Chinese grammar rule #1: What precedes modifies what follows

This rule sounds a little bit complicated when you first see it, but it’s actually quite straightforward. It simply means that modifiers come before the thing they modify. The Chinese language, right through from the written classical language to the modern spoken vernacular, has always had this rule.

Let’s look at some simple examples to demonstrate this rule.

他不喜欢 贵的 东西。
Tā bù xǐhuan guì de dōngxi.
He doesn't like expensive things.
我哥哥 慢慢地 开车。
Wǒ gēgē mànmande kāichē.
My brother drives slowly .
她能喝 很多 啤酒。
Tā néng hē hěnduō píjiǔ.
She can drink a lot of beer.
As you can see in each of the Chinese sentences, the modifier (colored red) comes before the thing it modifies. 贵的 (expensive) comes before 东西 (things), 慢慢地 (slowly) comes before 开车 (drive) and 很多 (a lot of) comes before 啤酒 (beer). Notice how the position of the modifier varies in the English sentences.

Knowing about this ‘modifiers first’ rule in Chinese grammar can be very helpful in the early stages of your Chinese studies. It lets you follow the structure of sentences more quickly because you can identify modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) and the things they’re modifying (nouns and verbs) more easily.

It also lets you form sentences with more confidence because you know that adjectives should be placed before the nouns they modify, and adverbs should be placed before the verbs they modify.