12 common errors of Chinese

For English speaking Chinese language learners, English has a huge influence on their Chinese. That’s understandable though, since they have been using English for all these years.

Below are twelve common errors these students tend to make, many times involuntarily. Most of these errors come from direct translations from English to Chinese.

1. 我是忙。(wǒ shì máng.)

Students often use (shì) “to be” in Chinese, as shown in the example.

The source for this error is to translate word by word from English to Chinese. To say it correctly in Chinese, for a neutral statement without anything being emphasised, use (hěn) instead.

The correct sentence is:

我很忙。(wǒ hěn máng.)

I am busy.

2. 他工作在一家银行。(tā gōngzuò zài yījiā yínháng.)

Students often put “ (zài) + location” at the end of the sentence, as shown in the example.

The source for this error is that they use the English word order to speak Chinese.

When describing the fact that an activity takes place at a location, the correct word order in Chinese is to put “ (zài) + location” in front of the activity.

The correct sentence is:

他在一家银行工作。(tā zài yījiā yínháng gōngzuò.)

I works in a bank.

3. 我上课在学校下午四点。(wǒ shàngkè zài xuéxiào xiàwǔ sì diǎn.)

Students often put the time phrase at the end of a sentence, as shown in the example. 

The source for this error is the same as above, that students are using English word order for Chinese. 

When both time and location are indicated to describe an activity, the correct word order in Chinese is, “time + (zài) + location + activity”.

The correct sentence is:

我下午四点在学校上课。(wǒ xiàwǔ sì diǎn zài xuéxiào shàngkè.)

I attend classes at school at 4PM.

4. 今天比昨天一点冷。(jīntiān bǐ zuótiān yīdiǎn lěng.)

To compare two elements and show a degree of measurement, the error students often make is to use the degree measurement first, followed by the descriptive word, as shown in the example. 

This is also due to students’ habit of using English language structure. To correct the sentence, put the degree of measurement after the descriptive word.

The correct sentence is:

今天比昨天冷一点。(jīntiān bǐ zuótiān lěng yīdiǎn.)

Today is a bit colder than yesterday.

5. 报告被写完了。(bàogào bèi xiě wán le.)

The problem of this sentence is not about how to use (bèi) to express passive voice, as this example is grammatically correct. Rather, it is about whether or not to use (bèi) at all. 

In Chinese, (bèi) is a passive voice marker to construct passive sentences. However, passive voice is not as prevalent in Chinese as in English. A passive sentence with a proper marker is not very common. What we are relying on is the context. When it’s clear that “the report” can not write itself, it must be written, the passive voice marker is not necessary. 

The correct sentence is:

报告写完了。(bàogào xiě wán le.)

The report is written.

6. 先我喝咖啡,然后看书。(xiān wǒ hē kāfēi, ránhòu kànshū.)

The error students often make is to start the sentence with (xiān) before the subject, as shown in the example.

It is because they are following the English word order, “First I…, then …”. To correct the sentence, put (xiān) after the subject.

The correct sentence is:

我先喝咖啡,然后看书。(wǒ xiān hē kāfēi, ránhòu kànshū.)

First I drink coffee, then read books.

7. 我不知道如果他来。(wǒ bù zhīdào rúguǒ tā lái.)

This error is because students translate “if” literally into Chinese, as shown in the example.

To express this “if” sentence in Chinese, the easiest structure to use is “A + not + A”. 

The correct sentence is:

我不知道他来不来。(wǒ bù zhīdào tā lái bu lái.)

I don’t know if he comes.

8. 以前睡觉,我学习中文。(yǐqián shuìjiào, wǒ xuéxí zhōngwén.)

This common error is to use English word order to say “before (something happens)” in Chinese, as shown in the example.

In Chinese, to express the same meaning, 以前 (yǐqián) is placed after the activity, “…. 以前 (yǐqián)”. This whole section ended with 以前 (yǐqián) is a time indicator, and it should be put before the main activity of the sentence. 

The correct sentence is:

睡觉以前,我学习中文。(shuìjiào yǐqián, wǒ xuéxí zhōngwén.)

Before going to sleep, I study Chinese.

9. 我不想这个很重要。(wǒ bùxiǎng zhège hěn zhòngyào.)

This problem is also due to English word order, as shown in the example.

In Chinese, we first confirm the fact that “I think”, then followed by “what I think about”.

The correct sentence is:

我想这个不重要。(wǒ xiǎng zhège bù chóng yào.)

I don’t think this is important.

10. 我喜欢中文上课。(wǒ xǐhuān zhōngwén shàngkè.)

This common error is because students treat word combinations as fixed, as shown as above.

In Chinese, there are many words which are combinations of two characters, one means an action and the other an object, such as 上课 (shàngkè), attend class.

To correct the mistake, we need to recognise that the actual object is (kè), and modify it accordingly.

The correct sentence is:

我喜欢上中文课。(wǒ xǐhuān shàng zhōngwén kè.)

I like Chinese classes.

11. 我喜欢都日本音乐。(wǒ xǐhuān dōu rìběn yīnyuè.)

(dōu) is translated into “all” in English. Students tend to use (dōu) whenever there is an “all” in the sentence, as shown in the example. 

In Chinese, there are two basic words for “all”. One is (dōu) and the other is 所有的 (suǒyǒu de). (dōu) is used before actions or descriptive words, and 所有的 (suǒyǒu de) is used before objects or things. 

The correct sentence is:

我喜欢所有的日本音乐。(wǒ xǐhuān suǒyǒu de rìběn yīnyuè.)

I like all Japanese music.

12. 我问她吃饭。(wǒ wèn tā chīfàn.)

(wèn) is translated into “ask” in English, but only in the sense of “to ask (a question)” or “to inquire”. It has no connotation of “invite”. This error is because students use the word (wèn) for “invite”, as shown in the example.

The correct sentence is:

我请她吃饭。(wǒ qǐng tā chīfàn.)

I ask her to have dinner.

Practice makes perfect

Translate into Chinese:

  1. Before going to work, I study Chinese.
  2. She is tired.
  3. I don’t know if he is Chinese.
  4. I ask her to dance.
Answers:
  1. 上班以前,我学习中文。(Shàngbān yǐqián, wǒ xuéxí zhōngwén.)
  2. 她很累。(tā hěn lèi.)
  3. 我不知道他是不是中国人。(wǒ bù zhīdào tā shì bù shì zhōngguó rén.)
  4. 我请她跳舞。(wǒ qǐng tā tiàowǔ.)

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