The determiner and the determined
In Chinese, elements such as adjectives, specifications and possessives can appear to the left of other components to specify attributes, modality and characteristics.
These elements are conventionally defined as determiners because they determine the component that proceeds them. The determiners, therefore, specify something from “something else”. The component being specified as having certain characteristics is called the determined.
Between the determiner and the determined you must insert the particle 的 (de). The representation of the particle of determination的 is a characteristic peculiar to the modern Chinese language, rather distant from “western” languages for which it is difficult to understand and fully master its usage.
We’ll therefore try to see it detailed in all aspects. Let’s start by analyzing the phrase: 我的书 (Wǒ de shū), or “my book”:
In this phrase, the determiner is 我(wǒ), “I”, because it specifies something of the determined 书 (shū), “book”: this something specifies to whom the book in question belongs. 我, as a determiner, determines to whom the determined, the book, belongs.
Here are some examples:
Xuésheng de xuéxiào.
The students’ school.
Wǒ de qìchē.
Tāmen de jiàoshì.
Wǒ de péngyou de shū.
My friend’s book.
For convenience well list personal pronouns followed by 的:
wǒ de我的 “my”
nǐ de你的 “your”
tā de / tā de他的 / 她的 “his”; “hers”
wǒmen de我们的 “our”
nǐmen de你们的 “your”
tāmen de / tāmen de他们的 / 她们的 “their (male)”; “their (female)”
Note that when the determiner signals an intrinsic characteristic of the determined, or where there’s a very close relationship between the determiner and the determined, the particle 的 is omitted.
Here are a few examples:
Chóngqìng de dàxué.
Xuésheng de zázhì.
The students’ magazines.
Wǒ bàba, wǒ māma.
My dad and my mom.
Wǒ lǎoshī, wǒ péngyou.
My teacher and my friend.
Adjectives as determiners
Even adjectives can appear as determiners. The construction remains the same:
Hěn piàoliang de xuésheng.
The beautiful student.
Hěn guì de qìchē.
The expensive machine.
Hǎo chī de cài.
The appetizing food.
Qīngdàn yī̠xiē de cài.
A little lighter food.
Cōngming de lǎoshī.
The intelligent teacher.
Wánpí de xiǎoháizi.
The naughty kids.
The particle 的, even in this case, can be omitted when the predicate adjective used is monosyllabic. Here’s some examples:
The little apple.
The big apple.
Verbs as determiners
Verbs too can be used as determiners in the sense that they can specify “something” about the determined. When making a phrase using a verb as a determiner.
The structure is always the same: Determiner + 的 + Determined. Here’s a few examples:
Wǒ xiě de shū.
The book I’m writing.
Wǒ chī de píngguǒ.
The apple I’m eating.
Wǒ kàn de shū.
The book I’m reading.
Wǒ shuō de huà.
The words I say.
Wǒ zuótiān kàn de shū hěn yǒu yìsi.
The book I read yesterday is interesting.
Wǒ qùnián zài Zhōngguó rènshi de Zhōngguórén xiànzài zài Yìdàlì jiāo Zhōngwén.
The Chinese person I met in China last year now teaches Chinese in Italy.
Shuō bié chǎo de lǎoshī shì wǒ de māma de péngyou.
The teacher that saying not to make noise is my mother’s friend.
Wǒ jīnnián zhuàn de qián bụ̀gòu mǎi yī liàng qìchē.
The money I earned this year is not enough to buy a car.
Locators as determiners
Expressions indicating location can also be used to describe a name. When they carry out this function, they precede the name to which they refer. Such expressions, used in this way, become actual determiners and will be immediately followed by 的.
Here are some examples:
Fángzi lǐ de rén.
People at home.
Fángzi hòubian de rén.
The people behind the house.
Fángzi qiánbian de rén.
The people in front of the house.
Túshūguǎn qiánbian de xuéxiào.
The school across from the library.
Zài dàmén qiánbian de rén hěn duō.
There are lots of people at the front door.
Zài shítáng lǐ chīfan de rén bù duō.
There are not many people eating in the cafeteria.
Zài wǒ de yòushǒu biān de fángjiān shì shìzhǎng de bàngōngshì.
The room to my right is the mayor’s office.
Wèiyú xuéxiào pángbiān de Màidāngláo zhēn piányi, wǒmen yīnggāi yào qù.
The McDonalds across from the school is really cheap. We should go there.
Note that, in the written Chinese language – but at times also in the spoken language, – you might find the character 之 (zhī) instead of 的. The character 之 is directly derived from classical Chinese but has most much of the meaning it once had, such as the verb “to go” or as a nominalizer.
It has however kept the particle to insert between the determiner and the determined or in the expressions “before”, “after”, in Chinese 之前 (zhī qián) and 之后 (zhī hòu) respectively.