Saturday Grammar: The Differences Between 的 (de), 地 (de), and 得 (de)

8 Feb

For this blog’s very first grammar lesson, we’ll explore the mysteries of 的 (de), 地 (de), and 得 (de).

They are not interchangeable. Repeat: they are not interchangeable. Natives casually substitute them for one another, especially 的 for the other two, but grammatically speaking they are completely distinct. Sorry, guys.

So how are they used, then? Though I knew they were different, I didn’t know the formal rules until I researched it this past week. I found one source in particular that really cleared it up for me. If you can read Mandarin without pīnyīn, here is an explanation meant for Chinese elementary school students. (Update: If you prefer English, here is a concise explanation by Much easier to read than the Chinese one. 😀 )

If those two cut it for you, you need read no further. However, I’ll also summarize the rules as I understood them, as individual explanations differ slightly. If you still feel like a bird in Beijing smog after trying one of the explanations, try reading the others or searching online for yourself.

chinese grammar particles de de and de

双人 “得” -I prefer tackling the most challenging first, so we’ll start off with 双人得.

“得” is called 双人得 because of the radical “彳”, which is the doubled version of the people-indicating radical. If that didn’t make sense, just ignore it – it’s not actually important, just sometimes helpful to know when you have to describe a “de” out loud.

abc semi-adverb de chinese particle

得 is quite the tricky bastard for most English speakers. It’s not exactly an adverb, but it does modify verbs. To put it simply, 得 modifies in terms of degree or in terms of potential.

An example in terms of degree would be 他洗得很干净 -Tā xǐ de hěn gānjìng – He washed it very clean (ly). To what degree did he wash it? Very cleanly. Another example, this time with an adjective, would be 她累得想要倒下 – Tā lèi de xǐang yào dǎoxìa – She was so tired that she wanted to fall down (collapse). To what degree was she tired? She was tired to the degree that she wanted to collapse.

Another use of 得 is in terms of potential. For instance: 我喝得下这碗汤 – Wǒ hé de xìa zhè wǎn tāng – I am able to drink this bowl of soup. I’m haven’t drunk the bowl of soup yet, and maybe I never will. I’m just sitting there with a bowl of soup in front of me, telling you that I could drink it, if I felt like it.

For most, 双人得  is the most confusing of the lot, so please post if you’ve got any questions.

白勺 “的” - This is the most common of the de’s, and may in fact be the most commonly used character in all of Chinese. 的 is referred to when speaking as 白勺的, because of the two characters that can be found inside of it: 白 (bȧi – white) and 勺 (sháo – spoon)。的 is the possessive particle in Chinese (ex. my cat – 我的猫 – wǒ de māo), much like “no” in Japanese or the apostrophe + s in English.

abc possessive de chinese particle

Another important use is for descriptive expressions. In Chinese, objects are said to “belong” to a color or characteristic, rather than having an adjective actually modify the noun. For example, the brown duck would be 棕色鸭子。鸭子 (yāzi – duck) belongs to the group of 棕色 (zōngsè – brown).

That makes it sound more complicated than it is if you’re familiar with spoken Chinese. Let me just give a few more examples.

Your dog – 你的狗 – nǐ de gǒu.

Yun Yun’s book – 云云的书 – yúnyun de shū

The very tall teacher – 很高的老师 – hěngáo de lǎoshī.

The red scarf – 红色的围巾 – hóngsè de wéijīn

土也 “地” -Hopefully it’s fairly obvious why 地 is called 土也地. 地’s usage has an exact English equivalent – the “-ly” that makes an adjective into an adverb.

For an artistic example:  春雨轻轻地落。Chūnyǔ qīngqīng de cóng hūiyún lùo. The spring rain gently falls.

“轻轻” is the “gent-“of gently, while “地” is the “-ly”. 轻轻地 is modifying the verb “落”, exactly like an adverb.

chinese particle de

And just as a last note, 他喝得很慢 uses 双人得,while 他慢慢地喝 uses 土也地。I’ll apologize in advance for what I’m about to say. They are not the same. Not the same. Sorry.

They are very similar, though, so don’t freak out. If you say or write the wrong one, it really won’t matter that much. However, for those who really want native-like fluency, there is a subtle difference. 他喝得很慢 implies that 他 usually 喝得很慢, along the lines of a habit. 他慢慢地喝 is more of a present, happening-right-now kind of sentence, along the lines of 他慢慢地喝.

This is almost identical to English. Think about, “He drinks slowly,” versus, “He slowly drinks.”

Yes? Nods and smiles? If anything’s unclear, feel free to post in the comments.

chinese grammar particles de de and deOnce more.

To recap, let’s briefly go over our de’s.

得 is used for modifying in terms of degree or possibility. If that’s just confusing, don’t worry. Like most Chinese, just remember that it usually comes after the thing it’s modifying, whether that be adjective or verb. (Ex. 他喝得很慢,

的 is the possessive particle, which is also used in Chinese to assign qualities to nouns (like adjectives in English).

地 is the “-ly” in adverbs. It follows adjectives that modify verbs.

I’ve basically confused myself, so I’ll be practicing often. If you have a correction or addition to make, please do so! Best of luck, everyone.


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