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Personal Pronouns: English vs. Mandarin

In English, we have subject pronouns (I, you, he/she, it, we, they) and we have object pronouns (me, you, him/her, it, us, them).  But in Mandarin Chinese there is no inflection for the subject and object case.  Consider the sentences below:

  1. 我想告诉她一件事.  (I want to tell her something).
  2. 我有事情要告诉她.  (I have something to tell her).
  3. 她要告诉我一件事.  (She will tell me something).
  4. 她有事情要告诉我.  (She has something to tell me.)

You will notice in Examples 1 and 2 above, the word 她 is used for the object pronoun her, while for Examples 3 and 4, 她 is likewise used for the subject pronoun “she.”  By the same token, 我 is used for the subject pronoun “I” in Examples 1 and 2 and is also used for the object pronoun “me” in Examples 3 and 4.

The Chinese pronouns and their English equivalents are shown below:

I   >>>  我

You   >>>  你

He/She  >>> 他(masc.)/她(fem.)

We  >>>  我们

They  >>>  他们(masc.)/她们(fem.)

The Chinese pronouns indicate plurality with the character 们.  Hence, they and them is expressed as 他们,她们,or 它们 (where the 他们 is masculine, 她们 is gender neutral, and 她们 is feminine).  While the Chinese characters for these pronouns are inflected for gender, they are phonetically indistinguishable, so it is not uncommon for Chinese speakers to confuse gender pronouns in their English speech (often using he and she interchangeably).

This also has the added benefit that you don’t have to worry about indicating gender if you are not sure whether we are talking about a man or women.  Compare the English and Chinese sentences below:

(1)  You can consider consulting a lawyer.  They can tell you how the situation should be handled.

(2) 你可以考录请一位律师。他可以告诉你情况应该怎么处理。

In the Chinese case, you don’t have to worry about specifying the correct gender in reference to the lawyer (i.e. the antecedent), since it is prounced “ta” either way.  In writing, however, you can be more specific as to the gender of the lawyer.   In contrast, with the English case, it is common to use “they” to refer to a lawyer when we are not sure whether it is a he or a she.

Below are some more examples in which pronouns are used with various propositions.

(1)  我为他准备了一杯咖啡. (I have made a cup of coffee for him).

(2)  那个钥匙在我这里. (I have that key. Literally, That key is on me).

(3) 你有没有向她表白? (Have you expressed your feelings towards her? That is, have you told her that you have a crush on her?)

(4) 我钥匙被她偷了. (My key was stolen by her).

As you can seen in all of the examples above, whereas in English an object pronoun normally follows the preposition, the pronoun remains uninflected in Chinese.

In daily conversation, the Mandarin pronouns also have a very curious use case that has no counterpart in English.   That is, the pronouns are often used in combination with the characters 那边/这边 to indicate a person’s location.  For example,

(1) 你们那边的天气怎么样?(How is the weather over there? That is, how is the weather over there where you live?)

(2) 我们这边有很多好玩的地方. (Here there are lots of fun places to visit.  That is, here where we live there are a lot of fun places).

If you can think of an English equivalent to this kind of expression, though, please don’t hesitate to tell me.  I’m sure you can think of some approximations but I’m not sure if there any that make use of the pronouns in this way.


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