Homophones can be one of the trickiest things for language learners to master, whether you’re studying Chinese, English, or any other language. When those homophones are some of the most common words in that language and function as crucial grammatical components, it becomes even more important to use them correctly. Think of their, they’re, and there in English: these commonplace words have the same pronunciation but completely different meanings. Even native speakers mix them up.
Mandarin presents learners with a similar conundrum: There are three different characters pronounced “de”, and each plays a different grammatical role. If you primarily use spoken Mandarin, keeping the three characters straight won’t be too important. However, you’ll still want to be able to use these particles correctly in spoken language. And if you’re like me and enjoy learning characters so you can write in Chinese, you’ll need to know which character to use in a given situation.
Introduction to Chinese Grammar Particles
When you hear the word “particle”, maybe you think of atoms or electrons, or even a speck of dust on your bookshelf. In grammar, the term “particle” also refers to small things, specifically short words that are difficult to classify as some other part of speech. Unlike nouns and verbs, grammar particles cannot change form and are often linked to another word or phrase to perform a specific function such as expressing mood or tense. Examples of particles in English include the infinitive particle “to”, the negative particle “not”, and adverbial particles like “out” in the phrase “knock out”.
In Chinese, linguists typically classify particles as one of the following: structural particles (结构助词 jiégòu zhùcí), modal particles (语气助词 yǔqì zhùcí), or aspectual particles, also known as aspect markers (动态助词 dòngtài zhùcí). Structural particles express the relationship between sentence elements; 的, 地, and 得 are all structural particles. Modal particles indicate the mood, attitude, or likelihood of a sentence; 的 can also be used as a modal particle. Aspect markers demonstrate the duration or timeframe of a verb. 了 is one of the more common examples; the three “de” particles are not used as aspect particles. Most particles are pronounced with the neutral or clear tone in Mandarin.
Let's look at 的, 地, and 得 one by one to learn the differences between these particles and how to use each of them in a sentence.
Modifying Nouns and Adding Certainty in Chinese with 的
The particle 的 has a variety of uses in Mandarin, and it’s probably the first of the three “de” particles that learners encounter. It is called 白勺的 (báisháo de) in Mandarin, indicating the two components that make up the character. The 的 particle performs three different functions in Chinese grammar:
的: Indicating Possession
English grammar contains personal pronouns like “mine” and “yours” to indicate possession. We can also add “‘s” after a noun to show that the next noun belongs to it. Chinese is a little different: when 的 appears between two nouns, it functions as a structural particle indicating the second noun belongs to the first. The nouns themselves do not change form to indicate possession. Here are some examples of the basic owner (n) + 的 + possession (n) construction:
- 我的包 (wǒ de bāo): my bag
- 你的书 (nǐ de shū): your book
- 他的笔 (tā de bǐ): his pen
- 她们的聚会 (tāmen de jùhuì): their party
- 小王的外套 (Xiǎo Wáng de wàitào): Xiao Wang’s coat
- 农民的田 (nóngmín de tián): the farmer’s field
Here are some examples of full sentences using 的 to show possession:
- 你的手机在响。 (Nǐ de shǒujī zài xiǎng): Your phone is ringing.
- 那不是我们的问题。 (Nà bùshì wǒmen de wèntí): That’s not our problem.
- 邻居的小狗很吵。（Línjū de xiǎo gǒu hěn chǎo): The neighbor’s dog is very noisy.
- 这是不是她的相机？ (Zhè shì bùshì tā de xiàngjī?): Is this her camera?
- 这个饼干是你的。 （Zhège bǐnggān shì nǐ de.): This cookie is yours.
There are a few cases where 的 can be omitted. If there are multiple degrees of possession within one sentence, you only need to include 的 once. In the following example, 的 is omitted between 我 and 姐姐, but included between 姐姐 and 老公:
- 我姐姐的老公真喜欢孩子。（Wǒ jiějiě de lǎogōng zhēn xǐhuān háizi): My sister’s husband really likes kids.
