Over years of teaching Mandarin to English speakers, I’ve noticed some recurring mistakes that can end up becoming bad habits if left uncorrected. Here are the three most common mistakes I see Mandarin learners make.
NB: Example sentences marked “×”in red are incorrect. Those marked in green are correct.
1. Overuse of “是” (shì: to be)
A common mistake I often hear students make is using 是 in sentences with an adjective.
- An example: 你是很漂亮 × (nǐ shì hěn piàoliang ×).
- This is a literal translation of the English sentence “you are very pretty.” However, in Chinese, such sentences do not need a verb.
- The correct way to say this is: 你很漂亮 (nǐ hěn piàoliang).
Similarly, the sentence 他是很高 × (tā shì hěn gāo ×), which means “he is very tall,” is incorrect. 高 (gāo), like 漂亮 (piàoliang), is an adjective, and therefore 是 is not needed: 他很高 (tā hěn gāo) is the correct way to say it.
So when do we use 是? It is used in sentences where the word used to describe something is a noun.
- For example: 你是中国人 (nǐ shì zhōngguó rén: you are Chinese).
- This sentence is similar to 你很漂亮 (nǐ hěn piàoliang), as in both cases we are saying something about 你. But in the first sentence, the word used is an adjective, 漂亮, whereas in the second sentence the word used is a noun, 中国人 (zhōngguó rén).
If you have trouble figuring out which words are adjectives and which words are nouns, keep the following in mind. When describing something with an adjective, it is usually an opinion (not everyone will agree someone is pretty). When using a noun, what is being described is fact.
2. Overuse of “和” (hé: and)
The elements joined by 和 (hé: and) are coordinate and they often belong to categories of the same kind. Generally, it is not used to join clauses.
- For example, when talking about hobbies, students may say 我喜欢看电影和我喜欢听音乐× (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng hé wǒ xǐhuan tīng yīnyuè × ), which means “I like watching movies and I like listening to music.”
- Since “我喜欢看电影” and “我喜欢听音乐” are two clauses, we do not use 和 to connect them. There are two ways to correct this.
- 我喜欢看电影和听音乐 (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng hé tīng yīnyuè) is correct, because 和 is not connecting two full sentences.
- Use a comma to connect the two clauses: 我喜欢看电影，也喜欢听音乐 (wǒ xǐhuan kàn diànyǐng, yě xǐhuan tīng yīnyuè).
How would you correct the following two sentences?
- 咖啡多少钱一杯和啤酒多少钱一瓶？× (kāfēi duōshǎo qián yìbēi hé píjiǔ duōshǎo qián yìpíng ×): How much is a cup of coffee and how much is a bottle of beer?)
- The correct version should be: 咖啡多少钱一杯？啤酒多少钱一瓶？(kāfēi duōshǎo qián yìbēi? píjiǔ duōshǎo qián yìpíng?)
- 医生给我一些药和说: “多喝水.”× (yīsheng gěi wǒ yìxiē yào hé shuō “duōhēshuǐ” ×): The doctor gave me some medicine and said “drink more water”).
- Since 医生给我一些药 (yīsheng gěi wǒ yìxiē yào: the doctor gave me some medicine) is a full sentence, we could call it a clause. We cannot connect it to “said” with 和. Instead of using 和, we should use 并且 (bìngqiě), a conjunction that can connect clauses.
3. Misplaced adverbial words
Adverbial words should be put before the verb in a sentence as opposed to at the end. Native English speakers often make this common mistake because it is sometimes tough to overcome established language patterns that have become second nature.
The basic structure of Chinese sentences is: S + adverbial words + V(O).
- I get up at 7 o’clock.
- 我起床7点 × (wǒ qǐchuáng 7diǎn ×)
- I study at Peking University.
- 我学习在北京大学× (wǒ xuéxí zài běijīng dàxué ×)
- I go to work by subway.
- 我上班坐地铁 × (wǒ shàngbān zuò dìtiě ×)
- I play basketball with my friends.
- 我打篮球跟我的朋友 × (wǒ dǎ lánqiú gēn wǒde péngyou ×)
Since the basic structure of Chinese sentences is: S + adverbial words + V(O), the sentences above should be corrected as:
- 我7点起床 (wǒ 7 diǎn qǐchuáng)
- 我在北京大学学习 (wǒ zài běijīng dàxué xuéxí)
- 我坐地铁上班 (wǒ zuò dìtiě shàngbān)
- 我跟我的朋友打篮球 (wǒ gēn wǒde péngyou dǎ lánqiú).
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