- 1 Introduction
- 2 Video lesson
- 3 Vocabulary
- 4 Cantonese word order: how to learn
- 5 The expanded Cantonese word order
- 6 Questions word order in Cantonese
- 7 Addresses and dates in Cantonese
- 8 Exceptions to the Cantonese word order rule
- 8.1 Cantonese word order exception #1: Topic + Comment
- 8.2 Cantonese word order exception #2: SOV order
- 8.3 Cantonese word order exception #3: Duration of action
- 8.4 Cantonese word order exception #4: 將 construct
- 8.5 Cantonese word order exception #5: Anything, anyone, etc.
- 8.6 Cantonese word order exception #6: “To the extent that”
- 9 Conclusion
Hey guys, it’s been a while. Hope everyone’s doing okay. 🙂
In today’s grammar lesson, we’ll be talking about one of the most important, and yet one of the most confusing topics to Cantonese students – word order.
There are a few topics when learning Cantonese that all learners should pay extra attention to, and Cantonese word order is one of them. So if you were just doing a quick perusal in the previous lessons, I’m highly recommend that you follow what we’re going to discuss closely, because getting this right can get you a lot closer to the next level in Cantonese.
I hope this little rant was enough to convince you of the importance of Cantonese word order.
Okay, without further ado, let’s get started.
S/W/B = Spoken / Written / Both
|apart from||除咗…之外||ceoi4 zo2…zi1 ngoi6||S|
|Mong Kok||旺角||wong6 gok3||B|
|to watch (a movie)||睇||tai2||S|
|Despicable Me 3||壞蛋獎門人 3||waai6 daan2 zoeng2 mun4 jan4||B|
|to take a plane||搭飛機||daap3 fei1 gei1||S|
|family||屋企人||uk1 kei2 jan4||S|
|and (when listing things)||同埋||tung4 maai4||S|
|to put…into||放…入去||fong3…jap6 heoi3||S|
|dishes (not plates, but food)||餸||sung3||S|
|to be sick||病||beng6||B|
|to say sorry||講聲唔好意思||gong2 seng1 m4 hou2 ji3 si1||S|
|to know something (knowledge)||識||sik1||S|
|human heart||人心||jan4 sam1||B|
|to know a thing or two about||略懂一二||loek6 dung2 jat1 ji6||B|
|to understand||理解||lei5 gaai2||B|
|to sing||唱歌||coeng3 go1||B|
|to pass sth. (to sb.)||遞||dai6||S|
|can’t…anything||乜嘢都…唔到||mat1 je5 dou1…m4 dou2||S|
|can’t…anyone||邊個都…唔到||bin1 go3 dou1…m4 dou2||S|
|to be tired||癐||gui6||S|
|to pry open||擘開||maak3 hoi1||S|
Cantonese word order: how to learn
I very rarely mix up pedagogy with actual Cantonese grammar content, however, understanding a few basic things about Cantonese discourse will help you understand how to approach thinking about Cantonese word order, so I want to bring up a couple of very important points before we get started.
1. Subtle nuances to do with Cantonese word order are usually embedded in various structures. For example, you’ll learn about the 將 (zoeng1) structure later on, where the word order is changed explicitly as a part of the construct. Some structures also sandwich clauses, such as “apart from”, 除咗…之外 (ceoi4 zo2…zi1 ngoi6).
This means that unlike other lessons, this lesson will remain a work in progress. As we introduce more structures, we’ll expand this lesson suitably, and link back to the relevant lessons for details.
2. Cantonese word order is fairly flexible. Some people think that because of this, Cantonese is a very difficult language (because there are “no rules”), but for the same reason, Cantonese can seem really easy for other learners.
The thing to take away from this is that you shouldn’t be afraid to make mistakes when learning the language. Apart form the “expanded word order” rule we’ll talk about later, you’ll find that Hongkongers love throwing words around and inverting word order.
This is great news for you because it means that there’s greater room for mistakes.
So the caveat is – remember the main rule with sentence order, learn each structure as you go along, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Okay, with that in mind, let’s get started.
The expanded Cantonese word order
Subject + Time + Manner + Place + Verb + Object
Time + Subject + Manner + Place + Verb + Object
Doesn’t seem too hard, right?
The first thing you have to remember is that Chinese, like English, is an SVO language. So we also say “I love you” instead of “I you love” in languages like French and Spanish.
But here’s where the real difference kicks in – the when, how and where, unlike English, comes before the verb as shown above. That’s it, ladies and gents – if you can remember “time, manner, place” or “when, how, where”, you’re pretty much covered most of the cases.
