Chapter 14: Chinese prepositions and prepositional phrases

Updated:Sun, Oct 21, 2012 00:00 AM     Related:Chinese Prepositions

Here are the two rules to follow when using prepositions or prepositional phrases in Chinese. 1, the Chinese prepositional phrase occurs immediately before the verb phrase. 2, Nothing occurs between the preposition and its noun phrase object.


Prepositions occur before a noun phrase and indicate some relationship between the noun phrase and the main verb of the sentence. The preposition plus its noun phrase forms a prepositional phrase.

1. The grammar of the prepositional phrase in the Mandarin sentence

Here are the two rules to follow when using prepositional phrases.

Rule 1. In Mandarin, the prepositional phrase occurs immediately before the verb phrase.

Compare this with English, in which the prepositional phrase occurs immediately

after the verb phrase.

他们 【给弟弟】 【买了冰激淋】

They [for younger brother] [ buy ice cream] They bought ice cream for younger brother.

她 【跟同学】 聊天

She [with classmates] [chat]. She chats with classmates.

Rule 2. Nothing occurs between the preposition and its noun phrase object.

• The suffixes 了 le, 着zhe, and 过guo follow verbs, but not prepositions:

He lived in China for a year. :Say this:他在中国住过一年。 Not this:他在过中国住一年。

I spoke with him yesterday. :Say this:我昨天跟他说话了。 Not this:我昨天跟了他说话。

• Adverbs occur before the prepositional phrase. They do not occur between the prepositional phrase and the main verb.

Please come to my home immediately. :Say this:请你马上到我家来。 Not this:请你到我家马上来。

I will definitely go with you to see a movie. :Say this:我一定跟你去看电影。 Not this:我跟你一定去看电影。

2. Basic functions of prepositions

Here are the most common Mandarin prepositions, arranged according to function. The prepositional phrase is emphasized in each example. The last category includes prepositions that are only used in formal speech and writing.

2.1 Prepositions that indicate location in time or space – no movement involved

在 zài ‘at, in, on’

他每天晚上在家吃饭。He eats at home every evening.

他每天在公园里玩。They play in the park every day.

在zài is optional in time expressions

(在)两点钟来找你,行吗? I’ll come looking for you at 2 o’clock, okay?

2.2 Prepositions that indicate an action performed towards a reference point – no movement involved

对 duì ‘to, towards’

他对你说了什么话? What did he say to you?

向 xiàng ‘towards’

他一直向外面看。 He keeps looking (to the) outside.

2.3 Prepositions that indicate joint performance of an action

跟 gēn ‘with’

他每天跟他朋友吃午饭。She eats lunch every day with her friends.

This use of 跟 overlaps with that of the conjunction 跟.

2.4 Prepositions that indicate movement of the subject

从 cóng ‘from’: movement from a location

他慢慢从宿舍走出来了。 He slowly walked out of the dormitory.

到 dào ‘to’: movement to a location that is the destination

他想到餐厅去找朋友。 He’s thinking about going to the cafeteria to look for his friends.

往 wǎng, ‘towards’ a location

往西边走。Go (towards the) west.

进 jìn ‘into’ a location

他进城去了。 He went into the city.

从 cóng and 到 dào may occur in sequence in the same sentence:

从宿舍到邮局怎么走? How do you go from the dormitory to the post office?

2.5 Prepositions that indicate transfer of something from one noun phrase to another

给 gěi ‘to, for’

他给我买书了。 She bought a book for me.

跟 gēn ‘from’

他跟我借书了。 He borrowed a book from me.

向 xiàng ‘from’

他向我借书了。 He borrowed a book from me.

2.6 Prepositions that indicate the beneficiary of an action performed by another

给 gěi ‘for, on behalf of ’

她给我写信了。 She wrote a letter for me (on my behalf ). ( This can also mean: She wrote a letter to me.)

替tì ‘for, on behalf of ’

明天请你替我教书。 Please teach for me tomorrow.

2.7 Prepositions that mark the agent in passive sentences

被 bèi ‘by’

我的皮包被人家偷走了。 My wallet was stolen by someone.

叫 jiào ‘by’

我的课本叫朋友弄丢了。 My textbook was lost by my friend.

让 ràng ‘by’

他们的房子让火烧了。 Their house was burned down by the fire.


The preposition is part of the following fixed expressions:

跟 (someone) 开玩笑 to play a joke on (someone)

他哥哥喜欢跟他开玩笑。His older brother likes to play jokes on him.

对 (something) 有兴趣 to be interested in (something)

我对科学有兴趣。 I am interested in science.

2.8 Prepositions used in formal speech and formal written language

To indicate beneficiary or recipient

为 wèi ‘for/on behalf of ’

我们应该为人民服务。 We should serve the people. (serve for the people)

To indicate the source (no movement)

由 yóu ‘from’

由此可见,人民都喜欢自由。 You can see from this that everyone likes freedom.

To indicate location in time or space

于 yú ‘at, in, on’

谨定于三月十五日在人民大会堂开会。 The meeting is respectfully set at March 15 in the Great Hall of the People.

To indicate a point in time (no movement)

自从 zìcóng ‘from, (ever) since’

自从中国开放以后,人民的生活水平提高了。 Ever since China began to open up, the standard of living of its people has improved.

3. Prepositions that also function as verbs

Many prepositions also function as verbs.

  As a preposition As a verb
在zài at exist; be located at
  他在家吃饭。He eats at home. 他在家。He is at home.
给 gěi to/for give
  他给我买了毛衣。He bought a sweater for me. 她给了我这件毛衣。She  gave me this sweater.
到 dào to arrive
  你什么时候到图书馆去? When are you going to the library? 他什么时候到? What time does he arrive?
对 duì to, towards correct
  你应该对客人很客气。 You should be polite to guests Q: 你是英国人对吗? You are English, right?

A: 对。 Correct.
跟 gēn with follow
  他每天跟朋友聊天。 He chats with friends every day. 不要老跟着我。Don’t follow me all the time.

You can identify a word as either a preposition or a verb by observing the other words with which it occurs.

• Prepositions are a lways followed by an object noun phrase and a verb phrase. If a word is not followed by both an object noun phrase and a verb phrase, it is not a preposition.

Verb: followed by a noun phrase but no verb phrase

他给我这件毛衣了。She gave me this sweater.

他在家。He is at home.

Preposition: followed by a noun phrase and a verb phrase

她给我买了这件毛衣了。 She bought this sweater for me.

他在家吃饭。 He is eating at home.




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