Learning to use prepositions in Mandarin Chinese can be a little tricky.
More often than not, prepositions aren’t the first thing that pops into your head when you’re thinking about learning Mandarin Chinese.
For new learners, though, forming proper sentences without understanding how to use these prepositions correctly can put you in a sticky situation.
Prepositions are essential parts of the sentences in all daily conversations.
Leaving them out or misusing them may distort the message you’re trying to get across, so getting this foundation right is a must!
In this guide, we’ll cover some commonly used prepositions in Mandarin Chinese, including examples of how they’re used.
What are Chinese prepositions?
Let’s take a quick look at what Chinese prepositions are.
Essentially, Chinese prepositions function as they do in English.
Prepositions are used to describe a direction, location, time, reason, or action.
They cannot stand alone in a sentence, but they do add important context when used with verbs or nouns.
Chinese prepositions can appear at the middle, start, or end of sentences.
If you want to structure sentences correctly and have a smooth conversation, it’s important to know how to use Chinese prepositions.
Chinese prepositions and how to use them
Let’s take a look at some commonly used prepositions in the Chinese language.
Grab a coffee, and let’s dive in.😊
1. 在 (zài)
在 can be used to refer to a certain location or place.
Another function of the word 在 is to describe an ongoing action in the present.
In this case, the word 在 shows that the action is being done as we speak.
2. 比 (bǐ)
比 is used for comparison.
It is used similarly to the word “than” in English, but the order structure of the sentence may not come naturally to new learners.
The adjective comes before the word “than” in English, but in Mandarin, the word 比 typically comes before the adjective.
3. 前 (qián)
In the Chinese sentence, you may notice that the sentence order is swapped when compared to the English sentence.
饭 (fàn) translates to “rice,” but in this context, it’s the shortened version of 吃饭 (chīfàn), meaning “eat.” 洗手 (xǐshǒu) means “wash hands.”
So if you were to do a very direct translation, you’d get “eat before wash hands.”
Now, this sounds very peculiar, which is why practice is important.
It’s easy to use the wrong sentence order, especially if you rely on direct translation from English.😅
In some contexts, the word 前 may more accurately mean “ago.”
4. 除了 (chúle)
Meaning: except, apart from
You may have noticed that the preposition 除了 is located at the start of the sentence.
However, it can also be moved back, nearing the end of the sentence.
It’s a crime to hate dogs, I know.
But the point of this sentence is to show you that 除了 may sometimes be used at the back of the sentence.
Meaning: for, in order to
In this example, the preposition 为了 comes at the very start of the sentence, followed by the reason or purpose for the action. This is then followed by the subject.
Finally, the verb of the sentence, 学习 (study), goes towards the back of the sentence.
You can also use 为了 after the subject of the sentence.
努力读书 (nǔlì dúshū) translates to study hard.
This is the verb of the sentence, and it appears after the preposition 为了.
In both the above sentence examples, you’ll notice that the entire “为了 phrase” comes before the verb of the sentence. 为了 is used to express the purpose of an action.
But in some other cases, 为了 may appear after the verb.
For this to happen, it is paired with the word 是. 为了 is used to express the reason why.
Let’s break it down. 这么做 (zhème zuò), meaning “did this” contains the verb of this sentence. And in this case, it comes before the “为了 phrase.”
Usually, the “为了 phrase” comes before the verb, but when paired with the word 是 (shì), it can come after the verb.
Yes, the sentence order in Mandarin can be quite confusing, but it will come naturally bit by bit the more you practice!
6. 对 (duì)
A common use of 对 is in combination with the word 说 (shuō), which means “speak”.
When using 对 in the context of telling or saying something to other people with the word 说, it can be interchangeable with the next preposition on our list, 跟 (gēn).
However, there are some instances when these two prepositions cannot be freely swapped.
You should use 对 instead of 跟 when you’re describing a one-way relationship.
跟 is typically reserved for a two-way exchange or relationship.
We’ll explore this further below.
7. 跟 (gēn)
跟 can be swapped with 对 when used with the word 说.
This is the only situation where both prepositions can be freely interchanged without changing the sentence’s meaning.
The very direct translation to English is “What did the teacher say with you?”
And this sounds extremely weird. But in this context, it is acceptable in Mandarin.
However, there are some instances where 跟 should be used, and not 对.
This is the case when there is a two-way relationship or conversation.
In these cases, the word 跟 carries the meaning “with.”
There are some instances when using the word 跟 instead of 对 can change the meaning of the sentence.
Here’s an example:
Knowing when to use 跟 or 对 can be confusing.
Both can be interchanged when used with 说 but in other instances, you will have to be more careful when picking one over the other.
The above sentence can be split into two main sections.
关于这件事 (guānyú zhè jiàn shì) translates to “about this matter,” while 她知道的比我多 (tā zhīdào de bǐ wǒ duō) means “she knows more than me.”
You’ll probably sound like Yoda if you were to follow this order in English, which is why it’s almost intuitive to mix the order up. 😅
Most of the time, though, the 关于 (about) preposition phrase will come at the beginning of the sentence.
However, there could be instances where this doesn’t apply, for example, if you’re using 关于 to modify or describe a noun.
The structure for this is 关于 (topic) 的 (noun). You’ll then use this entire unit as the noun. Here’s an example.
9. 旁 (páng)
老师 (lǎoshī) translates to “teacher,” while 的旁边 (pángbiān) means “next to” or “beside.”
You may be tempted to switch the order of the two since, in English, we say “beside the teacher” and not “teacher beside.”
10. 以上 (yǐshàng)
Meaning: above, more than
The term 以上 is used to signify “more than.”
When used to demonstrate this, it’s typically paired with a number or amount, as in the example given.
You don’t have to use a specific number in every case. For instance, 半以上 (bàn yǐshàng) means “more than half.”
11. 的 (de)
Meaning: of, ‘s
的 would be one of the most common prepositions you’ll use and hear in Mandarin.
There are so many ways that 的 can be used in a sentence. First off, it can be used to demonstrate possession or a relationship.
In this example, the 的 helps us answer the question, “Whose is this?” or “Who does this belong to?”
In other cases, the 的 can help demonstrate your relationship with another person.
Another common usage of 的 is in modifying a noun. Here’s an example
问题 (wèntí) translates to “question,” while 难 (nán) translates to “difficult.”
The 的 is used to connect the adjective with the noun and to show that the extra bit of information received is linked to the noun.
There are so many other use cases of 的 (that we can’t cover all of them here), so it’s one of the most important words you can learn to use.
12. 尽管 (jǐn guǎn)
Meaning: despite, although, even though
The preposition 尽管 is used at the beginning of a sentence.
The term 还是 (háishì), meaning “still”, gives further emphasizes the irony between the first and second part of the sentence.
Sometimes, the words 可是 (kěshì) or 但是 (dànshì), both of which mean “but,” are also used for the same reason.
The English translation sounds a little off for the above statement due to the use of “even though” and “but” in the same sentence.
However, this is acceptable in Mandarin.
由 is more commonly used in formal contexts, such as in a business setting.
It is used to demonstrate the doer of an action. This could be similar to “he is the one who…” or “I am the one who…”
Learning to use Chinese prepositions takes practice
You’ll typically find prepositions in different places in the sentence compared to their English counterparts.
The sentence order can confuse non-native speakers, but practice will get you a long way. 😁
Any Chinese prepositions I missed?