Why Chinese and English Speakers Use Pronouns Differently

Pronouns in Mandarin

One big difference between Chinese and English that is easily overlooked is the use of pronouns. In this short post I will look two differences; the frequency with which they are used and their meaning in conditional sentences.

1. Frequency

In Mandarin it is far more common to drop the subject of a sentence if it is clear from context. One example is the common greeting chī fàn le ma?” In English you can translate this as “have you eaten?”. The difference is that the Chinese sentence actually sounds a bit more natural if you drop the pronoun and simply say “chī fàn le ma?” By contrast you can’t drop the pronoun in English say “have eaten?”

Another example would be if you make a cup of coffee for your friend and ask “do you want sugar?” In Chinese you could say “nǐ yào bù yào jiā táng?” but again it’s perhaps more natural to drop the pronoun and just say “yào bù yào jiā táng?”

You don’t need a degree in linguistics to see that this difference arises because English questions are formed by reversing the subject and the auxiliary verb. Mandarin doesn’t do this and as a result the pronoun can be easily dropped in questions. However, even in non-question sentences Chinese speakers will drop pronouns more often than English speakers and thus English speakers have a tendency to slightly over use pronouns when speaking Mandarin. Usually this isn’t a problem. It’s a very small difference most people might not even notice. The real problem arises when pronouns are used with conditionals.

2. Use of Second Person in Conditionals

Anyone who has ever taught English in China will have probably had a dialogue that goes something like this:

“If you’re caught cheating in the exam will you lose marks?”

“Yes, if I am caught cheating in the exam I will lose marks.”

In conditionals like this the Chinese student will understand “you” as meaning the individual that is being talked to, and as a result they will respond with “I”. English speakers often use “you” to mean all people, and so respond with “you”.

“If you’re caught cheating in the exam will you lose marks?”

“Yes, if you’re caught cheating in the exam you’ll lose marks.”

For students of Mandarin it is therefore important to remember that if you are using “you” to mean everyone and anyone, not specifically the person you are taking to, then in Mandarin you usually just drop the pronoun.

If we look at our example sentence above, a native English speaker might word it in mandarin as

rú guǒ nǐ bèi fā xiàn zuò bì nǐ de chéng jì jiù bèi qǔ xiāo 如果你被发现作弊你的成绩就被取消 (if you are caught cheating your grade will be disqualified)

Although grammatically correct, this sentence means that the rule might only apply to the person you are talking to. If you want to say that anyone who is caught cheating will have their grade disqualified then it is more natural to not use any pronoun

rú guǒ bèi fā xiàn zuò bì chéng jì jiù bèi qǔ xiāo 弱国被发现作弊成绩就被取消 (If caught cheating grade will be disqualified)

Without the pronoun the English doesn’t sound like a full sentence, and so in these type of conditionals English speakers will often over-use the pronoun “you”. Since “everyone” by default includes the person you are talking to then it normally doesn’t cause a problem. But it’s not the most natural way to speak.

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