Category: Basic Chinese Grammar

Dec 20 2009

The Use of “ne” in Mandarin Chinese

If you know any Chinese you may be perplexed as to when to use the word “ne” (neutral tone), especially in relation to asking questions.

I have already written about the use of  “ma” (1st tone) in asking questions, but “ne” is also commonly used in certain situations.

My personal basic rule is that “ne” can be used optionally in any question that doesn’t require “ma”.  In fact “ne” is always optional.  Any question where we put “ne” at the end, the “ne” is not necessary.  I regard “ne” as a little word that the chinese use to emphasize that what was just said was a question.  They are so used to saying “ma” at the end of a question perhaps they need something else for a question that uses a question word (eg what, where, why, when etc).

For example

Where are you going ?

Where are you going “ne” ?

Both have the exact same meaning.  The “ne” is completely unnecessary but is quite commonly used in Chinese.  Another way you could look at “ne” is perhaps how we might say :

Where are you going, huh ?

Where are you going, eh ?

The “huh” and “eh” aren’t necessary but we might use these words from time to time depending on the circumstances.

Now there is another very important and useful purpose for “ne” in Mandarin Chinese that is a little different for above.  First of all it’s very useful for throwing a question back at someone.  Like this short dialogue :

How are you ?

I’m fine, and you ?

Here the “and you” would be rendered “ni3 ne” in Chinese.  Literally “you ne” (because the pronoun “you” is “ni3” in Chinese).

If anyone asks you a personal question like

How old are you ?

Where do you come from ?

Are you married ?

etc you can answer the question and then when you are finished answering you can say “ni ne” if you want the other person to answer the same question.  No need to repeat the same question, so “ne” is very useful for this purpose.

Another usage of “ne” would be in making suggestions about things in certain circumstances.  For example look at this dialogue

What do you want to eat ?

How about burgers ?


Hot dogs ?


Italian ?

After making the first suggestion of burgers, we wouldn’t normally say “how about” each time after that.  We just make the suggestion and use intonation (ie raise our voice when saying “hot dogs”, “italian” etc).  Because intonation in Mandarin is so important to the meaning of the word, we can’t really do that.  So in the case above after saying “hot dogs” we would say “ne”.  Further, we would say “ne” after every suggestion (except perhaps the first one where we would likely say “how about”)

Another similar usage would be in a dialogue like this :

I think China is a great country

and America ?

The speaker has expressed his opinion about something.  Instead of asking the full sentence “and what do you think about America” we can simply say “and America” again raising the intonation of our voice.  In Mandarin Chinese you can just say “America ne”

I hope that helps y0u understand a little bit about how and when to use “ne” in Mandarin Chinese

Dec 19 2009

Mandarin Chinese Passive and Active Voice using Ba and Bei

In Mandarin Chinese it is very easy to express the active and passive voices.  If you aren’t very familiar with grammar and what that means here are some examples in English

The boy ate the chicken

The chicken was eaten by the boy

The chicken was eaten

The first sentence is active voice.  It is the most common way of speaking.  But sometimes we want to direct more attention to the object (in this case the chicken) and that’s when we need passive voice.  Especially in the 3rd sentence when we don’t necessarily know WHO ate the chicken, but we do know it was eaten by someone.  For such sentences passive voice is a must.

In Mandarin Chinese we use “ba” 把 (3rd tone) and “bei” 被 (4th tone) for active and passive voice.  In fact with active voice we don’t even need “ba” 把 as it can be expressed using grammar similar to English.  However if you want to speak idiomatically (ie the way a native Chinese person would speak) then you should learn to use “ba”.

Using English I will show you where to place “ba” and “bei” for the 3 sentences above :

The boy “ba” 把 the chicken eat

The chicken “bei” 被 boy eat

The chicken “bei” 被 eat

You will notice each time I rendered the verb as “eat”.  I didn’t change it to “ate” or “eaten”.  I do this on purpose to demonstrate that the verbs in mandarin never change for any reason.  It sounds horrible in English of course, but it’s perfect grammar in Mandarin.

You will also notice that in each sentence the verb is at the end.  This is because this is how the Chinese speak.  They like to have all their nouns or objects at the beginning of the sentence and verbs towards the end.

You could also say in mandarin “the boy ate the chicken” the same as we say in English.  The word order and grammar is the same but you don’t need to use “ba” here.  You only use “ba” when you want to mention the 2 objects before the verb (which is a more authentic way to speak in chinese).

Another way I like to think of “ba” and “bei” is like direction arrows.

把 ba ->

被 bei <-

So whatever is in front of “ba” is performing the action to the thing after “ba” 把, and of course “bei” 被 is the opposite.

Here are some more sentences where “bei” would be used (ie passive voice)

The criminal was arrested

The man was beaten

The water was drunk

The door was opened by me

I am loved

All of the above sentences would use “bei” in mandarin.

Dec 18 2009

Chinese Mandarin Past Tense

Expressing verbs in past tense is incredibly easy in Mandarin Chinese.

Think about English for a second

I am -> I was

I go -> I want

I eat -> I ate

I want -> I wanted

In English we are able to add “ed” to the end of SOME verbs.  But of course we have all those irregular verbs that don’t have that capability as shown above.  Well Mandarin is very easy.  They also have a sort of “ed” if you like.  The difference is every single verb in their language can be made past tense by using it, without exception.

