Tennis Players and Drummers

As I’m sure my English-speaking readers would agree, the agent marker “-er” is tough for Chinese learners. We use it all the time in English (3 times in the previous sentence) but it’s not so readily available in Chinese.

Example 1: Tennis Player

Imagine I see a girl walking down the street with a tennis racket in her hand. I want to dāshàn 搭讪 (not to be confused with you-know-who). In English, I’d say something like:

“Nice racket you’ve got there. So, are you a tennis player?”

How would we translate that second sentence into Chinese? Well, looking at “reporter” (jìzhě 记者) and “scholar” (xuézhě 学者) we see that you just add “-zhě” to the end of a verb and you’ve suddenly got a noun meaning “someone who VERBs.” Unfortunately, even though the grammar is technically correct for a literal translation, the word dǎzhě 打者 doesn’t exist, so this is impossible:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎzhě ma? 你是网球打者? = Are you a tennis player? [you are tennis play-er {p}]

So what should we say? The other agent markers are out because you can’t add them to “dǎ” either:

  • -jiā = -er (like in “huàjiā” 画家 = painter)
  • -yuán = -er (like in “yǎnyuán” 演员 = actor / performer)

These words do not exist is Chinese:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎjiā ma? 你是网球打家?
Nǐ shì wǎngqiú dǎyuán ma? 你是网球打员?

You could add yuán to “tennis,” but that sounds too professional:

Nǐ shì wǎngqiúyuán ma? 你是网球员吗? = Are you a (professional) tennis player?

That’s not really my question. I just want to know if she plays tennis.

So I suggested to my informants the trusty “shì…de” construction:

Nǐ shì dǎ wǎngqiú de ma? 你是打网球的吗? = Are you a tennis player? [you are play tennis {p} {p}]

They said it’s ok, but sounds strange. It turns out what most Chinese people would say is simply:

Nǐ huì dǎ wǎngqiú ma? 你会打网球吗? = Do you know how to play tennis?

OR better yet:

Nǐ jīngcháng dǎ wǎngqiú ma? 你经常打网球吗? = Do you often play tennis?

I know, I know, I know. We don’t want to talk about how often she plays, but that’s the way Chinese people would ask our original question, “Are you a tennis player?” or “Do you play tennis?” Apparently, adding the “jīngcháng” 经常 in there is better (or at least more dìdao 地道) than just saying: “Nǐ dǎ wǎngqiú ma?” 你打网球吗?

Lesson 1 = If you can leave out the agent marker and just ask a simple “Do you often VERB?” question, that’s probably best.

Example 2: Drummer

But sometimes that’s really not what I want to know. Imagine I’m at a rock show and I meet a band of 4 guys before their set. I want to know who is the drummer in the band. Now, I could just ask each of them:

Nǐ huì dǎ gǔ ma? 你会打鼓吗? = Do you know how to play the drums?

But there’s always that chance, especially because everyone knows how to hit stuff, that they’ll ALL say, “Yes.” They might even hit them pretty often, which renders the “jīngcháng” 经常 construction useless. I really just want to ask about the drummer! Enter: “hand.”

Nǐ shì gǔshǒu ma? 你是鼓手吗? = Are you the drummer? [you are drum-hand {p}]

“Hand” works as the agent marker for most (all?) instrumentalists (jítāshǒu 吉他手 = guitarist) and in some other situations as well:

  • xuǎnshǒu 选手 = competitor / contestant [choose hand]
  • shuǐshǒu 水手 = sailor [water hand]
  • qiāngshǒu 枪手 = gunner [gun hand]
  • duìshǒu 对手 = opponent [opposite hand]


I’m always looking for some sort of guīlǜ 规律 to guide me when thinking about these things and here’s what I’ve got so far (although it’s not even close to perfect):

  1. If it’s the formal name of an actual job (reporter, scholar, actor, tennis player, etc.) look for some sort of formal word that may use any of the following: “-zhě” , “-jiā” , or “-yuán” to create the job title.
  2. If it’s less formal or more of a temporary or amateur position (drummer in a band, competitor) look to add “-shǒu” after the main noun involved (sailor and gunner are exceptions I guess, as is ).
  3. If you just want to talk about a hobby, just ask “Do you often VERB?”

As an example, if I want to create a formal book club dedicated to reading the collected works of Lǔ Xùn 鲁迅, I’d say:

Lǔ Xùn de dúzhě 鲁迅的读者 = readers of Lu Xun

(One student told me that authors often thank the “dúzhě” 读者 at the end of a book.)

But after that tennis racket girl shuts me down and I want to change tactics and ask if she’s an avid reader, I should say:

Nà, nǐ jīngcháng kàn shū ma? ,你经常看书吗? = So, do you often read books?

She’ll probably think I’m a player or a loser and just walk away.

5 Replies to “Tennis Players and Drummers”

  1. Don’t forget the band’s 歌手!

    This is a great post. The challenge of Chinese is that it’s grammar is more descriptive than prescriptive. You could know all the essential grammar points — stative verbs, when to use , etc. — and still have a hard time formulating sentences that don’t sound wrong, especially if your education is from textbooks instead of natural speech. Some people do just fine picking up Chinese just from frequent exposure. These are the people that say Chinese is easy because it doesn’t have verb conjugation. But I do best when language points can be distilled into a set of rules. And if I suspect there is an implicit pattern, I’ll spend the time working it out.

  2. haha, this is a hilarious post (in the most complimentary way possible). i am technically a native speaker, having been born in China. But I went to the States at the tender age of 7 and so actually have much to learn.

    The native-speaker part of me never thought much about the conventions for “-er”-ing in Chinese. The still-learning-Chinese part of me had to click through 搭讪 to know what that meant.

    Enlightening, entertaining, and educational 🙂

  3. Ha! ha!

    Very good post. Learning Chinese is really horrendous. I agree with Chad, for a beginner, learning to say the simplest things in a natural way is difficult. What a language.

  4. An interesting discussion. However, I wonder if part of the problem is that I’m not sure if someone in that situation would really ask

    “So, are you a tennis player?”

    unless they did mean it in some kind of professional sense (or possibly in a sarcastic sense…why else would they be carrying the racquet?). Otherwise, I’d have thought you’d be more likely to ask: “Do you play?”, “are you going to play now?”, “are you any good?”, or “is tennis your hobby?”, or something along those lines.

    Its like if you met someone going to KTV (karaoke), you probably wouldn’t ask “Are you a singer (歌手)?”, you would more likely say “Do you like to sing?”(喜歡唱歌嗎?).

    The other part of the problem is that you’re trying to directly translate an (already vague) english phrase. The way round this is maybe to first really figure out what you are trying to ask the person, and then (hopefully!) it would be easier to come up with the chinese translation.

    I’ve found that by really getting to the bottom of the meaning of a phrase, and cutting out all the vagueness that English lets you include, this method does often help you come up with a chinese translation that at least makes sense. Also, by getting to the key point of what you are trying to say, it is easier to try wording it in different ways, some of which may be easier to translate into chinese too. This is much easier to do when you’re writing, but maybe with practice you can also do it fast enough for speaking.

    (By the way, I’m British, so maybe my comment about asking that particular question wouldn’t be relevant in US-english.)

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