Let’s have a look at some sample sentences.
Cantonese word order example #1
我 上個禮拜 同朋友一齊 喺旺角 睇 壞蛋獎門人 3。
ngo5 / soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 / tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 / hai2 wong6 gok3 / tai2 / waai6 daan2 zoeng2 mun4 jan4 saam1.
I / last week / with friends together / in Mong Kok / saw / Despicable Me 3.
Subject / Time / Manner / Place / Verb / Object.
I watched Despicable Me 3 with a couple of friends last week in Mong Kok.
Cantonese word order example #2
星期日 阿倫 搭飛機 去巴黎 見 屋企人。
sing1 kei4 jat6 / e1 leon2 / daap3 fei1 gei1 / heoi3 baa1 lai4 / gin3 / uk1 kei2 jan4.
Sunday / Alan / takes a plane / go Paris / see / family.
Time / Subject / Manner / Place / Verb / Object
Alan’s going to Paris to visit his family on Sunday.
That’s it! If you commit one of these sentences to memory, you’ll have a useful point of reference to go back to when writing your own sentences.
Questions word order in Cantonese
The second thing we’ll talk about is word order with questions.
Questions in Cantonese also follow a slightly different word order. The rule to remember is that unlike in English, questions follow the same word order as their answers.
Let’s look at some examples, starting with answers, then working our way back to the questions.
Questions word order #1
我 炒咗 番茄同埋洋蔥 之後先至 放 牛肉入去。
ngo5 / cau2 zo2 / faan1 ke2 tung4 maai4 joeng4 cung1 / sin1 zi3 / fong3 / ngau4 juk6 / jap6 heoi3.
(I / stir-fried / the tomatoes and onions) / and then / (put / the beef in).
Subject / Verb / Object / Conj / Verb / Object
I stir-fried the tomatoes and onions before putting the beef in.
*The two phrases in parentheses represent two sentences that could have been written separately standalone. Sentences like these are called “clauses” in grammar, if you don’t already know.
你 點樣 整 哩個餸 嘅呢？
nei5 / dim2 joeng2 / zing2 / li1 go3 sung3 / ge3 le1?
You / how / make / this dish / Final Particle?
Subject / Question Word / Verb / Object / Final Particle
How did you cook this dish?
As you can see, the verb in the answer “stir-fried”, corresponds to the position of the question word / verb in the question “how to make”
Questions word order #2
我 係 香港 嚟 嘅。
ngo5 / hai6 / hoeng1 gong2 / lei4 / ge3.
I / am / Hong Kong / come / Final Particle.
Subject / Verb / Object / Verb / Final Particle
I come from Hong Kong.
你 係 邊度 嚟 嘅呢？
nei5 / hai6 / bin1 dou6 / lei4 / ge3 ne1?
You / where / come from / Final Particle
Subject / Question Word / Verb / Final Particle
Where are you from?
So the “verb / object / verb” corresponds to the position of the question word in this case.
But if there are two verbs, how do you decide whether the question word should come before or after?
Well, one way to think of it is 係…嚟 (hai6…lei4) as a construct, but the meaning comes from the word 嚟 (lei4), so we want to replace this word with the question word in the question.
Questions word order #3
我 病咗，所以 去 唔到，幫我 同啊文 講聲唔好意思 啊。
ngo5 / beng6 zo2, / so2 ji5 / heoi3 / m4 dou2, / bong1 ngo5 / tung4 aa3 man4 / gong2 seng1 m4 hou2 ji3 si1 / aa1.
I / was sick, / so / go / cannot, / help me / to Man / say sorry / Final Particle.
Subject / Verb, / Conj / Verb / Modifier, / Manner / Object / Verb / Final Particle.
I was sick, so I couldn’t go – please say sorry to Man for me.
你 點解 冇 去 啊文個party 嘅？
nei5 / dim2 gaai2 / mou5 / heoi3 / aa3 man4 go3 party / ge2?
You / why / not / go / Man that party / final particle?
Subject / Question Word / Negation / Verb Object / Final Particle
Why didn’t you go to Man’s party?
As you can see with the above examples, the position of question words aren’t determined by a specific rule – they aren’t placed “in front” or “at the back” or “after the verb” – they simply depend on the word order of the answer to the question.
So you’ll see things like
nei5 zyu6 hai2 bin1 dou6?
Where do you live?
係最好食嘅呢？bin1 dou6 hai6 zeoi3 hou2 sik6 ge3 ne1?
Where’s the best place to eat?
