的 de - a structural particle in Chinese

“的 de” is the most useful structural particle in modern standard Chinese. It only has grammatical functions, and it is not to be used stand alone. 

Unfortunately, many students got the wrong idea that “的 de” means possessive. It is because they usually encounter “的 de” for the first time at a very early stage when they are learning Chinese “我的 wǒ de” and “你的 nǐ de”. “我 wǒ” is “I”, and “我的 wǒ de” is “my”. “你 nǐ” is “you”, and “你的 nǐ de” is “your”. The conclusion is that “的 de” must be possessive! As they continue to learn more Chinese, many students have to unlearn the meaning of “的 de”, that it is really not possessive.

When “的 de” is used with noun phrases, the function is associative, attaching information to the nouns placed after it.

For example:

我的手机 wǒ de shǒu jī: Associating a person “I” with an object “mobile phone”, i.e. “my mobile phone”.

我的哥哥 wǒ de gē ge: Associating a person “I” with another person “brother”, i.e. “my brother”. I don’t own my brother. I am associated with him. 

红色的裙子 hóng sè de qún zi: Associating a colour “red” with an object “skirt”, i.e. “red skirt”.

很大的卧室 hěn dà de wò shì: Associating a size “big” with a place “bedroom”, i.e. “big bedroom”.

“的 de” can be omitted when the adjective contains only one Chinese character.

For example:

红裙子 hóng qún zi: red skirt

大卧室 dà wò shì: big bedroom

“的 de” can be omitted when the noun is related to a person or people.

For example:

我哥哥 wǒ gē ge: my brother

“的 de” is omitted in set phrases.

For example:

中国人 zhōng guó rén: Chinese person/people

广州人 guǎng zhōu rén: Guangzhou person/people

天气预报 tiān qì yù bào: weather forecast 

电脑游戏 diàn nǎo yóu xì: computer game/games

Practice makes Perfect

Translate the following sentences into Chinese: 

My sister’s telephone number is 5678 1234.

I like green shirts.

This apartment has a small kitchen.

My mother is Chinese.

I have many computer games. 

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An additional note, besides attaching more information to the nouns, “的 de” is also instrumental in many other important structures, such as “是 shi ... 的 de”. The usage of “的 de” first appears in Mandarin Express Intro Level A Student’s Book, and also appears in Chinese Reading and Writing 1. More explanations and structures are included in Mandarin Express Intro Level B and Basic Level A.

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