It is almost inevitable that people learning a foreign language will make mistakes like this: arranging sentences according to their native language habits. This is very common among English speakers learning Chinese. Elementary and intermediate level students always need a “translating process” before they open their mouths to speak in Chinese.


That is, when they decide to say a sentence in Chinese, they first form the correct English sentence in their minds, then translate this English sentence into Chinese. This process not only slows down their delivery, but also makes it difficult to avoid typical grammatical mistakes. Here are some of the most common grammatical mistakes.


Incorrect tones


Chinese is a tonal language. The same pinyin (Chinese phonetics) spelling with five different tones produces five completely different meanings.


For example:


  • (eight)
  • (pull out)
  • (a measure word)
  • (dad)
  • ba (particle, placed at the end of a sentence to express suggestion, request, question or exclamation)


Because English is not a tonal language, memorizing the correct tone for every Chinese word is a very challenging task for all English speakers. Using tones incorrectly has created many funny stories among Chinese learners. Let’s share two stories now.


The first story is well known in Mandarin-teaching schools in Shanghai. In a group class, a male American student tried to say “May I ask you?” in Chinese to his female teacher. The correct sentence should be:


“Wǒ kěyǐ wèn nǐ ma?”


But instead, he actually said:


“Wǒ kěyǐ wěn nǐ ma?” which means, “May I kiss you?”


The second story tells of a conversation between a Chinese wife and her American husband. The Chinese wife was showing off a new silk dress to her husband.


“Zhè shì sīchóu liàozi, liángkuai,” which means “This is silk fabric, nice and cool.”


Her American husband exclaimed, “Liǎng kuài?! Tài piányi le!” which means, “Two RMB? So cheap!”


Using intransitive verbs as transitive


The Chinese verb 见面 [jiàn miàn] is intransitive, which means this verb cannot be followed by an object. The meaning is “meet” in English. Because the English word “meet” can be used either as a transitive verb or an intransitive one, English speakers often compose Chinese sentences using the English structure A 见面 B, which is never used by Chinese speakers:


For example:


  • Mary met Tom at a Chinese restaurant.
    • 在一家中国饭店,马丽见面了汤姆。(incorrect)
    • 在一家中国饭店,马丽和汤姆见面了。(correct)


  • They met each other in France.
    • 他们在法国见面了对方。(incorrect)
    • 他们在法国和对方见面了。(correct)


Another example:


结婚 [jié hūn] is also an intransitive verb, which means “to marry” in English. Like见面, it cannot appear before an object. Because you can say “A married B” in English, many English speakers try to express the same idea in Chinese as “A结婚了B,” which is wrong.


Then how do you express A married B in Chinese correctly? First you need to learn two new Chinese words.

  • [jià] (a woman marries a man)
  • [] (a man marries a woman)


These are three correct ways to talk about Mary and Tom getting married.


  • 马丽和汤姆结婚了。(correct) (Mary and Tom got married)
  • 马丽嫁了汤姆。(correct) (Mary married Tom)
  • 汤姆娶了马丽。(correct)  (Tom married Mary)


If you use the structure “A结婚了B,” it will result in a grammatical mistake.


  • 马丽结婚了汤姆。(incorrect) (Mary married Tom)
  • 汤姆结婚了马丽。(incorrect) (Tom married Mary)


Using parts of speech incorrectly


The most typical parts-of-speech mistake by English speakers is , which means “all” in English. “All” in English can be used as an adverb, an adjective, or a noun. However, in Chinese only can be used as adverb. The adjective and noun form of “all” in Chinese has a completely different word 所有 [suǒ yǒu]. Typical wrong ways to use by English speakers are: +noun or using as a noun.


For example:


  • 我喜欢都学生。(incorrect)
  • 我喜欢所有学生。(correct)
  • 这是我的都。(incorrect)
  • 这是我的所有。(correct)


Here are the correct ways to use and 所有:

  • 他们都走了。(They all left) In this sentence, is an adverb.
  • 他告诉了所有人。(He told all the people) In this sentence, 所有 is an adjective.
  • 他给了她所有。(He gave her his all) In this sentence, 所有 is a noun.


Word order confusion


Because English allows placing a time expression at the end of a sentence, many students also put Chinese time expressions in that position. This is wrong. Time in Chinese can be put at the beginning of a sentence or just after the subject, but you cannot put time after the predicate.


For example:


  • 我们开会在明天上午九点 (incorrect)(We will have the meeting 9:00 tomorrow morning)
  • 明天上午九点,我们开会。(correct)
  • 我们明天上午九点开会。(correct)


Hero Image (Chinese Learning) by Alessio Mumbo Jumbo (CC BY-ND 2.0)