Essential Prepositions In Mandarin Chinese (+ Examples)

  • Jasmine Chiam
    Written byJasmine Chiam
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Essential Prepositions In Mandarin Chinese (+ Examples)

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)

Meaning: at

Listen to audio

美国工作。

Wǒ zài měiguó gōngzuò.
I work in America

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.

Listen to audio

我姐姐看书。

Wǒ jiějiě zài kànshū.
My sister is reading a book.

In this case, the word 在 shows that the action is being done as we speak.

2. 比 (bǐ)

Meaning: than

Listen to audio

他聪明。

Wǒ bǐ tā cōngmíng.
I'm smarter than him.

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)

Meaning: before

Listen to audio

洗手。

Fàn qián xǐshǒu.
Wash your hands before eating.

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.”

Listen to audio

他五分钟离家。

Tā wǔ fēnzhōng qián lí jiā.
He left home five minutes ago.

4. 除了 (chúle)

Meaning: except, apart from

Listen to audio

除了他, 我们都喜欢吃火锅。

Chúle tā, wǒmen dōu xǐhuān chī huǒguō.
Except for him, we all enjoy eating hotpot.

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.

Listen to audio

我喜欢动物,除了狗。

Wǒ xǐhuān dòngwù, chúle gǒu.
I like animals, except for dogs.

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.

5. 为了(wèile)

Meaning: for, in order to

Listen to audio

为了准备考试,他每天都学习到很晚。

Wèile zhǔnbèi kǎoshì, tā měitiān dōu xuéxí dào hěn wǎn.
In order to prepare for his exam, he studied late at night each day.

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.

Listen to audio

我们要为了自己的未来努力读书。

Wǒmen yào wèile zìjǐ de wèilái nǔlì dúshū
We must study hard for our future.

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.

Listen to audio

我这么做是为了帮你。

Wǒ zhème zuò shì wèile bāng nǐ
I only did this to help you.

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)

Meaning: to

A common use of 对 is in combination with the word 说 (shuō), which means “speak”.

Listen to audio

老师你说了什么?

Lǎoshī duì nǐ shuōle shénme?
What did the teacher say to you?

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.

Listen to audio

中国历史很感兴趣。

Tā duì zhōngguó lìshǐ hěn gǎn xìngqù
He has a lot of interest in Chinese history.

跟 is typically reserved for a two-way exchange or relationship.

We’ll explore this further below.

7. 跟 (gēn)

Meaning: with

跟 can be swapped with 对 when used with the word .

This is the only situation where both prepositions can be freely interchanged without changing the sentence’s meaning.

Listen to audio

老师你说了什么?

Lǎoshī gēn nǐ shuōle shénme?
What did the teacher say to you?

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.

Listen to audio

我想你商量这件事。

Wǒ xiǎng gēn nǐ shāngliáng zhè jiàn shì.
I want to discuss this matter with you.
Listen to audio

你要我一起去吗?

Nǐ yào gēn wǒ yīqǐ qù ma?
Do you want to go with me?

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:

Listen to audio

我很好

Tā gēn wǒ hěn hǎo.
She is on very good terms with me.
Listen to audio

我很好

Tā duì wǒ hěn hǎo.
She treats me very well.

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.

8. 关于

Meaning: about

Listen to audio

关于这件事, 她知道的比我多。

Guānyú zhè jiàn shì, tā zhīdào de bǐ wǒ duō
She knows more than I do about this matter.

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)(noun). You’ll then use this entire unit as the noun. Here’s an example.

Listen to audio

她读完了很多关于中国历史的书。

Tā dú wánle hěnduō guānyú zhōngguó lìshǐ de shū.
She has finished reading many books about Chinese history.

9. 旁 (páng)

Meaning: beside

Listen to audio

她坐在老师的边。

Tā zuò zài lǎoshī de pángbiān.
She's sitting beside the teacher.

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

Listen to audio

今天缺席了三个以上的学生。

Jīntiān quēxíle sān gè yǐshàng de xuéshēng.
More than three students were absent today.

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.

Listen to audio

这是我手机。

Zhè shì wǒ de shǒujī.
This is my mobile phone.

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.

Listen to audio

她是我妈妈。

Tā shì wǒ māmā.
She's my mother.

Another common usage of 的 is in modifying a noun. Here’s an example

Listen to audio

这是很难问题。

Zhè shì hěn nán de wèntí.
This is a very difficult question.

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.

Listen to audio

尽管他有很多钱, 他还是不满足。

Jǐnguǎn tā yǒu hěnduō qián, tā háishì bù mǎnzú.
Despite the fact that he has a lot of money, he is not contented.

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.

Listen to audio

尽管他有很多钱, 但是他不满足。

Jǐnguǎn tā yǒu hěnduō qián, dànshì tā bù mǎnzú.
Even though he has a lot of money, but he is not contented.

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.

13. 由

Meaning: by

Listen to audio

这件事她负责。

Zhè jiàn shìyóu tā fùzé.
This matter is to be handled by her.

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?

Comment below!

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
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