So keep this rule in mind.
Addresses and dates in Cantonese
This is a bit of an interesting one.
This isn’t really what you’d expect in a conventional grammar lesson, but because these are so important, I thought it’d be worth a mention.
Let’s start with addresses.
In English, addresses are written starting with the room number / floor number (if applicable), then all the way to the country.
For example, a random address in English
5/F, Revenue Tower,
5 Gloucester Road,
Wan Chai, Hong Kong
But in Chinese, the order of the address is reversed. Instead of starting with the smallest unit, we start with the largest component of the address. So a translation of the address would be:
hoeng1 gong2 waan1 zai2 gou3 si6 daa2 dou6 m5 hou6 seoi3 mou6 daai6 lou4 m5 lau2
(This is the address of the Inland Revenue Department in Hong Kong if anyone’s interested.)
And you’ll notice that because Chinese addresses are much shorter, we usually don’t split it into multiple lines as with English.
Dates follow a similar principle.
Following the British format, I’m writing this lesson on
Friday, 7th July, 2017.
In Chinese, we have to reverse the order of that and write
ji6 ling4 jat1 cat1 nin4 cat1 jyut6 cat1 hou6 (sing1 kei4 m5)
The day of the week really isn’t part of the date, so I just put it in parentheses.
But as you can see, we write the date out in this order: year, month and day, instead of day, month, year with the British format.
Exceptions to the Cantonese word order rule
Up till this point, what we talked about are things that I consider to be the main rules to do with word order. And up till this point, these are pretty rigid, which is a good thing – as long as you follow these rules, you can’t go wrong most of the times.
But this is where it gets a little complicated. Once you introduce the more flexible side of word ordering in Cantonese, you’ll start to see that there are many ways to order a sentence, and while they essentially express the same thing, there can be slight differences in nuance.
This is usually what Cantonese learners find to be one of the most difficult aspects when learning Cantonese – the euphemism here used is “flexible”, but for others, it can just as easily be described as “random”. And if it’s random, it implies there are no rules, and without rules, how do we know what’s right from wrong?
The second thing is that certain grammar constructs actually involve changing the word order, or ascribe to a particular word order that breaks the main SVO pattern, and remembering each and every one of these might be non-intuitive to some.
So how do we deal with these issues?
If you’re looking for a magical elixir, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. My advice for working through constructs is simply this: avoid flexible word order patterns – stick to the standard format (we’ll talk about this with some examples later on).
The reasoning behind this is very similar to learning characters – your focus should be on being able to understand native speakers in spite of flexible word ordering, but being able to word your sentences flexibly isn’t as important. (Comprehension is more important than output.)
And when dealing with special constructs, each one of them must be studied individually, there’s no rule I’m aware of that you can use to generalize the word order taking these exceptions into account, so if you forget, just go over what you learned and do a quick recap.
Cantonese word order exception #1: Topic + Comment
One of the things that permits this “flexible word order” phenomenon in Cantonese is the idea of having “topics”. If you’ve studied Korean or Japanese, you’ll be very familiar with this concept – there are “topic markers” in the language 는/은 and は respectively.
Without diving too much into grammar jargon, most of the times, we talk about the separation of a “subject” and “object” – “subject”, the thing that does something; “object”, the thing that receives that action.
A topic, however, is different – it doesn’t differentiate between “giving” or “receiving”, it simply marks the topic of a sentence, it literally says, “this is the main topic that this sentence will talk about”, hence “topic”. An appropriate name, eh?
In Cantonese, there’s no special word that marks the topic unlike its close neighbours, but treating something as a topic means that you can play around with the word order, like we have with this sample sentence here:
軟件 我 唔 識，但係 人心 我 就 略懂一二。
jyun5 gin2 / ngo5 / m4 / sik1, dan6 hai6 / jan4 sam1 / ngo5 / zau6 / loek6 dung2 jat1 ji6.
Software / I / not / know, but / human heart / I / (untranslatable) / know a little.
Topic / Subject / Negation / Verb, / Conjunction / Topic / Subject / N/A / Verb.
With regards to software, I don’t know (anything), but with regards to the human heart, I might know a little something (about it).
Apart from these rules, I’ll also talk about how to convert a sentence worded flexibly back to a normal sentence (or one possible way – there are many ways to phrase everything). This is a process I call “normalization”, and that’s what I’ll refer to in the exceptions that follow.
ngo5 m4 sik1 jyun5 gin2, daan6 hai6 ngo5 lei5 gaai2 jan4 sam1.
