Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar

Edited by Qin Xue Herzberg & Larry Herzberg (Stone Bridge Press, 2011)

Review by: John Pasden

I quite enjoyed this book on Chinese grammar, but the student would do well to be clear on exactly what this book is and what it is not. Right on the cover are two huge clues:

> A quick study handbook with over 75 key constructions for reference and practice

> A Student’s Guide to Correct Structures and Common Errors

In case it’s not obvious, this book is not the place to start learning Chinese grammar. Sure, it’s packed full of great information and important side notes, but it’s going to be most valuable as a reference material, such as a handbook for a student who’s studied Mandarin for a year, then plans to go to China, but doesn’t want to take his old textbooks.

If you ever studied Chinese in a formal course, you probably used one of the better-known textbook series such as Integrated Chinese or New Practical Chinese Reader. Textbook series like these all tend to ease you into grammar in a similar way:

1. Introduce the absolute basics of a grammatical concept
2. One book later, qualify that grammatical concept somewhat
3. Yet another book later, qualify that grammatical concept still more
4. Introduce some exceptions to the rule (and its qualifying rules)

The idea is “don’t overload the student with too much complexity all at once.” OK, fine. Makes sense. But it also makes it difficult to go back and review an entire grammatical concept, because it’s spread out across multiple books across the series.

That’s why this book is good: it collects most of those rules and qualifying rules and exceptions and brings them together. And that’s also why you don’t want to use this book as a starting point… All the “BUTs” and “HOWEVERs” and “ORs” and “EXCEPTs” are good when they serve as reminders (or when only one or two are actually news to you), but if all this information is new to you, it’s going to be a bit much.

One of the sections I enjoyed the most in this book was the section on word order. It starts off thusly:

> The basic word order in English is Who, What, Where, When. The basic word order in Chinese is Who, When, Where, What.

> English: We ate lunch at McDonald’s at 1:00 yesterday afternoon.
Chinese: We yesterday afternoon at 1:00 at McDonald’s ate lunch.
Wǒmen zuótiān xiàwǔ yī diǎnzhōng zài Màidāngláo chī le wǔfàn.

So much for “English and Chinese word order are basically the same”! This chapter does a good job of bringing together all the little tricky word order issues.

The book does not provide exhaustive coverage of everything (turn to Claudia Ross’s Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar: A Practical Guide for that). It’s a relatively thin book at 123 pages. After 9 chapters of theme-based grammar basics (one of them is “Various Uses of the Particle le 了”), it starts getting into compare and contrast issues with specific words, and even gets to “Letter Writing” in the final chapter (which felt a bit out of place to me). The grab-bag approach works well for the most part, though. It’s useful stuff, and the price is right.

I should note that a fair amount of the book is devoted to pointing out common errors. Again, this is not the kind of thing that beginners should be obsessing over, but if you’ve got some knowledge of Chinese under your belt, this kind of treatment can be quite enlightening.

Lastly, I must disclose that the publisher kindly provided me a free copy of the book for review purposes.


John Pasden

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


  1. this sounds great. I think it’s just what I’ve been looking for. probably worth $12 to find out

  2. I am fully self-studying Chinese, and I bought the book you mentioned by Claudia Ross: “A Practical Guide”. I am actually reading through it as opposed to just treating it as a reference guide. I like reading through the grammar book because it clears up a lot of questions I have.

    But actually, I think the best way to learn grammar is through reading. Everything is correct, in natural context, and you get the benefit of seeing it over, and over again. I think a student potentially never needs to formally study grammar once in order to have outstanding grammar, but that is only if they are an avid reader of Chinese books.

  3. Jonathan Says: June 11, 2011 at 1:58 am

    Thanks for reviewing this, John. Larry is my Chinese professor and I know he’ll appreciate the nice words. He’s very proud of this book!

  4. Mingdemen Says: June 11, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Is there a Chinese title and is it available in China? Thanks.

  5. jen_not_jenny Says: June 11, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    This review gets extra points in my book for your incorporation of THUSLY, which easily makes my Top Ten Favorite English Words list.
    And the Chinese grammar book sounds like it’s really worth a read, too! Thanks for posting this John!

  6. Sounds good. On one of my last trips back to the States, I picked up a copy of Y. R. Chao’s Grammar of Modern Chinese, and while it is not by any means a book for the beginning student, it is just knock-down fantastic for laying things out. It’s dated, to be sure, and if you can’t read Gwoyeu Romatzyh it is going to be mightily irritating (there’s a Chinese translation of the book, for those who can’t be bothered to learn GR), but it’s still the best single-volume book on the topic I’ve seen.

  7. Homeromastix Says: June 13, 2011 at 2:57 am

    John, I beg, implore and beseech you not to use “thusly”. It is a fearful solecism for a student of language. “Thus” is a perfectly good, and correct, adverb in itself, and does not require further adverbialization.

    • Heh… Please be comforted by the fact that “thusly” does not regularly work its way into my speech (or writing). Somehow it just slipped out this time.

  8. The asumption with the English word order is not necessarily correct. The word order in English is much more flexible than the word order in Chinese.

    For example:

    English: We ate lunch at McDonald’s at 1:00 yesterday afternoon

    You can also say:

    At 1:00 yesterday afternoon, we ate lunch at McDonald’s.


    Yesterday afternoon, at 1:00, we ate lunch at McDonald’s.


    We ate lunch, yesterday afternoon at 1:00, at McDonald’s.

    English – the world’s most flexible language !

  9. In a similar vein, I’ve found the Routledge Grammar and Workbooks to be really helpful in supplementing class-based and self study. The new editions are very pricey (GBP 22 for the basic and intermediate apiece) but they are well-structured, with plenty of examples, exercises and drills.

    Also, this big old tome (may be out of print), which I think was written as a companion to NPCR, is a good reference (but lacks exercises/drills):

    On a sidenote, the Roald Dahl (罗尔德 达尔) books in Chinese are good intermediate reads, and available cheaply on Translations of vital vocab such as gobblefunk and whizzpopper included.

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