When You Just Don’t Know The Word…

Word of the Week: zěn me shuō

If you’re familiar with Chinese people speaking English badly then you’ve probably at some point heard them ask “how to say?”. Regular readers will be aware that I’m a big fan of using Chinese people’s bad English to get a better understanding of how to speak Chinese more naturally. In this case the sentence is zěn me shuō 怎么说.

This sentence structure of zěn me + verb is a lot simpler than the English “how do you + verb”. Imagine you’ve got a new TV but you don’t know how to use it, in English you might say “how do you turn on this TV” but a Chinese person would probably just say diàn shì zěn me kāi (电视怎么开 literally “TV how to turn on?”)

You might notice that the English sentence “how do you say this in Chinese” and the Chinese zhōng wén zěn me shuō are different in one very important aspect: Chinese does not use a pronoun. This is important because when English speakers speak Chinese we often throw in the second person pronoun when it’s not necessary.

When speaking Chinese it’s important to remember that the second person pronoun is usually only used when specifying the person you’re talking to, not when something applies to people in general. For example, in English you might say “you can’t smoke here” but if you say zhè lǐ nǐ bù yún xǔ chōu yān then at sounds more like “YOU aren’t allowed to smoke here (but other people are.)”

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The English sentence “you aren’t allowed to smoke here” implies a rule that applies to everyone, so in Chinese you need to drop the word for “you” and say zhè lǐ bù yún xǔ chōu yān (这里不允许抽烟 here not allowed to smoke)

This mistake is most common in conditional sentences. For example, I often say that if you want to learn Chinese you need to study several hours a day. But since this is a fact that applies to everyone it’s more natural to drop the pronoun “you” from the Chinese sentence and just say rú guǒ yào xué zhōng wén nà měi tiān yào xué jǐ ge xiǎo shí (如果要学中文那每天要学几个小时 if want learn Chinese then every day must study several hours)

 

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