When you were a Chinese beginner, you may have heard that word order in Chinese is very similar to that of English. But gradually, you'll start to realize that there are quite a few ways in which the word order of even relatively simple sentences simply doesn’t match in Chinese and English. If you speak Chinese, but with English language habits, you may find that the listeners will misunderstand. So, now you’re going to have to work just a little bit to master the Chinese word order.
There are some very useful golden rules of Chinese word order:
The Basic SVO Sentence
This is the simplest daily sentence. SVO stands for Subject-Verb-Object. In this case, the Chinese word order is similar to English. Such as, “He drinks coffee,” “I love you,” “I like swimming,” and “I go to school.”
- 他喝咖啡。（tā hē kāfēi）
- He drinks coffee.
- 我爱你。（wǒ ài nǐ）
- I love you.
- 我喜欢游泳。（wǒ xǐhuan yóuyǒng）
- I like swimming.
Adding More Information to a Sentence
If you want to make a complex sentence and add more information and details to your basic sentence, you should abide by the following word order, which are also the golden rules:
Placement of time words in a sentence
Time words, the when part of a sentence, have a special place in Chinese. They usually come at the beginning of a sentence, right after the subject.
- 我早上喝咖啡。（wǒ zǎoshang hē kāfēi）
- I drink coffee in the morning.
- 他每天游泳。（tā měi tiān yóuyǒng）
- He swims every day.
- 我们星期一工作。（wǒmen xīngqīyī gōngzuò）
- We work on Monday.
Placement of place words in a sentence
When you want to tell where something happened in Chinese (at school, at work, in a company, etc.), you're most often going to use a phrase beginning with 在(zài). This phrase needs to come after the time word and before the verb. Pay attention to this last part: before the verb. In English, this information naturally comes after the verb, so it's going to be difficult at first to get used to saying WHERE something happened before saying the verb.
- 我在家喝咖啡。（wǒ zài jiā hē kāfēi）
- I drink coffee at home.
- 他在游泳池游泳。（tā zài yóuyǒngchí yóuyǒng）
- He swims in the swimming pool.
- 我们星期一在公司工作。（wǒmen xīngqīyī zài gōngsī gōngzuò）
- We work in the company on Monday.
Pay attention here: the where word means the location where the action takes place. Sometimes you can see the where word at the action position, but don’t confuse these two words.
- 他从家里去学校。（tā cóng jiālǐ qù xuéxiào）
- He goes to school from home.
In this sentence, you can see two where words 家里 and 学校. 家里 is the action place and 学校 is the object.
Placement of manner in a sentence
Manner refers to how you do something (as in quietly, quickly, angrily, drunkenly, etc.) or through some means or with tools. This can be done adverbially (before the verb), but it's worth remembering that a complement works very well too.
- 我悠闲地喝咖啡。（wǒ yōuxián de hē kāfēi）
- I leisurely drink coffee.
- 他走路去学校。（tā zǒulù qù xuéxiào）
- He goes to school on foot.
- 我们星期一在公司用电脑工作。（wǒmen xīngqīyī zài gōngsī yòng diànnǎo gōngzuò）
- We work with computers in the company on Monday.
Placement of duration in a sentence
When you talk about how long, you're getting into duration. It's not the same as a regular time word; it has its own rules.
- 我喝咖啡喝了二十分钟。（wǒ hē kā ēi hēle èrshí fēnzhōng）
- I drank coffee for twenty minutes.
- 他游泳游了三个小时。（tā yóuyǒng yóu le sān gè xiǎoshí）
- He swam for three hours.
- 我们星期一在公司用电脑工作了一整天。（wǒmen xīngqīyī zài gōngsī yòng diànnǎo gōngzuò le yī zhěng tiān）
- We worked with computers for a whole day in the company on Monday.
In conclusion, we can see that in the case of the basic SVO (Subject-Verb-Object) sentences, the Chinese word order is similar to the English word order and we can just follow the English language habits. But in the case of complex sentences, we should do it the Chinese way. Just remember this Golden Rule (Subject-When-Where-How-Action) carefully, put every word in the correct position, and you will be able to speak like a native Chinese person!