Learning Mandarin in Cantonese Land III: Grammar

This is part 3 in a series (part 1 here, part 2 here) about learning Mandarin while living in Guangzhou (Canton).

One challenge to be aware of is grammar, specifically word order.

In Mandarin, the most common way to say “You take a shower first”* is:

xiān xǐzǎo 洗澡 [you first shower]

However, in Cantonese, the word order changes to:

 nǐ xǐzǎo xiān 你洗澡 [you shower first]

*For some reason, this is the example sentence that gets used most often when talking with my students. I suppose since the order of who’s taking a shower is an important issue for students sharing a dorm room.

This also applies to the ubiquitous “taking leave” sentence when you’re leaving someone behind:

Mandarin: wǒ xiān zǒu  [I first go]

Cantonese: wǒ zǒu xiān 我走 [I go first]

The good news is…

Down here in Cantonese Land, people probably won’t care or look at you strangely or think nasty thoughts about your Chinese regardless of which word order you use. The word order is much more flexible since Cantonese speakers are speaking Mandarin as a second (at least) language, and the word order of Cantonese is perfectly acceptable to them in Mandarin.

The bad news is…

An informant who is a native Cantonese speaker might not be as clear on the “rules” of Mandarin grammar. I’ve had native Cantonese speakers tell me that “there are no rules for Chinese word order.” I tried to point out that I thought the following would be unusual for a native Mandarin speaker to say:

UNUSUAL: wǒ fàng bāo zài zhuōzi shàng le. 放包在桌子上了.

COMMON: wǒ bǎ bāo fàng zài zhuōzi shàng le. 把包放在桌子上了.

= I put the bag on the table

They said, “Both are ok!”

Poll the audience

So my questions for all y’alls outside of Guangzhou are:

  1. Do you ever hear “xiān” put at the end of a sentence like in my “shower” and “I go first” examples?
  2. What do you (and your informants) think of the “Both are ok!” statement and the “there are no word order rules in Chinese” statement? Would native speakers in your area be likely to say “wǒ fàng bāo zài zhuōzi shàng le” 我放包在桌子上了?

I’m most interested to hear any feedback in the comments section of this page.


  1. I’ve been studying Mandarin in Japan for a couple years. The majority of my teachers have been from the mainland, although from all over (Shanghai, Xi’an, Beijing, etc.). I’m quite sure they would all tell me that 我放包在桌子上了 is simply wrong, though for the sake of clarity they may tend to make things more black-and-white than they really are.

  2. I recently heard someone say: “Today’s generation (of Chinese) does not care so much about formal grammar (this was also about a word order issue)”. I guess “Both are ok”, represents today’s generation’s attitude towards your question. I am a native Dutch speaker, and in my language you can see the same thing happening; some would call it degradation of the language, others would say that a language is alive and made by its speakers.

  3. I just spoke to my informant and she said that formally speaking the sentence 我把包放在桌子上了would be correct. She actually would drop the .
    “Both (are) ok”, is a sentence I have never heard using so much as I have in China, by the way.

  4. 1. I’ve never heard that, but I do often hear people putting other time expressions, (like jintian) at the end of a clause.

    2. Both are OK if you don’t mind sounding like an idiot. (I can say this with authority because I’m an expert at sounding like an idiot, especially when speaking Mandarin.) “There are no word order rules in Mandarin” is ridiculous. Take a document written in Mandarin and while keeping the characters for each sentence together, scramble them up randomly inside the sentence. Then give it to the guy and see if he can make any sense of it. Does he say things like “爱你我” to his girlfriend? Or maybe he says “你爱我” when he wants to tell her that he loves her. (If your informant is female, please switch all of the above gender words. No sexism intended.)

  5. They did not say that there are no rules, but that the younger generation tends to be sloppier then the older. I am a beginner as far as Mandarin is concerned, but I already experienced quite a few instance in which “Both were ok”.

    Furthermore, my “informant” agreed that the latter sentence in the original post was ok (not both), but in oral Chinese she would maybe drop the measure word.

    But I got your point.

  6. Thank you so much for the explanation. I think the examples you gave is a very good one to understand. Especially, you are comparing the two, the right one and the wrong one.

    Grammar is just some of the rules people made,so we can communicate well using a standard way.

