Grammar: Nouns


Today we’re going to talk about grammar. I’m not really fond of talking dryly about grammar, I think a lot of times that knowledge doesn’t make sense until you see it in use, or you use it incorrectly. My experience with Chinese though, has been that you really need both because Chinese grammar is so different that you want to learn it in its own terms. This kind of learning is difficult because a lot of the time we think of learning a language as first translating from our mother language, but you’re going to sound really strange when you speak Chinese if you do that. There are times when being an adult with a mother tongue help us learn a language, but there are other times when it’s an obstacle, grammar is one of those times.

You want to approach Chinese grammar in a more “big pictured way”. Instead of learning singular words and how they work, you want to learn sentence skeletons. Sort of like the English “if …, then …” where it’s important to just learn that skeleton and then fill it in with stuff as in “if I get up early, then I’ll bathe the cat.” The translations you make will be more in that way, sort like “oh this construction is for having one action precede another action”, or more specifically a conditional. If you think of Chinese grammar in this way it will be easier to express yourself and you’ll speak more naturally. Anyways, enough chitchat this kind of explanations can seem unconnected and confusing, so lets get right to it.


Nouns are not so hard in Chinese because they resemble nouns in English. There are different kinds of nouns (categories overlap):

Common nouns: concrete things like water 水 (shǔi), table 桌子 (zhuō zi), person 人 (rén)

Proper nouns: same like in English, names of cities, countries, people, etc.

Abstract nouns: not so concrete things like justice 义 (yì), knowledge 识 (shí), peace 和平 (hé píng), etc.

Collective nouns: I think these are like the universals of the common nouns that become abstract, mankind 人类 (rén lèi) or vehicle 车辆 (chē liàng).

Time nouns: day 日 (rì), month 月 (yuè) or Sunday 星期天 (xīng qī tiān).

Place nouns: Can also be proper nouns, but particular to a place, also things like living room 客厅 (kè tīng).

Locality nouns: I think these are a bit weird because they are nouns, we usually think of them as prepositions, up/down or above/below 上/下 (shàng/xià) or behind 后面 (hòu, mian).

Countable nouns: common nouns are usually countable nouns, but remember that in Chinese there are measure words (which I will make a post of in the future) which means that when you count things you can’t just say 1 dog or 1 paper, it would be something like 1 [measure word for some animals] dog and 1 [measure word for flat things] paper. It makes sense to us for the paper we would say “one sheet of paper” for example, but the thing is that all countable nouns in Chinese have measure words. These take some time to remember and recognize, so just be patient with them.

Uncountable nouns: these would be also abstract nouns, love 爱情 (ài qǐng) or sand 沙子 (shǎ zi).

Why are these categories important? I think it’s to show that nouns in Chinese aren’t that different from what we think of as nouns in general, so we can relax a bit. But only a little bit.

Weird Stuff

Let’s take the following sentence “今天星期三” (jīn tiān xīng qī sān) “Today is Wednesday”. Note that there is no “is” in the Chinese sentence, it’s literally “Today Wednesday”. So while we are used to not being able to modify a noun in English with an adverb in Chinese you can modify nouns by certain adverbs.

You could say something like “Today barely Wednesday” 今天才星期三 (才 cái – denotes something earlier than expected), which we would say as “Today is barely Wednesday” or “Today is only Wednesday”.

In conclusion, nouns are things we are familiar with, they aren’t some weird concepts in Chinese. They have, however, many possibilities of being modified, even by adverbs because of the grammar structure of Chinese. Look out for those nouns and their modifiers and try to get a feel for them.

That’s enough grammar for one day.


Hula Lin. A Grammar of Mandarin Chinese, Muenchen: Lincom Europa, 2001.

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