What does ‘de’ in Chinese grammar mean?
If you’re learning Chinese grammar, you’re going to see three ‘de’ (的, 得, 地) used quite often. So what’s the difference between 的, 得, and 地? There’s no simple English translation for these grammar particles, so we’ll need to walk through them step by step. Here they are:
- 的 (de) – modifies a noun
- 得 (de) – modifies a verb
- 地 (de) – modifies an adjective into an adverb
的 – The Noun Modifier
When modifying a noun, the first ‘de’ (的) in Chinese grammar can be used to show possession or link an adjective (or adjective phrase) to a noun.
的 shows possession the same way (‘s) does in English. It will be placed between the owner and the object.
Mike 的车 (Mike de chē – Mike’s car)
我的车 (Wǒ de chē – My car)
Linking an adjective to a noun:
的 can link an adjective or adjective phrase to a noun the same way we might use (that, which, who) in English: “I want a car that is red” or “My brother is a boy who likes to eat cake.”
For this function, 的 will be used in this structure:
（adjective）+ 的 + (noun)
红色的车 (Hóng sè de chē – Car that is red)
喜欢吃蛋糕的男生 (Xǐ huan chī dàn gāo de nán shēng – Boy who likes to eat cake)
不听话的孩子 (Bù tīng huà de hái zi – Child that doesn’t listen)
得 – The Verb Modifier
The second ‘de’ (得) in Chinese grammar helps tell us how a verb is carried out, and is placed between a verb and its outcome:
Verb + 得 + outcome
她学得很努力 (Tā xué de hěn nǔ lì – She studies very diligently)
他唱歌唱得很不好听 (Tā chàng gē chàng de hěn bù hǎo tīng – He sings very badly)
The two examples above tell the outcome of a verb by using an adjective to evaluate how the verb was carried out. We can also tell the outcome of a verb by stating whether or not the verb can be or was successful in being carried out. It can be used in the positive form like ‘can’ or ‘able to’:
我走得到 (I go 得 arrive) (Wǒ zǒu de dào – I can get there)
我看得见 (I look 得 see it) (Wǒ kàn de jiàn – I’m able to see it)
我听得懂 (I listen 得 understand) (Wǒ tīng de dǒng – I can understand)
However, though 得 can be used to express ‘can’ or ‘able to’, it cannot be used to express the negative form: ‘can’ or ‘can’t’. For the negative form, 得 should be replaced with 不.
地 – The Adjective Modifier
In English we can often add (-ly) to the end of an adjective to make it an adverb. This is the same function of the third ‘de’ (地) in Chinese grammar, but can only be used between an adjective and a verb:
Adjective + 地 + verb
他慢慢地走过来 (Tā màn man de zǒu guò lái – He slowly walked over)
她开开心心地回答 (Tā kāi kāi xīn xīn de huí dá – She joyfully answered)
Want to learn more?
Congratulations! You have solved the Chinese grammar ‘de’ mystery!
If you’re planning on studying Mandarin in China, check our comprehensive guide for choosing the perfect Mandarin language school for you.