Chapter 9:Noun phrases in Chinese

Updated:Sat, Oct 20, 2012 20:13 PM     Related:Chinese noun phrases

In this chapter, we refer to the noun that is being described or modified as the head noun and to the words or phrases that describe or modify the head noun as the modifier. In Chinese, all noun modifiers occur before the head noun.


A noun phrase consists of a noun and any words that describe or ‘modify’ the noun. Here is an example of a noun phrase with the noun emphasized.

三个大老虎 three big tigers

Additional examples of noun phrases are presented below.

In this chapter, we refer to the noun that is being described or modified as the head noun and to the words or phrases that describe or modify the head noun as the modifier.

In Mandarin Chinese, the relative position of modifier and noun is constant:

In Chinese, all noun modifiers occur before the head noun.

1. Modifying a noun with a specifier and/or number

Nouns can be modified by:

a specifier (‘this,’ ‘that,’ ‘which?’)

or a number (‘four,’ ‘twenty’),

or a specifier and number together (‘these four,’ ‘those twenty,’ ‘which two?’)

In Mandarin, the classifier associated with the noun being modified must be included in the modifying phrase. The entire phrase precedes the head noun as follows:

specifier+classifier+noun:那本书 (that book)

number+classifier+noun:两本书 (two books)

specifier+number+classifier+noun:哪三个人(which three people)

2. Modifying a noun with all other modifiers:

modification with 的de

Noun modifiers may also be nouns, pronouns, verbs, or phrases that include a verb. These kinds of modifiers are typically followed by the particle de, and the noun phrase has the following form:

modifier + 的de +head noun


In English, when a modifier includes a verb, the modifier occurs after the head noun as a relative clause introduced by a relative pronoun (‘who,’ ‘whom,’ ‘which’) or a complementizer (‘that’). In these examples, the modifier of the noun is presented in square brackets.

that book [that I bought]

the people [who spoke to you]

In Mandarin, all modifiers precede the head noun. In addition, Mandarin has no words that correspond to relative pronouns or complementizers. Do not attempt to translate them into Chinese.

2.1 Examples of noun phrases with different types of modifiers

2.1.1 Modifiers that are nouns

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
孩子 child 衣服 clothing 孩子的衣服 children’s clothing
车 car 速度 speed 车的速度 the speed of a/the car
马教授 professor Ma 学生 students 马教授的学生 professor Ma’s students
美国 America 城市 city 美国的城市 America’s city

2.1.2 Modifiers that are pronouns

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
我 I (my) 车 car 我的车 my car
他 he(his) 家 home 他的家 his home
你们 you 书 book 你们的书 your book

Note that pronoun +的 de serves the same function as a possessive pronoun in English and other languages. There are no possessive pronouns in Mandarin.

See Chapter 5 for a table showing the Mandarin equivalent of English possessive pronouns.

2.1.3 Modifiers that are adjectival verbs

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
很贵 very expensive 车 car 很贵的车 a very expensive car

2.1.4 Modifiers that are stative verbs

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
喜欢 like 车 car 我喜欢的车 a car that I like

2.1.5 Modifiers that are action verbs

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
写 write 字 character 写的字 a character that is written
来 come 人 people 来的人 the people who have come

2.1.6 Modifiers that are verb + object

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
唱歌儿 sing song 女孩子 girl 唱歌儿的女孩子 the girl who is singing
卖书 sell book 人 person 卖书的人 the person who sells books

2.1.7 Modifiers that are prepositional phrase+verb

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
在公园里玩 play in the park 人 people 在公园里玩的人 people who are playing in the park
从日本来 come from Japan 学生 student 从日本来的学生 a student who has come from Japan

2.1.8 Modifiers that are subject + verb sequences

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
他喜欢 he likes 东西 things 他喜欢的东西 the things that he likes
我们看 we see 电影 movie 我们看的电影 the movie that we see

2.1.9 Modifiers that are question words

Modifier Head noun Noun phrase
谁 who 书 book 谁的书 whose book
哪儿 where 饭馆 restaurant 哪儿的饭馆 a restaurant located where?

3. Omission of the particle 的de

The particle 的de is sometimes omitted from the modifier.

的de may be omitted:

 when the modifier is an unmodified one syllable adjectival verb.

贵的车 --> 贵车 expensive car

but not

很贵的车 --> 很贵车

 when the modifier is closely associated with the noun, describing, for example, nationality:

美国的人 --> 美国人 American person

or a close personal relationship in which the modifier is a pronoun:

我的爸爸 --> 我爸爸 my father

4. Noun modifiers in a series

Mandarin Chinese, a noun may be modified by any number of modifiers.

 The modifiers occur in a series before the head noun.

 A modifier that is a specifier and/or a number ends with a classifier. All other modifiers may end in the particle 的 de.

 The head noun occurs only once, at the end of the series of modifiers.

Here are examples of noun phrases in which the head noun is modified by a series of modifiers. Each modifying phrase is included in [square brackets].


we [yesterday see] [just come out] [China] movie

the Chinese movie that just came out that we saw yesterday


[you introduced to me] [those two] [very smart] exchange students

those two very smart exchange students who you introduced me to

Modifiers may occur in any order. However, modifiers involving inherent personal characteristics often occur closer to the head noun.


the very cute child who is wearing a sweater

Noun modifiers involving specifiers and numbers often occur first in a sequence of modifiers, though they may also occur closer to the head noun for emphasis or contrast.


[that] [wear glasses] [very tall] person

that very tall person who wears glasses


that very tall person who wears glasses

5. Omission of the head noun

When the head noun is predictable from the context, it may be omitted. The presence of 的de or a classifier at the end of a phrase identifies the phrase as a noun phrase modifier. When the head noun is omitted, 的de cannot be omitted.

这是谁做的菜?  this is food cooked by whom? 这是马老师做的(菜)This is (food) cooked by professor Ma
你喜欢什么样的菜?What kind of dishes do you like? 我特别喜欢红烧的(菜) I especially like red cooked (ones)
你要买哪本书?Which book do you want to buy? 我要买那本(书) I want that(one)
多少钱? How much money? 三块钱 Three dollars.

6. Modification with zhī

之 zhīis the marker of noun modification in literary Chinese, and it is used for this purpose in certain literary expressions in modern Chinese, including the following. These instances of zhr are not interchangeable with 的de.

Percentages and fractions

三分之一 one-third (1/3)

百分之十 10%

Time phrases and sequence

之后 zhīhòu ‘after’ (以后 yǐhòu)

三年之后 three years afterward/after three years

之前zhīqián ‘before, previous’ (以前 yǐqián)

第二次世界大战之前 before the Second World War

之内 zhīnèi ‘within, including’ (cf. 以内 yǐnèi)

我三天之内做得完。I will definitely be able to finish within three days.




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