Heard at Work

Last Friday I enjoyed a number of interesting little incidents at the office.

One of the directors of the company has been visiting from Taiwan, and I overheard him chatting with someone else in our office. The director seems to take it upon himself to enlighten the mainlanders (according to the Taiwan view). I don’t want to go into specific political topics that came up, but one thing he did say was that currently airplane tickets from mainland China to Taiwan are especially cheap. Why? Because a lot of Taiwanese work in mainland China, and the Taiwanese government is trying to encourage those people to come home and vote in the March 20th election. Interesting….

I spent a good deal of my morning trying to explain to another employee here that some things just can’t be translated. You see, she had some songs that she wanted me to help her translate into Chinese. Among the lines that were giving her trouble were “itsy bitsy teeny weenie” (yellow polka dot bikini), “nick nack paddy whack” (give the dog a bone), and “Auld Lang Syne.” I’m not saying these are completely untranslatable, but they certainly require a creative translation to create the same effect in Chinese that they do in English.

Speaking of communicating linguistic principles, at noon my co-worker and I got in a debate with four girls in the office about grammar. We could hardly believe they weren’t joking at first. You see, these four girls’ contention was that the Chinese language has no grammar. Unbelievable. Their claim was that there’s no “grammar,” it’s just that Chinese people have gotten used to putting words together a certain way. (And what exactly do you think grammar is…??)

Since there were four of them that agreed to disagree with the two of us silly foreigners, they considered themselves victorious. But then at lunchtime three of them went off somwhere, and one of them ate lunch with my co-worker and me. Once we had her alone, we pounced on her (verbally) and tore her argument to shreds. That was fun. I don’t think it did any good, though.

Why would Chinese people think their language has no grammar? Is it because in elementary school they spend all the time in “Chinese class” just learning Chinese characters, and there’s no real need to cover grammar in-depth? I’m not very familiar with the curriculum of the Chinese school system at the primary level.


John Pasden

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


  1. If Chinese has no grammar why is it so bloody difficult to learn?!?!?!?!?!?

  2. The kids learn what characters can be coupled. The coupling of characters is grammar though often it is misnamed vocabulary.

  3. Wouldn’t kindrgarteners be better off learning “Itsy bitsy spider” rather than the bikini one?

  4. Also, the spider song has hand motions to go along with it — which I would think that the kids would enjoy.

  5. Hey, don’t give the Chinese grief over this. The misconception that Chinese ‘has no grammar’ is alive in well in the West, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard well-meaning people say this. Of course, none of them were linguists.

  6. You meant: “…none of them WAS a linguist.” Right? English definitely has a grammar — and it’s fucked up big time.

  7. “You meant: “…none of them WAS a linguist.” Right?”

    Umm no.. THEM is plural, so WERE is the correct word to use in this case. WAS is singular so it’s incorrect to use it here.

  8. chris waugh> Chinese is bloody difficult to learn because of the all the characters. Grammatically it’s far simpler than English, or some northern european languages (e.g. Finnish) where the endings of words are always changing depending on who is being talked about, and the time that the action is taking place etc.

  9. all this silliness about grammar. Anyone who’s taken a lick of linguistics knows that grammar is about what is functional rather than considered proper, i.e. endorsed by the group that has academic/institutional authority to set standards (and Limits) for expression.

    But if you go by the proper grammar, Jack is right, as “to be” is the predicate of the word “none” which, meaning “not one” takes a singular function in grammar. “Them” is the object of a preposition and therefore has nothing to do with the conjugation of the verb.

  10. No doubt,any language has grammar including Chinese.I believe the better who masters the grammar,the more who can feel it helpful to appreciate the essence of a language.But now,with the appearance of Internet language(especially using in chatting room and e-mail),the grammar concept’s been bluring.Does that mean we are going postmodern language society? Good or bad?

  11. I wonder if that’ll knock me down to a ‘4’ on my spoken English proficiency test. I figure I’m good for at least a 4+ on the reading section, though (unless they give me a freakin’ passage from Beowulf).

  12. Umm no.. THEM is plural, so WERE is the correct word to use in this case. WAS is singular so it’s incorrect to use it here.

    Uh, wrong. NONE is singular. That is all that matters. Most indefinite pronouns are singular. “None” = “not ONE” In any case, memorize this rule: “The copula should always agree with the subject, not with the complement.” Then you won’t say things like: “Not one of the cars WERE Fords.” The verb should agree with ONE, not CARS.

    This just demonstrates that English grammar is a maze compared to Chinese grammar; however, the advantage English has over Chinese (precisely because of the grammar) is that English is much less “context dependent” than Chinese. Chinese is so damn dependent on context it drives you insane…

  13. So basically you talked to some people who have no idea what the word “grammar” means, nor have they thought about how we learn languages. Ignorance is everywhere, as are conspiracy theories like the Taiwan flights.

  14. A-yo! Please don’t argue about stupid grammar rules here. Be aware that there are some (prescriptive) grammar rules that very few people actually use in spoken English (see above), and then there are the (descriptive) looser grammar rules that really pertain to how most of us native speakers talk. Only non-native speakers break the latter set.

    But that’s not at all what this post is about! It’s about people thinking their language has NO GRAMMAR. Which is ridiculous.

  15. Why is “none” always singular? None can also mean “not any” (e.g. “not any of them were linguists”). I think none can be plural or singular.

  16. Ok, so I might have got my grammar a little confused, but to my eyes there was nothing wrong with Prince Roy’s original sentence (maybe it’s just an Australian thing).

