的 (de), 地 (de), and 得 (de): a common source of typos among native speakers, a common source of confusion among learners. While the three "de's" are pronounced the same, they mean quite different things. Using the wrong one leads to an awkward looking sentence, similar to using they're when you should have used their or there in English.
Here's a quick overview of when to use each one, with examples.
Structural Particles: An Overview
In linguistic terms, the three "de's" are referred to as being structural particles. This simply means that they are used to show the grammatical relationship between certain types of words.
Here's a single sentence that uses each of the "de's". Try analyzing the sentence. What similarities and differences do you notice about the usage of each "de"?
- My son excitedly ran into the house and told me he did well on his test today
(Wǒde érzi hěn xìngfènde pǎo-jìn jiāli gàosu wǒ tā jīntiān kǎoshì kǎo de búcuò.)
There are two key things to notice:
- In each case, more information is being provided about something
- Each "de" is used with a different part of speech (POS), as shown below
|的||My son||我的兒子||[pro]noun 的 noun|
|地||Excitedly ran (inside)||高高興興地跑(進家裡)||adjective 地 verb|
|得||did well (tested well)||考得不错||verb 得 adjective|
Now let's look at each of structural particle in a bit more detail.
Use 的 to modify nouns
的 is used in order to connect a modifying word to a noun. In the most basic sense, this means that 的 can be used to show possession: not just any apple, but my apple.
Here's how that structure looks in Mandarin:
|my Chinese teacher||wǒ de Zhōngwén lǎoshī||我的中文老師||我的中文老师|
|your shoes||nǐ de xiézi||你的鞋子||你的鞋子|
We often use idiomatic prepositions to show that two English nouns are related: the weather on Tuesday; the traffic in Taipei. In Mandarin, you simply stick a 的 in between two nouns to show that they're related.
lǐbǎi‘èr de tiānqì
|Taipei's traffic||Táiběi de jiāotōng||
In the exact same way, we can also use 的 to connect an adjective to a noun. While that might feel strange at first, it should make some logical sense: the possessive pronoun my and the adjective red both serve to provide a bit more information about the apple in question.
|spicy food||hěn là de cài||很辣的菜||很辣的菜|
|an interesting topic||yíge hěnyǒuyìsi de huàtí||
Sometimes we even use entire phrases to describe a single noun. We must construct a relative clause to do this in English: noun + (that/which/who/where/when/etc) + description – the article that you are reading. The clause "that you're reading" provides more information about the article in question, just as an adjective like long or boring (hopefully not!) would.
To do this in Mandarin – you guessed it – simply stick a 的 in between the relative clause/descriptive phrase and the noun.
|the clothes that you're wearing today||nǐ jīntiān chuān de yīfú||你今天穿的衣服||你今天穿的衣服|
|people who drive and use the phone at the same time||
yībiān kāichē yībiān yòng
shǒujī de rén
|times at night when I can't get to sleep||wǒ wǎnshàng shuìbuzháo de
Notice that the relative clause/descriptive phrase comes to the right of a noun in English, but it comes to the left of a clause in Mandarin. As a general rule of thumb, you can remember that all description goes to the left of a noun in Mandarin.
Use 地 to turn adjectives into adverbs
地 attaches to adjectives, making it possible to use them in order to show the manner or attitude in which an action is done. In practical terms, this means that if an English sentence includes an ~ly adverb, such as quietly or joyfully, its Mandarin equivalent will probably need 地.
Here are a few examples:
|do (something) cheerfully||kāixīnde (verb)||開心/地 verb||开心地 verb|
do (something) patiently
|yǒu nàixīnde (verb)||有耐心地 verb||有耐心地 verb|
|do (something) carefully||xiǎoxīnde (verb)||小心地 verb||小心地 verb|
In some specific phrases, which you'll gradually learn over time, 地 gets omitted:
|Please slow down.||Qǐng kāi mànyīdiǎn||請開慢一點。||请开慢一点。|
|Quick come see!||Kuài lái kàn!||快來看！||快来看！|
|Be careful!||Xiǎoxīn yīdiǎn ō!||小心一點喔！||小心一点喔!|
Use 得 to introduce verbal complements
Complements are considered a kind of verbal adjunct, which means that they provide further information about a given verb. There are many types of complements, and you'll naturally get a feel for what all they can do and when to use them as you spend more time consuming content in Mandarin.
For the time being, the important thing to understand is that they all work in basically the same way:
- Flavor one: Verb + complement
- Flavor two: Verb + 得 + complement
(Notice that while 地 always came before the verb, 得 always comes after it.)
An especially common use of verbal complements is to cast judgment about how a given action was performed. This type of complement is called the descriptive complement.
|(In the car with your sister) You’re driving too fast!||Nǐ kāi de tài kuàile||你開得太快了||你开得太快了！|
The character 開(車) means to drive in this context. The main information being communicated is that someone is driving – but furthermore, they're driving 太快了, too fast. The particle 得 allows us to connect the verb 開 with the judgment 太快了.
Here are a few more examples, all following this same logic.
Mom: How did you do on your test?
Child: (I) tested so-so.
kǎoshì kǎo dé zěnme yàng a
kǎo de hái hǎo.
Hotel attendant: How'd you sleep last night?
Guest: (I slept) badly; I still have jetlag.
wǎnshàng shuì de hǎo ma?
shuì dé bù hǎo, wǒ háishì yǒu shíchā.
Your friend: You speak such good Chinese!
You: I speak poorly, and (I speak) slowly.
nǐ zhōngwén shuō de hěn hǎo!
shuō dé bù hǎo, shuō dé hěn màn.
Another common use of verbal complements is to show whether or not someone is able to do something. This type of complement is called the potential complement.
Again, there are two basic structures you should be aware of:
- Verb + 得 + complement = able to (verb)
- Verb + 不 + complement = unable to (verb)
|I (can) understand!||Wǒ tīng dé dǒng||我聽得懂。||我听得懂。||
|There's so much food; I can't finish it.||Cài zhème duō, wǒ chī bù wán .||菜這麼多，我吃不完。||菜这么多，我吃不完。||
|Can you enlarge it a little? I can't see it.||Kěyǐ fàngdà yīdiǎn ma? Wǒ kàn bù jiàn||可以放大一點嗎？我看不見。||可以放大一点吗？我看不见。||看-見
|Can you buy it now?||Xiànzài mǎi dé dào ma?||現在買得到嗎？||现在买得到吗？||買-到
Note: The character 得 also appears as the second character of some verbs, such as 覺得 (juéde). In these cases it's simply part of the verb and doesn't carry any special grammatical meaning.
These three structural particles are quite flexible and there is a lot more that could be said about them. The good news is that the grammar remains more or less the same across the different noun constructions and verbal complements you'll eventually learn to use. So long as you remember to use 的 with nouns, 地 with adjectives and 得 with verbs, you're off to a good start!
- How to Say "Yes" (and "No") in Mandarin Chinese
- How to Address Family Members in Chinese
- How to Express Affection in Chinese: from "You're Pretty" to "Will You Marry Me?"
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Note from Glossika: If you'd like a more practical introduction to Mandarin grammar, we strongly recommend checking out the Get Speaking Mandarin course from Outlier Linguistics. In the course, you'll learn the three "de's" by seeing them in the context of practical sentences.