don’t agree with you on this point:

    The implication from this guy’s statement, however, is that this is some sort of common feature of spoken chinese, where there’s some right way to order the sentence, where the 賓語 has to go, etc, and native chinese speakers just fuck this up all the time by “not paying attention.”

    Again, I think he’s just saying they can’t handle the grammar of a more formal register.

    Very interesting stuff. By saying these Chinese professionals might view Chinese as “inferior” do you mean “not as capable of being precise”?

    Also: I’ve just interviewed a bunch of law students but never heard it come up that they were expected to master the law in English as well as Chinese. I wasn’t asking them precisely about that, but I’d be surprised if it was true but hadn’t come up. Are you still talking just Hong Kong?

  7. Bruce says:


    I was talking mainly about HK, and I haven’t researched how much English is required nowadays in Taiwan or the mainland for a typical law student.

    But I’d be surprised if legal professionals weren’t under the same pressure as others — from MBA candidates to doctors-to-be to engineers — to be able to handle English in their own domain. Honestly, a decent mastery of English (or at least high scores to that effect!) is more and more widely required in China, be it for grad studies or job interviews.

    As to seeing Chinese as “inferior,” I also find this attitude fairly common among those Chinese students who have studied English intensively. I do think they often find English more “precise,” but I also think it’s a due to a sense that they feel English is also (somehow) more “grammatical,” “international” and “modern.” These are not necessarily my viewpoints; but I find them expressed by many people I know here in China.

  8. Will says:

    As an American college kid a couple years into Chinese study, it’s startling to run into this idea of…中文没有语法 (无法语法吧?). A year ago I heard a classmate of mine remark to our teacher that Chinese frustrated him because its usages and structures were, to his mind, rigid in comparison with those of English, and that baffled me, too; I’ve always felt the rules of Chinese structure, time markers, case markers and all that related jazz were richly and satisfyingly clear and flexible.

    I guess I can see, though, why someone who speaks Chinese natively and who’s only ever studied English or a similar European language (my god German) might feel like their mother tongue was grammar-less. Certainly the rules of formation in Chinese are wayyy less subtly idiosyncratic than those of English–if one’s been struggling with English structures in school one’s whole life, it might seem like the relative clarity, simplicity and let-it-be nature of Chinese patterns don’t exist at all.

    But there’s certainly a grammar. God knows I make enough grammar mistakes in speech and in writing to know that one’s there, 哈哈哈. It’s just a grammar more founded in elegant economy of expression than in complex differentiations and specifics. European languages tend towards obnoxious precision, way beyond what any native speaker actually -needs- to understand what’s being said, and differentiated enough historically that in more recent centuries they’ve had large and warping impacts on one another. That manifests in mounting mountains of rules and headache-spawning exceptions. It’s a blessing Mandarin isn’t inflicted with that same mess, becaaause it’d be demoralizing as hell to the student, heh.

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