I need help with grammar. When speaking 的, 得 and 地 all sound the same (de). They are all used for grammar purposes and seem to be used all the time. What’s the best way to learn the differences between the three and how can I use them correctly?
This in an excellent question and something that every student of Chinese should master (the sooner, the better!).
1. The most common of the three is 的 ‘De’. To confuse things further, 的 can also be pronounced as “Dí” like in 的确 DíQuè (certainly) or Dī in 打的 DǎDī (to hire a taxi). But never mind that, let’s focus on its roles as a grammar particle:
A) particle De is used to express possession, e.g.
- 我 Wǒ (I/me) > 我的 Wǒ De (my/mine)
- 她们 TāMen (they) > 她们的 TāMen De (their/theirs)
- 老师 LǎoShī (teacher > 老师的 LǎoShī De (teacher’s)
Some other examples of 的 being used in more complex noun phrases:
- 我的那本书 Wǒ De Nà Běn Shū (that book of mine)
- 她们的老朋友 Tāmen De Lǎo PéngYǒu (old friends of theirs)
- 老师的三只狗 LǎoShī De Sān Zhī Gǒu (three teacher’s dogs)
B) particle ‘De’ can also used in adjectival phrases , following the structure of: (adjective + De + noun)
- 红色的苹果 HóngSè De PíngGuǒ (red apple)
- 漂亮的小姐 Piàoliang de XiǎoJie (beautiful girl)
C) lastly, this same particle is also used in elliptical sentences (to avoid repetition)
- 大的是你的，小的是我的。Dà De Shì Nǐ De, Xiǎo De Shì Wǒ De. (The big one is mine, the small one is yours.)
- 这是我的书，那是她的。Zhè Shì Wǒ De Shū, Nà Shì Tā De. (This book is mine, that one is hers.)
2. 得 ‘de’ is a complement particle used in the following structure: verb + De + extra information (on manner, quality etc). You are basically trying to explain a degree of something.
得 can also be pronounced as Děi, to mean ‘must’, ‘have to’, for example: 我得回家 Wǒ Děi HuíJiā (I have to go home). It can also go with other characters to form new words such as 得到 DeDào (to get/obtain). Again, let’s focus on its most important role, that of a complement particle:
- 他们跑得快。 TāMen PǎoDe Hěn Kuài (They run very fast.)
- 你说得好。 Nǐ Shuō De Hǎo (You said it well (well said).)
- 你汉语说得非常好。Nǐ HànYǔ Shuō De FēiCháng Hǎo. (You speak very good Chinese / You speak Chinese really well).
3. 地 “De” is used with adverbs. Adverbs have the function of modifying verbs (in English they are recognized by their -ly ending: quickly, suddenly, surely). 地 can also pronounced Dì like in dìfāng 地方 (place).
- 慢慢地 MànMànDe (slowly)
- 高高兴兴地 GāoGāoXìngXìngDe (happily)
For all of you beginners out there, I know it’s a lot to take in, but thinking back to my first days of studying Chinese, I would really appreciate it if someone would take the time to explain it to me like this. Instead, our teacher approached one “De” at the time, which made everything so confusing, and left us all with the impression that there are countless De-s out there and that it’s absolutely impossible to master the all. Well, the fact is, they are not, and if you don’t remember anything else, remember this: 的 is used with adjectives (to describe things), 得 is used with verbs (to denote the degree of doing something) and 地 with adverbs (to say how you are doing something).
I hope that helps!