  7. here in guangxi I often hear them put time words at the end of sentences, but certainly not always and in my feeling you cannot do it always. Sometimes it seems to me that they use it also in a way like you say something and you want to add something after you finish the sentence. 我回来了。。。(now realises it is not clear for the listener when exactly)。。。 刚才.

    The 放包 sentence…. I am not sure about this particular example also because there is a in the end. But they certainly often skip the use of .

  8. and yeah the “both is okay” or similar expressions annoy the shit out of me when I am sure there is one they would prefer. Makes me feel excluded and sometimes even humiliated.

  9. Here is an oral vs written language problem. Both are indeed okay when you spoke the language, in Chinese, people don’t always construct “grammatically correct” language when they are speaking, omissions that would look silly in a written form are plentiful.

    I do believe “我放包在桌子上了” is actually a very acceptable way of saying this sentence, it might not be exactly correct grammatically, but people do say it. Further, people often even say “包我放在桌子上了”. It is very vernacular, sure, and if you write it that way it would most likely look silly, but it is not really “wrong” to say it in a conversation.

    Of course, while I am not a Cantonese speaker, my mother tongue is a southern dialect, so it would certainly be great to hear what do people from the north think about it.

  10. I moved to New York when I was five, but I still know the basics of mandarin because I speak it with my mom. You were correct in your example; you would say “Wo ba bao fang zai zhouzi shang le” rather than the first one. Reflecting on past conversations with my mom, I’ve always put the object before the action, like; “I put food on the table”, or “I cleaned my room”. I also asked my mom this, and she said that if someone said “Wo fang bao zai zhouzi shang le”, she would be rather surprised. It’s important to remember that Cantonese is very different from Mandarin; it’s like asking a hispanic how to speak English; one is based off the other but the grammatical structures are completely different. Good luck to all, hope this cleared some things up. (:

  11. I’m a native Cantonese speaker.

    There is NO “native Mandarin speaker” in China, everybody is speaking Mandarin as a second (at least) language in this country. Beijing dialect is most close to but NOT standard Mandarin so even Beijingers are not native speakers.

    Adverb postposition is the a typical Cantonese grammar/ancient grammar compare to Mandarin. Of course we have a “standard Chinese” which says Adverb+Verb is correct now, but i’m more inclined to say v+adv is not very proper nowadays instead of saying it’s wrong.

    As a matter of fact, Cantonese preserves a lot of ancient Chinese including grammar (like the mentioned example), words & phrases (you will notice most of the verbs in Cantonese are not the same as Mandarin, we are using the old ones ( instead of , instead of , instead of , instead of etc.) and pronunciation (some classical Chinese poetries are not rhyming in Mandarin but do in Cantonese).

    Adverb is a typical case, you can see it comes first in many materials about Cantonese language. Verb and come next. Unlike Mandarin, these 2 characters are put before the noun. (“你什么时候来广州?” instead of “你什么时候到广州来?”; “他去图书馆了.” instead of “他上图书馆去了.”)

    “Both are ok!” => both would be understood.
    “There are no word order rules in Chinese” => Wrong with no doubt.
    我放包在桌子上了” => I assume this is a sentence you compiled to study the case? This kind of mistake is not Cantonese logic. I could think of an occasion if change the sentence a bit – 我放个包在桌子上了—then it means “I’d put a bag on the desk.” This would be mostly a question, asking for permit of using a piece of place on the desk. The answer could be “ (OK).” , or “放到椅子上吧 (please put on the chair instead).”

  12. UNUSUAL: wǒ fàng bāo zài zhuōzi shàng le. 我放包在桌子上了.

    COMMON: wǒ bǎ bāo fàng zài zhuōzi shàng le. 我把包放在桌子上了.

    = I put the bag on the table

    They said, “Both are ok!”
    I just read in a kids book:
    wǒ zài zhuōzi shàng fàng le bāo. 我在桌子上放子包.
    冰箱 放了 很多吃 东西. wo3 zai4 bing1 xiang1 li3 fang4 le hen3 duo1 chi1 de dong1 xi.
    This was new for me. So I think there are many ways to use fang4, we only have to follow the right pattern. could somebody comment about this. Thanks

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