Function words are a difficult point for learners of Chinese, as they have no substantial or specific meaning. Function words are those that have only a grammatical meaning, unlike nouns, verbs and adjectives that have concrete meanings.
First, let’s talk about the characteristics of function words in Chinese. They have the following features:
1. They are dependent on notional words, phrases or sentences.
2. They cannot be a sentence or a member of a sentence by themselves.
3. They cannot be used in the pattern of repetition of themselves.
Function words can be divided into a number of groups.
The first is prepositions.
These have two features. First, prepositions are used before a noun or a noun phrase to form a prepositional phrase, in which the noun or noun phrase is the object of the proposition.
For example, 沿着小路 (along the path) and 在礼堂里 (in the auditorium) are both prepositional phrases where 沿 and 在 are the prepositions.
为实现我们的目标 (in order to realize our objectives) is another example, where 为 is used as a preposition and 实现我们的目标 is a phrase.
Prepositional phrases can be used as adverbials, supplements and attributives by placing “的” at the end. For instance, 关于污染的问题 means “concerning issues of pollution,” with 关于污染的 being an attributive of 问题。
Prepositional phrases indicate how the subject of a sentence is related to the predicate of the sentence. For instance,
The meaning of the above sentence is
“On Monday morning, Mr. Lee will, according to the regulations, explain the issue of pollution to everyone.”
Frequently used prepositions are as follows:
打 (from…on); 至 (until, to); 在 (in, on, at); 被 (by); 把 /管 (indicator for antecedent object); 因 (as a result of); 为了(in order to, for); 除了 (except); 用 (with, using).
The second second class of function words is conjunctions.
Conjunctions are used to connect words, phrases and sentences to indicate the logical relation between them. 和，而 express coordination; 并 means progression; 或 and 还是 indicate alternation;
conjunctions for adversative transition include 虽然……, 但是（却）……; 尽管……., 可是……; ……, 却…… ; ……, 然而……;
for cause and effect, we can use 因为……, 所以……; 由于……, 因此……; 之所以……, 是因为……； 既然……, 就（可见，可知）…..; ……, 故…..;
for conditions we usually use 只有……, 才能……; 只要……, 就……; 无论……, 都……; 不管….., 也（总）……; 除非……, 才……;
and for presumption we use 如果……, 就……; 要是……, 就……; 即使……, 也……; 若是……, and 那么…… .
The third class of function words is auxiliary words.
Here’s a list of the major ones:
1. 的 is used between an attributive and a central noun, such as 美丽的公园 (beautiful park). It can also be used at the end of a verb or a verb phrase to make a noun phrase, such as 游泳的 (those who swim) and 在室外的 (those outside the house); thirdly, it can be placed at the end of a sentence to express certainty in a statement. For example, 他会回来的 means “he will certainly come back.” Lastly, it can also be used between a verb and its object to emphasize or stress the sentence member before the verb. For instance, 我在飞机上吃的饭 (it was on the plane that I had my meal).
2. 地 is used between the adverbial and the central word (verb, adjective), such as自由地飞翔 (fly freely).
3. 得 is used between the central word and the supplement, such as 跑得很快 (run very fast) and 吃得精光 (eat up).
4. 着 is placed after a verb like a suffix to express that an action is in progress, such as 听着音乐 (listening to music).
5. 了 and 过 appear after a verb to express an action that has been completed, such as 看过 (have watched) and 读了(have read). 了 can also be used at the end of an imperative sentence to mean stopping one thing to do another thing. For example, 休息了 means that it’s time to have a break.
6. 看 is placed after a verb to indicate an attempt. For example, 摸一下看 (try having a touch).
7. 来着 is used at the end of a sentence to indicate a time not long before. For example, 他说什么来着？(What did he said just now?)
8. 一下, placed after a verb, indicates a little bit of time, such as 请你来一下 (please come over for a little while).
9. 似的，般，一般，and 一样 can be placed after a noun and means “like,” or “in the manner of.” For example, 大海一样的 (like an ocean).
10. 连 before a noun, verb or an adjective emphasizes the word after it. For example, 连北极熊都觉得冷了 (even polar bears feel it’s cold).
11. 为……所……. expresses passive voice in a sentence. 这种产品为消费者所欢迎 (this product is liked by consumers).
12. 所+transitive verb+的. This structure is often used before a noun as an attributive, such as 所邀请的客人 (invited guests).
13. 所+transitive verb can be used as a noun, such as 所做 (something that has been done).
14. 们 can be used after a noun to make it plural, such as 士兵们 (soldiers).
15. 吗 at the end of a sentence indicates interrogation, such as 你是学生吗？(Are you a student?).
16. 吧 at the end of a sentence indicates a guess or suggestion, such as 你是学生吧？(You must be a student), and 让我买单吧 (let me pay the bill.)
17. 呢 at the end of a sentence means a further question, such as 我要苹果，你呢？(I want apples, and you?)
18. 啊 at the end of a sentence increases the emotional influence of the sentence. For example, 真香啊! (How delicious it is!) and 这不可能啊 (this is definitely impossible).
19. 呀 is used at the end of an imperative sentence to urge someone to begin to do something right away, such as 快说呀! (tell me right now!).
Correct use of function words not only helps you to make sentences grammatically right but also makes your Chinese sound more genuine and more appropriate. Intensive reading will show you more specific situations in which function words are used, from which you can learn a lot.
Lu Jianzhen, Collection of Essays on Chinese Function Words, Jun.1 2003, Chinese Language Publishing House