New Chinese grammar wiki

John Pasden of Sinosplice has a Shanghai-based company called AllSet Learning that focuses on helping foreigners learn Chinese.  He discovered that since people have different learning needs, especially when it comes to learning grammar, it would be a good idea to have an overall framework available to learners.  Since the only things that presently exist like this are textbooks, and there is nothing really like this on the web, he decided to make an online source.

And since the best kinds of online sources are those that keep up to date and can be corrected, he made it a wiki.

And since he’s an open-source kind of guy, interested in making things that are beneficial to all, he put it under a Creative Commons license.  Check it out here. Continue…

Is Mr. Ma throwing a fit?!

You might remember the discussion we had last year about the peculiar usage of the exclamation “!” and other punctuation marks in modern mandarin. I bring this up again because in yesterday’s news there was a remarkable piece of writing that illustrates the phenomenon.  Interesting too because the author is an admired member of the internet elite, speaker of English and used to working with foreigners: none other than Jack Ma, the founder of the Alibaba empire.

You can read all about it in this Forbes blog post. To make a long story short: Mr. Ma was slightly annoyed when he found that dozens of his employees were using the company to collude with outside swindlers, and he wrote a circular letter containing, in its Chinese original:

– 11 periods
– 21 exclamation marks.

In the first half of the letter it is even more pronounced, with a total of 12 exclamations for only 4 periods, and then those 4 look like they’ve been forgotten there  at the end of the paragraphs. Continue…

Before birth

Every morning at 8 and every evening at 6:30, I religiously delete the “news update” text sent by the mobile phone company here in Beijing. Little did I know that in the process of resenting the intrusion, I was denying myself the daily joke that comes with the afternoon update. My third-grader daughter is not so dismissive. She snags the phone once in a while and scans before I delete, pointing out the jokes she thinks I’ll get (not many). The other day there was one with a bit of grammar in it:


Late at night a taxi driver picks up a young woman  going to an outer district. On the way, the young woman gives him an apple. The driver, eating, says “Delicious!” only to hear the woman slowly reply, ” Yes, before birth (in my past life) I liked them.”


The taxi driver is so scared his scalp tingles! The young woman continues, “But after I’d given birth to my child my tastes changed completely!”

The joke’s twist depends on an ambiguity that also exists for some verbs in English, but not for this particular verb. Continue…

It’s not mine, but it’s ours

The standard translation of Mandarin’s two first-person plural pronouns goes something like this:

  • 我们 wǒmen: “we / us / our”*
  • 咱们 zánmen: “we / us / our” explicitly including the person being spoken to

But here’s another use I’ve come across a lot recently: zánmen used possessively (“our”) when the thing possessed most certainly doesn’t belong to the speaker.

Imagine this scene: an interviewer from a market research firm is talking with a manager about his company’s operations. He says:

Zánmen gōngsī zhǔyào cóngshì shénme yèwu ne?
What’s your [literally: “our”] company’s main line of work? Continue…

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. Continue…


As Syz will attest, children are a lode of linguistic gold.

One Chinese grammar pattern I find especially interesting, mainly because it is so much more flexible than its English cousin, is called a complement of result. The English version belongs to a structure called a predicative complement.  An example is she called him an idiot.  The verb called is followed by two noun phrases, but they are not both objects, as would be the case in I gave Sally my book.  The noun phrase an idiot is a property that is assigned to the object him in that clause.  In English, predicative complements can be noun phrases, like an idiot, or adjective phrases, like stupid (she called him stupid).

In Chinese as well, complements of result are a kind of predicative complement that can be an adjective phrase, like 我吃饱了 (wǒ chī baǒ le; I’m full), 他累坏了(tā leì huaì le; he’s exhausted), or 玩儿腻了(wánr nì le; bored of playing (with this)).  All of them show the state of something after something happens; you eat until you’re full, are tired to the point of exhaustion (note that 累 is an adjective—adjectives can serve as complete predicates in Chinese), you play with something until you’re bored of it.

But they can also be verbs! Continue…

I’m talking to you or about someone else

My daughter (PBS), now 8, has been Mommy’s girl since day 1. Sure, Dad is a reasonable substitute when Mom’s not around. And we did have a long honeymoon last year when I moved to Beijing after a several-month stint of separation. Still, I’ve got no illusions about where her center of gravity is.

Even so, I draw the line at being discussed as if I’m not there. So the other day after I’d told her to clean her toys off the stairs — and added a long, dull parental lecture about how someone might slip and break open their skull — and PBS responded by looking at her mother and saying…

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What’s Daddy saying?

… I groused at her: “Why don’t you just ask me instead of talking to your mom as if I’m not here.”

“But Daddy,” she countered, “I was talking to you!”

Then it struck me: she could have been talking to me. That is, a perfectly grammatical translation could also be:

Bàba zài shuō shénme?
What are you saying? [where bàba is a title and used in place of “you”] Continue…

National Grammar Day (Envy)

Today, March 4th (march forth!) is National Grammar Day in the United States. There are plenty of postings and sites dedicated to that for your googling pleasure, so I won’t burden you with more of the same, especially because this site doesn’t have much to do with the United States.

Last year I coincidentally spent National Grammar Day with Geoff Pullum, one of the world’s top grammarians.  We even talked a lot about grammar, but neither one of us knew that it was that day until the following day when I saw Arnold Zwicky’s post about it.

We don’t seem to have anything like a “national grammar day” in China, unfortunately, so I can’t write about that either. But grammar for me has become a wondrous thing.

And Chinese has grammar, despite what everyone says. Continue…

Mandarin vs English grammaticality

Every learner of Mandarin has, at some point in time, been stymied in their attempt to ask: Is the sentence I just uttered grammatical? The stymying* response is usually along the lines of this: “Welllll, you could say it that way, but maybe you should say it like this.”

You: “But is it grammatical?”

B: “Or you could say it like this…”

You: “Suàn le” (算了 = fuggedaboutit)

Before you start thinking that this is somehow unique to this language community, though, consider that you might just be at the point of trying to ascertain the unknowable. Check out these Chomsky sentences and then visit Jabal Al-Lughat‘s followup post on them Continue…