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(de) - a structural particle in Chinese

(de) is the number one most frequently used Chinese character today. It is also the most useful structural particle. This character is so prevalent and so useful.

Unfortunately, many students got the wrong idea that (de) means possessive. It is because they usually learn (de) when they are learning 我的 (wǒ de) and 你的 (nǐ de).

It is like this:

  • Step 1: (wǒ) is “I”. (nǐ) is “you”.
  • Step 2: 我的 (wǒ de) is “my”. 你的 (nǐ de) is “your”.
  • The wrong conclusion: (de) is possessive.

When students continue to learn more Chinese, many of them have to unlearn the meaning of (de) as possessive, and re-learn the usage of (de).

(de) has grammatical functions only, and it is not to be used stand alone. Its primary function is associative, attaching information to objects or things.

Used with things or objects

(de) is often used with things or objects, adding more information to these things or objects.

For example:

  • 我的手机 (wǒ de shǒu jī)

Associating a person “I” with an object “mobile phone”, i.e. “my mobile phone”.

  • 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”.

Note that, when the information attached contains only one Chinese character, (de) is omitted.

For example:

  • 红裙子 (hóng qún zi): red skirt
  • 大卧室 (dà wò shì): big bedroom

Used with people or people related entities

When (de) is used with people, such as “father”, “wife” or people related entities, such as “company”, “home”, it can be omitted.

For example both of the following expressions are correct:

  • My brother

我哥哥 (wǒ gē ge)

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.

  • His company

他公司 (tā gōng sī)

他的公司 (tā de gōng sī)

Associating a person “he” with a people related entity “company”, i.e. “his company”. He may not own the company. He only works there. He is associated with that company.

Used in structures

Besides attaching more information to things or people, (de) is also very useful in some important structures, such as:

  • (shi) ... (de) … : to emphasise

是他写的。(shì tā xiě de.) 

It is him who wrote it.

我是上个月来的。(wǒ shì shàng gè yuè lái de.) 

It is last month that I came. 

  • (de) at the end of the sentence to emphasise

不可以的! (bù kě yǐ de!)

It’s now allowed!

一样的! (yī yàng de!)

The same!

When (de) is not needed

In set phrased or fixed expressions, (de) is not needed.

For example:

  • 中国人 (zhōng guó rén): Chinese people
  • 广州人 (guǎng zhōu rén): Guangzhou people
  • 天气预报 (tiān qì yù bào): weather forecast 
  • 电脑游戏 (diàn nǎo yóu xì): computer games

Practice makes Perfect

Translate into Chinese: 

  1. His telephone number
  2. Green shirts
  3. My mother
  4. Impossible! 
  1. 他的电话号码 (tā de diàn huà hào mǎ)
  2. 绿裙子 (lǜ qún zi) or 绿色的裙子 (lǜ sè de qún zi)
  3. 我妈妈 (wǒ mā ma) or 我的妈妈 (wǒ de mā ma)
  4. 不可能的!  (bù kěnéng de!)