    In any case, I disagree that none can only be used in the singular. If as you say the meaning of none is “not one”, then surely “not one” = “many”? A quick search on google for “none singular plural” reveals that the top few links all agree that “none” can be plural at times, and the notion that “none” is exclusively singular is not correct.


    Has a reasonable explanation.

  17. Imron,

    The view that “none” means “not one” or “no one” arises from the history of the word, as does the prescriptive view that it can only be singular. In this view, “none” means “not one” as in “not a single one.”

    (see http://dictionary.reference.com/search?q=none)

    I agree that in everyday speech it sounds perfectly fine in the plural.

    And thank you, everyone, for visitng my English grammar blog.

  18. I remember having an English teacher in 7th or 8th grade who thought he was so cool because he’d point out stuff that we’d normally say but was gramatically incorrect, like “None of them were linguists.” Or “It is me” instead of “It is I.”

    God, he needed a good smacking.

  19. Grace Wang Says: March 18, 2004 at 7:51 am

    You can not just depends on those four working colleagues for saying “Chinese people think their language has no grammer”. They can not represent 1.4 Billion Chinese!!!!

    Like your website, but this comment is far more judgemental. I am a Chinese and I do believe we have grammer, and Chinese is a very beautiful language with massive potential……

  20. Grame Wang Says: March 18, 2004 at 8:03 am

    I do agree with Imron about Chinese grammer, it is much simpler than English when it comes to Grammer. We barely change verb to indicate it happened in the past or it is happening. But which doesn;t mean we don’t have a grammer!!!

    Maybe those 4 ladies in your company think this way, not all the Chinese on think this way! I am feel sad for those 4 ladies, they have no knowledge of their own mother language.

  21. Grace,

    I didn’t think I needed to say that many Chinese people know their language has grammar. Just last semester, multiple Chinese people were teaching me Chinese grammar (in Chinese). At universities across China, Chinese professors are lecturing to Chinese students about Chinese grammar in Xiandai Hanyu class.

    And yet these four people (none of whom are stupid or uneducated) believed that Chinese has no grammar. They don’t represent all of China, but they also can’t be the only ones that think this way.

  22. John,

    I see your point, do agree with you.
    It is the education system. Most Chinese students don’t actually learn Chinese properly ( or to a specific standard).
    Modern Chinese is quite different from WEN YAN WEN, and most young Chinese now can barely understand articles written in WEN YAN WEN (ancient Chinese),which is quite sad for such a nation with so splended past….

  23. As I have a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage on my desk for a reading assignment I should be doing right now, I had to comment: none is not always singular

  24. Grace,

    Most chinese can’t read WEN YAN WEN because of a series of events culminating in WEN HUA GE MING. Whenever I read about the cultural revolution and all that was lost because of it, I can’t help be cringe.

    Chinese is definitely beautiful, but the only reason it has potential is because of where the Chinese language is used. It is used in the largest country in the world that is on the verge of economic superstardom. This is why the Chinese language has potential. I think Thai is equally as beautiful as Chinese, even when spoken by men. But, it has no potential because of where and why Thai is used. It is impossible to compare languages solely on linguistic features, because linguistics aims to be as objective as possible. If you throw in the socioeconomic factors of language use, you can compare things like potential.

    Anyway, I probably read too much into your postings. Sorry! 😉

  25. To be fair, I think it’s true that Chinese has fewer constraints than English does (and English doesn’t have that many); the typical Chinese grammaticality judgement is something like “Well, you could say it that way, but we don’t, we say it this way”, as opposed to the snort that ungrammatical English sentences generally provoke.

    Another thing about Chinese is that it’s (syntactically) neither ergative nor accusative. In an accusative language like English, “John dropped the watermelon and burst” has to mean that John burst, not the watermelon; similarly, ergative languages are compelled to interpret “John dropped the watermelon and was flustered” as meaning the watermelon was flustered, not John. Chinese interprets each sentence in the sensible fashion.

  26. Stereotype alert: sometimes I find myself arguing with Chinese people just for the sake of arguing. I’m argumentative with certain people (not everyone), and whenever I hang out with CBC (chinese born chinese, I’m an ABC, btw), I always find myself in one long discussion after another. Nothing ever gets solved and no one concedes the other’s point. It seems the arguing is done for the sake of entertainment, and the Chinese I’ve met really like entertainment…

    This is a possible reason for the irrational opinion your four officemates held…?

  27. nishishei Says: March 28, 2004 at 5:52 pm

    Grammar is often confused by the Chinese to mean inflection. When a Chinese thinks of English grammar, he is usually thinking of tenses, conjugations, declensions, cases, moods, etc. Chinese being a very analytical language lacks these features. So that’s the confusion. Why would they think that though? Because the Chinese only start to learn formal grammar of a language when they learn a foreign language (usually English). It’s a matter of the terminology of “grammar.”

  28. nishishei Says: March 28, 2004 at 5:54 pm

    Because the Chinese only start to learn formal grammar of a language when they learn a foreign language (usually English), as result they associate inflection to mean grammar.

  29. Lantian Says: May 11, 2006 at 12:17 am

    I think there are relatively few words in English that can morph at will, one that comes to mind is fck. What the f. That’s f**ked up. Let’s f*&. But it seems really common in Chinese, especially when you pair characters with other characters you get verbs, adjectives, nouns. It’s like you can move things around at will. Maybe that’s what they meant.

    Is there some kind of underlying set of rules on which characters can combine and which can’t? Does a native Chinese person just ‘know’ which ones can go together? Like I can tell a non-sensical English word is an adjective or noun, like the billy-blah is really blabby.

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