How to use adjectives in Chinese grammar

How to use adjectives in Chinese grammar


In Chinese, adjectives are called predicative adjectives because they have an intrinsic predicate value, in other words they posses the value given by the verb “to be”.

The adjective 漂亮 (piàoliang), for example, is translated as “to be beautiful” (meaning feminine beauty); 帅气 (shuàiqi) is translated as “to be handsome” (meaning male beauty), 新 (xīn) as “to be new”, 旧 (jiù) as “to be old”, and so forth.

Having an intrinsic predicate value means that, aside from exceptions, when we have to form a nominal predicate (she is beautiful, he is skinny), the verb “to be” must not be inserted, as it is already present in the adjective:

tā piàoliang.
She is more beautiful.

The phrase, constructed like this, presupposes a comparison or contrast. So that the phrase loses this comparative sense, before the adjective a character called an intensifier would be inserted. There are many intensifiers as we’ll see later on. The most common one is 很 (hěn), which means “many”.

Using an intensifier, which is not generally translated, the phrase loses its comparative or contrasting value and therefore becomes neutral:

tā hěn piàoliang.
She is beautiful.

The negation of adjectives

Negating adjectives is very easy: just substitute the intensifier 很 with the negating adverb 不 (bù), which actually means “no / not”:

tā bù piàoliang.
She is not beautiful.

Nà jiā lóu bù xīn, hěn jiù.
That building is not new, it is old.

Nà ge xuésheng bù rènzhēn.
That student is not diligent.

Forming questions with adjectives

There are various ways to form a question in Chinese. We have the question form using 吗 (ma) which simply consists of putting this character at the end of an affirmative phrase:

Nà ge xuéxiào dà ma?
Is that school big?

Another way is by using the following grammatical rule that includes the use of predicative adjectives:

Adjective – negating adverb – adjective

Nà ge xuéxiào dà bù dà?
Is that school big? [Literally: “is that school big or not big?”]

Nà ge píngguǒ xiǎo ma?
Is that apple small?

Nà ge píngguǒ xiǎo bù xiǎo?
Is that apple small?

Linking two adjectives

The adverb 又 (yòu) can be used to join two adjectives. In English, this particular use can be translated as “both… and…”. The character 又 finctions as an adverb, so it is placed immediately to the left of the predicative adjective in the phrase.

Nà jiā gōngsī yòu dà yòu gānjìng.
That factory is both large and clean

Nà ge rén yòu cōngming yòu shuàiqi.
That man is both intelligent and good looking.

Expressing a change in time

To express a change in time there are various expressions. One of the most common is the following:

越来越 (yuè lái yuè) + Adjective: “always more”

Dōngxi yuè lái yuè guì.
Things are always more expensive.

Nà ge rén yuè lái yuè cōngming.
That person is always more intelligent.

Another way for expressing a change is using the formula:

越 (yuè) + action verb + 越 (yuè) + predicative adjective

Tā yuè chī yuè pàng.
The more he eats, the fatter he gets.

The above construction can be used to form longer phrases. Let’s take a look at the following examples:

Huā yuè kāi yuè dà, yuè dà yuè piàoliang.
The more the flowers bloom, the bigger they get, the prettier they are.

Lǎoshī yuè shuō, tā yuè bù míngbai.
The more the professor speaks, the less he understands.

In written form, in place of 越, you can use the character 愈 (yù). For example:

píngguǒ yù chéngshú yù hǎo chī.
The more mature the apples are the better they are.

tā yù lái yù piàoliang.
She is always more beautiful.

The change can also be expressed through the use of the modal particle placed at the end, right after the predicative adjective. The particle in question is the character 了 (le).

Nǐ pàng le!
You got fat!

Huā hóng le.
The flowers turned red.

Neither…, nor…

In Chinese, a similar construction is easy to make by simply using the character 也 (yě), translatable as “also”. The form “neither…, nor …” is formed like this:

不 (bù) + Predicative adjective + 也不 (yě bù) + Predicative adjective

Tā bù pàng yě bù shòu.
She is neither fat nor thin.

Tā bù gāo yě bù ǎi.
He is neither short nor tall.

Zhè jiān fángjiān bù gānjìng yě bù zāng.
This room is neither clean nor dirty.

Nà zhī gǒu bù huài yě bù xiōng.
That dog is neither bad nor ferocious.

Linking more adjectives

In Chinese there’s a specific comma called the “drop comma”. The comma looks like this: 、

The drop comma takes on the role of creating “lists” or separating elements that connect to each other:

Wǒ mǎi le lízi, píngguǒ, xīguā, níngméng, děngdeng.
I bought pears, apples, watermelons, lemons and so on.

Tā piàoliang, cōngming, gāotiǎo.
She is beautiful, intelligent, tall and thin.

Tā shuàiqi, cōngming, gāodà.
He is good-looking, intelligent, big and strong.

Adjectives used as adverbs

There are essentially two different ways to create an adverb by using adjectives. The first, quite simply, is by placing the adjective immediately before the verb:

Kuài zǒu!
Walk fast!

Shǎo chī ba!
Eat less!

Nàge xuésheng nǔlì xuéxí.
That student studies intently.

Màn màn chī.
Eat slowly.

The second way is by having the adverbial particle follow 地 (de) the adjective:

Tā rèqíng de jiēdài wǒmen.
He treated us warmly.

Tā kuài de zǒu.
He walks quickly.

Note that, in many Chinese texts, you might find the adverbial particle 地 written like this: 的 (de).

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Practising Calligraphy by c-head

4 thoughts on “How to use adjectives in Chinese grammar”

  1. Very clear explanation. Although I was wondering if you could provide an explanation on when an adjective should or could be placed right before a noun withouout using 的.

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