My One Friend

Here’s a little trip down grammar lane, trying to get to the bottom of how the English word “one” can be translated so many different ways in Chinese.

It might surprise you how the Chinese say:

1. “one of my friends”

My first impulse was, of course, a sort of word-for-word translation:

yí gè wǒ de péngyou *WRONG*

This is better:

1. wǒ de yí gè péngyou 我的一个朋友

Which is literally “My one friend.”

So what if you want to say:

2. “He’s my one friend” OR “He’s my only friend”

Here’s where you employ a new word (immortalized in Wáng Lìhóng’s 王力宏 famous song):

2. Tā shì wǒ wéiyī de péngyou. 他是我唯一的朋友.

If you still want to use the number and measure word, you could also say:

2. Wǒ zhǐyǒu tā yí gè péngyou 我只有他一个朋友

So now what about if I want to say:

3. “He’s one of my best students.”

There are three common ways to translate that (click the hanzi for a literal breakdown of what each word means):

3. Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng zhīyī. 他是我最好学生之一.
Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng lǐmiàn de yí gè. 他是我最好学生里面的一个.
Tā shì wǒ zuì hǎo xuéshēng (zhī)zhōng de yí gè. 他是我最好学生(之)中的一个.

That’s the same grammar you would use if you wanted to say:

4. “I need one of you to help me.”

Except, my informant said the “zhīyī” 之一 construction would sound weird here, which only leaves:

4. Wǒ xūyào nǐmen lǐmiàn de yí gè lái bāng wǒ. 我需要你们里面的一个来帮我.
Wǒ xūyào nǐmen (zhī)zhōng de yí gè lái bāng wǒ. 我需要你们(之)中的一个来帮我.

And now the grand finale:

5. He’s one of the only foreign teachers who can speak Chinese.

That “one of the only who can” I was told is best translated as “among the minority who can.” For example, one possible translation would be:

5. Tā shì shǎoshù huì shuō zhōngwén de wàijiào zhōng de yí gè 他是少数会说中文的外教中的一个.

What a complex sentence, eh? Anyone know of any other ways to say that? Please help.

11 Replies to “My One Friend”

  1. Ta shi wei yi hui shuo zhong wen de wai (yu) jiao (shi) ???
    Is it correct??
    Just my opinion, taken from the above (the 1st) example.

  2. thanks for the in-depth explanation!

    one of the biggest difficulties i face when learning chinese would be the reverse structure they use to define something, as in the “one” case you explained. Anyway, now i seem to understand this better. Better keep it down before i forget it again lol

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