I don’t know software, but I understand the human heart.
It sounds less dramatic and more direct, but as a learner, our priority is not to get all fancy – we just want to get our point across.
Cantonese word order exception #2: SOV order
In general, SVO order is observed in Cantonese, but not always! You might be surprised to find out that SOV can be used sometimes for different purposes, for example, to emphasize on something, as with this example here.
佢 乜都唔 鍾意，佢 廁紙 最鐘意。
keoi5 / mat1 dou1 m4 / zung1 ji3, keoi5 / ci3 zi2 / zeoi3 zung1 ji3.
He / nothing / likes, he / toilet paper / the most like.
Subject / Object / Verb, Subject / Object / Verb.
He may not like a lot of things, except for tissues – he really digs tissues.
keoi5 mat1 je5 dou1 m4 zung1 ji3, keoi5 zeoi3 zung1 ji3 ci3 zi2.
There’s not much he likes, but he (happens to) really likes tissues.
*Note that the translations for “nothing”, “nobody”, “nowhere” and so forth are fixed in word order as shown with the above example. The translations for “any-”, “some-”, “no-” are usually one of the most difficult things to translate across languages, so we’ll be discussing this more in a separate lesson, but just keep this in mind for now.
Cantonese word order exception #3: Duration of action
To say you’ve done something for a period of time, you can place it between the verb and the object.
佢 唱咗 兩個鐘 歌。
keoi5 / coeng3 zo2 / loeng5 go3 zung1 / go1.
She / sang / two hours / song.
Subject / Verb / Duration / Object.
She sang for two hours.
keoi5 coeng3 zo2 go1 loeng5 go3 zung1.
She sang for two hours.
Cantonese word order exception #4: 將 construct
For constructs covered in other lessons, like this one, I’ll simply point to a sample sentence, as well as the corresponding lessons, when they’re out.
將 杯 水 遞 畀我。
zoeng1 bui1 seoi2 dai6 bei2 ngo5.
將 / glass / water / pass / to me.
將 / MW / Object / Verb / Subject.
Pass me the glass of water.
dai6 bui1 seoi2 bei2 ngo5.
Pass me the glass of water.
Cantonese word order exception #5: Anything, anyone, etc.
我 乜嘢都 聽 唔到，邊個都 見 唔到。
ngo5 / mat1 je5 dou1 / teng1 / m4 dou2, bin1 go3 dou1 / gin3 / m4 dou2.
I / nothing / hear / can’t, nobody / see / can’t.
Subject / Object / Verb / Modifier, / Object / Verb / Modifier.
I can’t hear anything, see anything.
Normalization isn’t possible – this is fixed.
Cantonese word order exception #6: “To the extent that”
我 癐 到 眼 都 擘唔開。
ngo5 gui6 dou3 ngaan5 do1 maak3 m4 hoi1.
I / tired / to the extent that / eyes / also / can’t / open.
Subject / Adjective / 到 / Object / Negation / Verb.
I’m so tired that I can’t even open my eyes.
Normalization here is easy – you can just split the sentence up into two clauses.
ngo5 hou2 gui6, maak3 m4 hoi1 deoi3 ngaan5.
I’m really tired, I can’t open my eyes.
(to be continued)
So today, we talked about a few things
- The expanded Cantonese word order rule
- Question words placement
- Addresses and dates
- Exceptions to the word order rule
- How to approach thinking about exceptions
- Cantonese word order normalization
This is by no means a complete list of exceptions. To do this, a huge sample corpus has to be analyzed, and seeing it’s pretty much just me writing at the moment, I simply don’t have the time to comb through lots of text.
But this is one of the most important lessons here at Cantolounge, and I will be updating this in the future.
However, the important thing to note is not the particular exceptions (I’ve tried to pick what I think are typical exceptions in terms of word order), but the fact that they exist, and how to think about them.
As someone who’s still learning, it’s very important to realize that as a non-native speaker, it’s perfectly acceptable to simplify complex sentences. This applies to flexible word order, and this is why we talked about normalization above, so you can see that even if it’s simpler, and the nuance is less precise, you can still express a lot.
And that’s the most important takeaway from today’s lesson.
Okay, that’s it for today!
I will be expecting a lot more questions this lesson, because I feel like even though this is a shorter lesson than usual, I’ve thrown a lot at you guys, so please feel free to leave a comment below if there’s something that you feel needs to be clarified.
If you found this helpful, don’t forget to share this on Facebook with your friends learning Cantonese! 🙂
Thank you for reading as usual, and I’ll see you guys next time.