Key Chinese grammar structure: modifier + de + noun (的)
This grammar structure is one of the most basic and important features of Chinese grammar:
modifier + 的 + noun
This comes up all the time in all sorts of sentences in Chinese. It follows the general rule that what precedes modifies what follows - first the modifier, then 的 (de) to link them, and then the noun.
Noun + 的 + noun
This may be the most basic grammar structure with 的. By placing 的 between two nouns, you can indicate possession. That is, the second noun belongs to the first. Some examples:
nǐ de yīfú
Xiǎo Lǐ de péngyǒu
Xiao Li's friend
tāmen de qián
You can think of 的 as being similar to ’s (apostrophe s) in English. It marks possession in the same way and appears between the two nouns. More example of 的 behaving like ’s:
Xiǎo Wáng de fángzi
Xiao Wang's house
Zhào Xiānshēng de zìxíngchē
Mr Zhao's bike
Lǎo Zhāng de māo
Old Zhang's cat
And now some full example sentences with 的 showing possession between two nouns:
Zhè shì nǐ de ma?
Is this yours?
Nà shì tāmen de.
Wǒ xǐhuan nǐ de màozi.
I like your hat.
This noun + 的 + noun structure is one of the most basic grammar structures in Chinese. It should be one of the first structures that learners get familiar with.
Adjective + 的 + noun
As well as marking actual possession between two nouns, 的 is also used to modify things more generally. What it actually does is attach attributes to things.
One way 的 can attach attributes to things is by appearing between an adjective and a noun. This simply links the adjective to the noun to describe it. Some examples:
hóngsè de yīfu
hǎochī de cài
piàoliang de huā
You could think of this as literally saying e.g. “red’s clothes” or “clothes that belong to red”. This is the standard way of linking adjectives to nouns in Chinese grammar.
Some full example sentences for this adjective + 的 + noun grammar structure:
Wǒ xǐhuan hěn là de cài.
I like spicy food.
Tā shì ge hěn wúliáo de rén.
She is a very boring person.
Zhè shì yìzhǒng hěn nóng de kāfēi.
This is a very strong kind of coffee.
By now you can see that 的 is a very versatile linking word in Chinese. It appears all over the place, and is generally considered the most commonly used Chinese character.
clause + 的 + noun
Finally, we’ll have a look at a slightly more complicated 的 grammar structure. Because 的 can be used to attach pretty much anything to anything else, you can use it to link entire phrases to things. The phrase then becomes a description or quality.
This sounds complicated but it will probably become clearer with some examples:
wǒ mǎi de chá
the tea I bought
Tā xǐhuan de nàge nǚhái
that girl he likes
nǐ zuì xǐhuan de yánsè
your favourite colour (the colour you like the most)
In those examples, rather than a noun or an adjective, we have a phrase (e.g. 我买 - “I buy”). The phrase is linked to a noun using 的, and becomes a description or attribute of the noun.
Some more examples of this modifying clause / phrase with 的:
tā nòng diū de dōngxi
the thing he lost
wǒ bù rènshi de yīge rén
someone that I don't know
wǒmen dì yī cì jiàn dào bǐcǐ dì dìfāng
the place where we first met
zuótiān gēn wǒ yīkuàir chīfàn dì nàge rén
the person with whom I ate yesterday
Notice how you can attach quite complicated things to a noun using 的. That whole complex phrase just becomes an attribute of the noun. Have a look at some full example sentences for this structure:
Tāmen mǎi de zìxíngchē hěn piányi.
The bike they bought is very cheap.
Zhè shì wǒ kànguò zuì hǎo kàn de shū.
This is the best book I've ever read.
Nǐ shì dì yī gè zhèyàng zuò de rén.
You are the first person to do it this way.