The Three De Song

16 Aug 2011

Learners of Chinese confront the “de triple threat” of Chinese structural particles pretty early on. You see, there are three different characters to write what sounds exactly the same to the ear. The three characters are 的, 得, and 地, each pronounced “de” (neutral tone) when serving as a structural particle.

If you’re just trying to improve your listening and speaking, you don’t really need to worry about this issue. If you’re working on your writing, however, you’re going to want to get it straight. I found the following (simplified) approach helpful:

  1. …的 + Noun
  2. Verb + 得…
  3. …地 + Verb

OK, yes, it leaves out a lot of special cases, and the aforementioned “Verb” in “Verb + 得” can also be an adjective. But they’re nice rules of thumb if you’re looking for something a bit simpler.

But here’s the interesting thing: because the issue of the three de’s is one concerning writing and not speaking, Chinese native speakers themselves have to learn these rules, and can sometimes get tripped up. Some people who don’t need to write for a living might even just “opt out” of the whole issue and use 的 exclusively.

But because Chinese children have to learn to use the proper “de” in school, there is actually a children’s song about the three de’s! [source]

> 《的地得》 儿歌

> 左边白,右边勺,名词跟在后面跑。

> 左边土,右边也,地字站在动词前,


> 左边两人就使得,形容词前要用得,

I find the explanation of 得 a bit suspect. It “comes before adjectives”? Kinda misleading (but then again, so is “after verbs”).

I tried to find an online video of this song, and instead found a very similar but different song also about the three de’s:

The amusing thing about this video is that in at least one place, the subtitles get the “de” wrong. (Can you find it?)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. My mnemonic is just “Di precedes.” Lame, but it gets the job done.

  2. I still laugh at 小心地滑.

  3. Did these three have different pronunciations historically? Do they have different pronunciations in some dialects?

  4. Rafa 穆凡 Says: August 17, 2011 at 12:12 am


  5. @szabolcs

    no expert here, but i assume they did have different pronunciations at some time. and i mean, 得 and 地 sound different when you read them as full (content) words.

    i happen to know cantonese, where 的=dik1 地=dei6 得=dak1. of course the grammar is a bit different too. for one thing 的 is never used, and even the thing that’s used in place of it (嘅 ge3) isn’t used as much as mandarin uses 的. 得 and 地 can be used the same way but often for adverbs they’ll use 噉 gam2, saying 好慢噉行 instead of 行得好慢 (走得很慢)and when they use 地 they often reduplicate the adjective and switch some of the tones around 慢慢地(噉)行 maan6maan6dei6 –> maan6maan2dei2.

    probably more than you wanted to know, but the point is that yes, they have different pronunciations in some dialects. that’s not to say, however, that these are necessarily three separate morphemes for young, monolingual, mandarin speakers. i see the “use 的 for everything” method a lot and i reckon that inside the brains of many northerners they just have a single “modifying particle” that’s pronounced “de” and can go a bunch of places.

    • Thanks for the explanation David, it sounds like Cantonese is quite a bit more different from Mandarin that most Chinese people I talked to would admit … (i.e. “same thing except the characters are pronounced differently”).

      Just out of curiosity: if 的 has some pronunciation in Cantonese, then it must be used for something, even if very rarely, or not? If not, how was its pronunciation determined? Generally, do you know how the pronunciation of “dialect-specific” characters is determined in another “dialect”? Based on etymology? I also wonder how well the characters correspond to etymology … (i.e. if two characters are pronounced with the same sound, does it imply that they’re not related etymologically, and the identical pronunciation is accidental? if one character has two different pronunciations, does it imply that those two spoken words are really related?)

      • michaelyus Says: August 29, 2011 at 6:47 am

        For 的, there’s 的确、目的 to get the pronunciation; the ‘base meaning’ (as in, the earliest that can be discerned) is something like ‘a point of light’.

        Such a link across the Chinese languages consideration is mostly character-based, and often will come from a regular evolution of the phonological changes from rime tables (e.g. 廣韻, looking for characters that sound the same).

        Of course, this equally means that a colloquial Cantonese sentence like 呢啲係佢哋嘅 could be read in Mandarin as
        “Nídí xì qǔdì jì” or “Nīdí xì qúdì gé” (depending on whether you follow the changes of tones directly from the rime tables by comparing them with the same characters, or you adapt them from Cantonese directly, which takes into account changes of tone within Cantonese, which is more widely accepted as ‘correct’ by dictionaries). So no direct consideration of etymology is really involved; it’s a mixture of phonological conversions based on the use of characters.

        The běnzì 本字 ‘movement’ acts (in my view) seems to be against this, and does try to find etymological links. This would make the links between Chinese languages easier, although it treats the 多音字/破音字 phenomenon into what I see as the more complicated 文读白读 one. E.g. 佢 is meant to be derived from a homophone of 渠, which is meant to come (even more speculatively) from 其. I don’t know whether this research could influence cross-linguistic pronunciations at all, as the preoccupation is with changing the script within the language (especially in Minnan 闽南, but it’s also been mentioned with respect to Cantonese).

        There’s also the matter of automatically pronouncing them in the colloquial way, converting 的 to
        嘅 (also can happen in the reading of Classical Chinese in any modern Chinese language, e.g. 之 to 的; it seems prevalent in Japanese’s 漢文 kanbun tradition at least. DeFrancis (1989) gives an analogy to this: reading the Classical Latin “Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres” (the opening of Julius Caesar’s “Commentarii de Bello Gallico”) as “Gaul is all divided in parts three” in English).

        I have no idea on the whole ‘same pronunciation = same etymology’ question. I do know that the characters that were cut in the character version of Yuen Ren Chao’s (赵元任) General Chinese indicates which characters hold the same pronunciation in all Chinese, implying these have changed together, according to the same phonological rules from Middle Chinese. Whether that means that they were etymologically related I don’t really know – I wouldn’t even know how to assess that.

  6. Is it just my imagination that the three Ds are an invention of modern times, created to mimic Western grammatical categories? That’s how 他, 她, 它 etc. came about, anyway.

  7. It seems that most in use is 的, so if not sure, go for C 😉 Anyway, for those who want to practise a bit more I did this gap-filling test:
    You can also create your own test. Just take any Chinese text and mark all the 的, 得 and 地’s. Learnclick will transform your text into cloze test flashcards.

  8. so useful… even native speakers get the three “de” wrong all the time!

  9. […] previously mentioned a song about the “three de“ (的, 得, 地) issue in Mandarin Chinese. Now it’s even been meme-ified using shots from a […]

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