The significance of「的」

「的」is considered the most frequently used Chinese character. It is therefore the third character that is taught in the “Basic Chinese 500” course. To native Chinese, this is a very insignificant word because it does not carry a specific meaning when on its own. There are even Chinese idioms that emphasize its insignificance (「的的了了」meaning unimportant, tedious details). The truth is, this character plays many important roles in giving specific meaning to words, sentences, expressions, etc.

This could also be one of the most confusing words to many foreign learners. Not only it has many different properties, it is also pronounced differently depending on its usage. To crack some of its puzzle, let us start by looking at some of its most common usage.

1. It signifies ownership

我的爸爸    my father

他的朋友    his friend

大家的希望    everyone's hope

2. It describes

紅色的花     red flower

快樂的孩子   happy children

明亮的房間   a bright room

小小的進步   a small progress

3. It acts as a pronoun

It acts as a pronoun, for persons or objects. Take a look at this sentence:吃的、穿的,他都要最好的。 (Whether it is the food that he eats, or the clothes that he wears, they all have to be the very best.) In this case, the first「的」represents “the food”, the second「的」represents “the clothes”, the third「的」acts as an adjective.

4. It acts as a particle

It acts as a particle, often used between two identical actions, to represent a variety of activities, some in one way, and others in another way. For example:

唱的唱、跳的跳 (some of them sing, while others jump)

走的走、看的看 (some are walking, some are looking)

In some cases, the actions can be in the form of verb + noun, for example:

看書的看書, 聽歌的聽歌 (some are reading books, some are listening to music).

5. It emphasizes

It emphasizes how an event happened, who did it, when or where it happened. Here are some examples:

a. 他聽了三次才記住的名字

a name that HE HAD TO HEAR IT 3 TIMES before he could remember

b. 他買的水果

the fruit that HE bought

c. 我在一個下雨天見到的人

the person that I saw ON ONE RAINY DAY

d. 我在學校門口拾到的筆

the pen that I found AT THE ENTRANCE OF THE SCHOOL

There are 3 different pronunciations to the character「的」(dí, dì, de), depending on its meaning. In the cases that we have discussed here, it is pronounced as “de”, with no specific intonation. That simplifies things a little bit, don’t you agree?

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