It isn’t “ed” of course, it is “le” (pinyin spelling)

Adding “le” to the end of ANY verb renders it past tense.  Sometimes the “le” is said right after the verb, but also sometimes the “le” is put at the very end of the sentence.  I am not quite sure if there is any hard and fast rule about that, but as you learn the language I am sure you will pick up the feel of when to put “le” at the end of the sentence or right after the verb.

I yesterday eat “le” lunch

I yesterday eat lunch “le”

Here both sentences have the exact same meaning i.e. “I ate lunch yesterday”.  Regardless of where the “le” appears the meaning is the same.

Another way to denote past tense is to surround the action with “shi4” and “de”.  For example :

I “shi4” yesterday eat lunch “de” = I ate lunch yesterday.

Further, Mandarin also use “guo4” (4th tone) to denote past tense.  However “guo” is used to denote sentences like :

I have been to China

I have eaten fish before

I have played tennis

These are the sentences where “guo” would be used.  In English this tense is called “Past Perfect”.  But if you don’t like grammar just think of “guo” as something that has happened at least once in the past, most likely a long time ago.

A simple way I like to think of it is like this

Did you go to China ? (for this question you would use “le” because you are asking about something that happened in the recent past)

Have you ever been to China ? (for this question you would use “guo” because you are asking if someone has ever done something at least once in the past)

Here are more sentences where “guo” would be used :

Have you ever eaten fish ?

Have you ever seen this movie ?

I have played football before

I tried it once

I have used it

These sentences generally talk about something in the distant past.  However it is possible that the things above happened recently, however we are conveying the idea that we have done it at least once in our life whether that be recently or a long time ago.  If you want to convey simple past tense in Mandarin just use “le” or the “shi” “de” combination.

In actual fact, many meanings can be conveyed simply through context.  If you are talking about yesterday the listener already knows you are talking about the past and therefore it isn’t really necessary to ensure every verb has a “le” after it or whatever.  The same rule applies when talking about the future.  Mandarin is a language of logic, it isn’t clouded with endless grammar rules and regulations.  Just say the bare minimum required to get the meaning across without all the filler and you are fine.

Dec 05 2009

How To Ask Questions in Mandarin Chinese

Asking questions in Chinese couldn’t be easier.  Let’s first compare English statements to questions

He is big

Is he big ?

In English we need to reverse the order of the verb and the pronoun in order to create a question.  However we also have another way to ask questions and that is using intonation.  If we were to make the statement “he is big” but at the end of the sentence raise our voice this conveys the idea of asking a question.  It’s not grammatically a question as the tone cannot be conveyed on paper unless of course we write the question mark like “he is big?”.

In mandarin however they have what I like to think of as a verbal question mark.  In Mandarin Chinese any statement can be turned into a question by simply saying the word “ma1” (1st tone) at the end.  So in the example above you would have :

He big

He big “ma” ?

I think this is a great feature of Mandarin Chinese making it very easy to learn.  Also notice the lack of the verb “to be” in the examples above.  In English we really overuse the verb “to be”.  We have to say “He IS big” but in mandarin it isn’t necessary as it is logically implied.  If we say “he” and then an adjective, logic implies that he IS that adjective.

There is also another way to make a question and that is to say the following :

He big not big ?

So if you don’t want to put “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can simply give the positive and negative options.  This and the use of “ma” are essentially only useable with yes/no questions.

Finally there is one more way to ask questions that is probably less common and I didn’t know until moving here.  Therefore this method may only be idiomatic or “street chinese” so it may not sound good to every Chinese speaker.  Similar to putting “ma” at the end of a sentence to make it a question you can also put “mei2you” or even just simply “mei2”.   So using our example above you could ask :

He big mei2you ?

He big mei2 ?

But remember this is something I heard after moving here so it could be street slang or whatever.  Use this method carefully.

So there you have it.   Asking a question in Mandarin Chinese is as simple as making a statement and adding the question tag word “ma” at the end or just stating both the positive and negative in the same sentence.

Of course when using actual question words like “who,what, when, where, why, how” etc you wouldn’t use any of the above structures because by using question words it’s already obvious you are using a question.  This is a mistake many foreigners make when speaking Chinese.  They get so used to saying “ma” at the end of a question that they even say “ma” when asking a who,what, when, where, why, or how question.  So try to be careful of that bad habit.

Dec 05 2009

Mandarin Chinese Basic Sentence Structure

Here I will explain some basic Mandarin Chinese sentence structure and grammar.

First of all when speaking mandarin you will want to put the time element of any sentence at the beginning of the sentence.  Further you will also want to put the people or nouns near the beginning too.  For example the English sentence :

Would you like to go to the movies with me tomorrow ?

Notice the structure in English.  The word “tomorrow” is the last word in English but in Chinese it would be the first word.  Further the second last word in English is “me” but in Chinese that needs to be near the begging close to the word “you”.  Let’s look at how this sentence would be said in Mandarin Chinese (without changing the words into Chinese for simplicity)

Tomorrow you would like with me to go to the movies ?

Here is another English sentence that we can change into Chinese Grammar :

I am going to America next year with my wife

The Chinese version would be :

Next year I and my wife are going to America

If that seems strange to you don’t worry.  You get used to it and it feels totally natural.  In fact I sometimes find myself speaking that way in English.  I guess that’s how you know you are really getting into the language when your mother tongue begins to be influenced.  It’s an interesting phenomenon.

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