[Note. This doc version does not show the Chinese characters correctly, but it does show the structure diagrams; the reverse is true of the ps (postscript) version which can also be downloaded

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Joanne Chung

[Note. This .doc version does not show the Chinese characters correctly, but it does show the structure diagrams; the reverse is true of the .ps (postscript) version which can also be downloaded.]
Foundations of English Grammar

Essay 3 -

The main grammatical differences between English and Chinese

When I say I am looking into the grammar of Chinese, I am painting the picture with a broad brush – there are more than 90 languages spoken throughout China while not all of them are Chinese. There are 7 groups of Chinese dialects which are mutually unintelligible in speaking, even though they all share the same script. There are nuances of grammar from one dialect to another. Although my first language is the Southern dialect Cantonese, in this essay I am going to discuss the grammar of Modern Standard Chinese based on the dialect Mandarin. It is because what we speak in Mandarin is exactly what we have in formal writings, while there are quite a number of Cantonese characters being invented by its speakers which are only for informal writings (not even in formal Cantonese speech!). Mandarin has been designated as the official and common language of the People’s Republic of China and it is the language that has the largest number of speakers in the world.

For the sake of convenience, I will use the term “Chinese” to refer to “Mandarin” in this essay. There are several distinct grammatical differences between English and Chinese. I will focus on only three of them – words and morphemes, questions and the signal words in subordinate clauses.
I. Words and morphemes

Sentences are made up of words. In alphabetical languages, words are made up of alphabets. Many languages in the world are alphabetical, for example, English, German and French. Chinese, in contrast, is non-alphabetical. When we talk about a word in English, we are referring to a cluster of alphabets being put together in such a way that it can bring out a particular meaning. In Chinese, when we talk about (which is under the entry word in the dictionary), we are referring to characters like , , , . Rather surprisingly, is actually different from word: -

  1. Chinese script:

Mandarin phonetic transcription:

Meaning: fish

While …

  1. 電腦



And …

  1. 打印機


Obviously, one Chinese character does not correspond to one English word. And the number of Chinese characters has nothing to do with the length of the corresponding English word.

In English, a single alphabet usually does not have any meaning (exceptions are words like the article a, the pronoun I). In Chinese, usually every single character under the lexical category has its own meaning. In example (2), diàn means electronic and năo means brain. We cannot break down computer into c, o, m, p, u, t, e, r and say that each and every alphabet has its own meaning contributing to the meaning of computer, but we can break down computer into morphemes - compute and suffix –er. In other words, a Chinese character, like diàn, is actually a morpheme. It is the smallest unit in the language which has a meaning.
So what is a word in Chinese? In English, a word expresses a certain idea. We can define word in Chinese in the same way. Refer to example (2), 電腦 diànnăo can be regarded as a word because it expresses one idea – computer. It is easy to group the morphemes into words for nouns which describe something rather concrete. However, when it comes to those more complicated ideas, borderline cases arise. For example, to describe a certain concept:

  1. 全球一體化



The long chunk of Mandarin phonetic transcription looks weird – in reality, we seldom arrange them in the way that I do in example (4). Instead, we break them down into shorter parts according to their meaning: quán means whole, qíu means the world, means one, means system, huà corresponds to the suffix -ation. In practice, we can put the transcription into: quánqíu yìtĭhuà. In other words, we treat 全球quánqíu as one word and 一體化yìtĭhuà as another. It is noteworthy that to me, a native speaker of Chinese, while saying “全球quánqíu is one word” is perfectly fine, saying “全球quánqíu is one ” is by no means acceptable according to my intuition.
II. Questions

i. Operater movement

Operator movement in questions plays an important role in English, while it is not common in Chinese. For example, in the question

(5a) What do you like?
The base form of this question is

(5b) You like what?

The interrogative word what has undergone wh-movement – it has moved from the DP position, which is the complement of V, at the end of the sentence, to the spec-CP in the beginning, leaving behind its trace in the original position. The dummy do has undergone I-to-C movement – it has moved from the head position of an IP to the head position of the CP. The following tree is an analysis of (5a).

On the contrary, in Chinese, the base form is itself the question:

(5c) 你 喜歡 甚麼?

nĭ xĭhuān shénme

You like what?

There is no need for a dummy do in the Chinese translation and no movement is involved. Therefore, when we analyse a Chinese question, we do not have to rearrange the word order. In reality, when we form a question in our mind, we do not need to draw all these trees and arrows, no matter it is in English or Chinese! It is because when we learn a language, we do not start with these internal structures. Owing to the word order of questions in Chinese, when I was first introduced the concept of wh-movement a few weeks ago, the base form of a question came so natural for me because it is exactly what happen in my mother tongue.


ii. Question particles

How do we know if a sentence is a question or just a declarative statement? In English, there is no sentence particle in formal questions but the word order is obvious enough to show whether it is a question. However, in Chinese, you will not know if a sentence is actually a question until the end, as shown in the word order discussed above. We need sentence particles to indicate that a particular sentence is a question. When we are expecting “yes” or “no” as the answer, a sentence particle comes at the end of the question: -

(7a) 你 要 吃 東西 嗎?

nĭ yào chī dōngxī ma

You need eat something (particle)?

In English, we have …

(7b) Do you need something to eat?

If the question particle in (7a) is absent, the sentence is still perfectly grammatical – but it has a different meaning:-

(7c) 你 要 吃 東西 ?

nĭ yào chī dōngxī

You need eat something ?
How do we phrase it in English?-

(7d) Oh, you need something to eat? I thought you didn’t.

It would be even better if we punctuate it with ?! instead of ! at the end of the question. The utterer at first thinks that the person whom he/she was speaking to did not need anything to eat. He/she is a little surprised when he/she knows that the answerer actually needed something to eat. In a word, the question particles in Chinese are actually functional, unlike huh or yea that we add in spoken English questions.
If the question mark is replaced by a full stop in (7c), the sentence becomes a declarative sentence:

(7e) 你 要 吃 東西 。

nĭ yào chī dōngxī

You need eat something
Which means…

(7f) You need to eat something.

The question becomes an order. The speaker tells the hearer that he needs to eat something. This change has the same effect on English and Chinese.

III. Signal words in subordinate clauses

In both English and Chinese, various kinds of signal words clearly indicate the introduction of a subordinate clause. There are also cases when these words are not allowed.



Example 8 -

Relative clause



Example 9 –

Noun clause



Examples 10 and 11 –

Adverbial clause



Example 12 –

Noun clause



Occurrence of signal words
In the following relative clause, no signal word can be present in the Chinese version, while there must be one in the English version. The particlede links倫敦Lúndūn with老師lăoshī.


Which means …

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