You can also omit 的 when describing close interpersonal relationships or body parts:
- 他爸爸当老师。(Tā bàba dāng lǎoshī): His dad is a teacher.
- 我头发很短。(Wǒ tóufǎ hěn duǎn): My hair is short.
的: Describing Nouns
The 的 particle also links adjectives and nouns in Chinese. Whereas in English, we don’t need an additional word between the adjective and the noun to describe “a red apple”, Chinese inserts 的 to show the relationship between them: 红色的苹果 (hóngsè de píngguǒ). This is the second function of 的 as a structural particle. Here are some examples of the basic adjective + 的 + noun construction:
- 他不喜欢吃很辣的菜。(Tā bù xǐhuān chī hěn là de cài): He doesn’t like to eat very spicy food.
- 我有一只很可爱的猫。(Wǒ yǒuyī zhǐ hěn kě'ài de māo): I have a very cute cat.
- 她们今天有很忙的日程。 (Tāmen jīntiān yǒu hěn máng de rìchéng): They have very busy schedules today.
的: Adding Emphasis
In addition to functioning as a structural particle, 的 also serves as a modal particle that changes the mood of a sentence. When it appears at the end of a sentence, 的 indicates certainty or emphasis:
- A: 别忘记保存你的工作。(Bié wàngjì bǎocún nǐ de gōngzuò): Don’t forget to save your work.
- B: 我知道的！(Wǒ zhīdào de!): I know!
B could have replied with 我知道, but the 的 at the end of the sentence shows that she already knew what to do before A reminded her.
Modifying Verbs in Chinese with 地
地 is another structural particle pronounced “de” in Mandarin. It’s called 土也地 (tǔyě de) in reference to the two components that make up the character. When it follows an adjective, 地 turns that adjective into an adverb, similar to adding -ly to the end of some adjectives in English. Here are some examples of the basic adjective + 地 + verb structure:
- 慢慢地 (mànman de): slowly
- 小心地 (xiǎoxīn de): carefully
- 激动地 (jīdòng de): excitedly
Here are some examples of full sentences placing 地 after an adjective to create an adverb:
- 他很快地吃饭。(Tā hěn kuài de chīfàn): He eats quickly.
- 她跟老板自信地说话。 (Tā gēn lǎobǎn zìxìn de shuōhuà): She speaks confidently to her boss.
- 小猫在平安地睡觉。(Xiǎo māo zài píng'ān de shuìjiào): The cat is sleeping peacefully.
- 我很有敬佩地看着她。(Wǒ hěn yǒu jìngpèi de kànzhe tā): I looked at her admiringly.
Notice how in the last example, adding 地 can turn the entire phrase 很有敬佩 into an adverb.
Modifying Verbs in Chinese with 得
The third and final particle pronounced “de” in Mandarin is 得, which is known as 双人得 (shuāngrén de) because it contains the “double person” radical 彳. 得 appears between a verb and its complement, which indicates the outcome of the verb or the extent to which the verb is done. As opposed to adverbs, which appear before the verb, complements appear after the verb. 得 can form two types of verbal complement in Chinese: potential complements and degree complements.
得: Potential Complement
A potential complement indicates whether or not a verb can happen. If the verb can happen, 得 is placed between the verb and the complement. If the verb cannot happen, 不 replaces 得 between the verb and complement. In either case, the action is hypothetical and has not happened yet. The potential complement only describes what would happen if the action were attempted. Here are some examples of the basic structure:
- 做得到 (zuò de dào) = can do
- 听得懂 (tīng de dǒng) = can hear and understand
- 看得懂 (kàn de dǒng) = can read and understand
- 看的清楚 (kàn de qīngchu) = can see clearly
And here are their opposites using 不:
- 做不到 (zuò bu dào) = cannot do
- 听不懂 (tīng bu dǒng) = cannot understand (from hearing)
- 看不懂 (kàn bu dǒng) = cannot understand (from reading)
- 看不清楚 (kàn bu qīngchu) = cannot see clearly
Finally, here are some complete sentences using the potential complement:
- 如果你帮帮我，就做得到。 (Rúguǒ nǐ bāng bāng wǒ, jiù zuò dédào.) = If you help me, I can do it.
- 她的中文很好，方言也能听得懂。(Tā de zhōngwén hěn hǎo, fāngyán yě néng tīng dé dǒng) = Her Chinese is very good and she can understand dialects.
- 这本小说很复杂，我根本看不懂。(Zhè běn xiǎoshuō hěn fùzá, wǒ gēnběn kàn bù dǒng.) = This novel is so complicated, I can’t understand it at all.
得: Degree Complement
While the potential complement only describes whether an action can be completed, the degree complement is broader. It can add a variety of information to the verb, such as the extent to which the action is done or how well it is done. You can add a wide variety of descriptions to verbs using this structure. See below for some examples:
- 他说得很流利。 (Tā shuō dé hěn liúlì) = He speaks fluently.
- 你开得太快。 (Nǐ kāi dé tài kuài) = You drive too fast.
- 我们玩得很开心。 (Wǒmen wán dé hěn kāixīn) Literally means “We play happily”, but is better translated as “We have fun.”
In sentences with an object, the structure gets a bit more complicated: you’ll need to repeat the verb after the object and before 得. The structure becomes subject + verb + object + verb + 得 + complement：
- 他说中文说得很好。 (Tā shuō zhōngwén shuō dé hěn hǎo) = He speaks Chinese well.
Another option is to use 的 rather than repeating the verb. Then the structure would be subject + 的 + object + verb + 得 + complement:
- 他的中文说得很好。(Tā de zhōngwén shuō dé hěn hǎo.) = He speaks Chinese well.
Other Uses and Pronunciations of 的, 地, and 得
Perhaps one of the most confusing things about the three de particles is that these characters show up in other contexts with other meanings and pronunciations. Keep the following in mind the next time you read a Chinese text:
的 can be pronounced dī as in 打的 (dǎdī) = take a taxi
- 博物馆太远，我们打个的吧。(Bówùguǎn tài yuǎn, wǒmen dǎ gè dī ba.) The museum is too far, let’s take a taxi
地 can be pronounced dì as in 地方(dìfang) = place
- 你是什么地方人？ (Nǐ shì shénme dìfāng rén?) Where are you from?
得 can be pronounced dé, meaning to get or receive: 得到 (dédào)
- 我从工作中得到成就感。(Wǒ cóng gōngzuò zhōng dédào chéngjiù gǎn.) I get a sense of accomplishment from my work.
得 can also be pronounced děi, meaning need, must, or certainly will
- 这项工程得三个月才能完。(Zhè xiàng gōngchéng děi sān gè yuè cáinéng wán.) This project needs three months to complete.
- 要不快走，我们就得迟到了。(Yào bù kuàizǒu, wǒmen jiù děi chídàole.) We’ll be late if we don’t hurry.
Particles Pronounced "De" in Mandarin: Summary and Conclusion
Here’s a quick summary of the three particles pronounced “de” in Mandarin:
- 的 indicates possession, links a noun with an adjective, or adds emphasis to a sentence.
- 地 transforms adjectives into adverbs that appear before the verb.
- 得 appears in verbal complements which add description after the verb.
My advice? Try not to let the three characters or the grammatical formulas overwhelm you. If you listen to and practice with native speakers, you’ll quickly pick up the correct usage for each of these particles. With Speechling, you can get feedback on your spoken Mandarin from native speakers who will gently point out mistakes and give you encouragement for doing well. Once you feel confident, you can try writing practice sentences using these particles. Read through some of the examples above and see if you can come up with your own sentences that indicate possession or modify verbs. With enough practice, these tricky Chinese particles will become second nature.