Tips for Mandarin

Singapore's rich linguistic milieu and history have influenced how Mandarin is used within her shores. While Singapore Mandarin can play a useful role as an "identity marker", it is just as important for users to know the differences between standard and colloquial usage, deviations from standard grammar or convention, and how Singapore Mandarin differs from the Mandarin used in other parts of the world.

Not all examples here can be considered "errors". Language lovers will be able to discern influences from Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese and other languages. These examples will spur readers to reflect on the Mandarin used and heard in Singapore.

  1. 请给我两粒苹果。

    One often hears the classifier “粒” used for any spherical object, be it a ball, a mantou or a watermelon. “粒” literally means “grain” or “particle” and should only be used for items the size of a pellet or smaller.


  2. 这杯水太烧了。我要的是冷水,不是烧水。

    In standard Mandarin, “烧” is usually used as a verb to mean “burn” or “heat up”. In the above context, one should use “热” and “烫”.


  3. 你懂他昨天没有上班吗?

    The word “懂” means "to understand " and not merely to "know". In this particular example, “知道” would be a more appropriate choice.


  4. 你们吃先,老板要我加班。

    It is not uncommon to hear the word “先” being used behind the subject in a sentence(e.g.”你睡先”,”我走先”). This structure is likely Cantonese in origin and is not considered proper grammar in Mandarin.


  5. 他掉了他的钱包,要借用电话联系他的家人。

    The construction of this sentence seems to be influenced by English grammar. In proper Mandarin, the subject should come first.


  6. 他没有还钱就跑了。

    “还钱” literally means to “repay or return money” and should not be used to refer to the act of making a payment.


  7. 你放心,海报被挂上去了。

    One often sees “被” being used to indicate that an action has been completed. Such usage is not considered good grammar. The words “已” or “已经” should be used.


  8. 他不够经验,所以表现不好。

    The placement of the determiner “不够” before the noun “经验” is considered poor grammar and should be avoided.


  9. 我已经上课完了。

    In standard Mandarin, the object should not be placed before the complement.


  10. 什么东西都在起价,可是老板却没有给我加薪。

    The word “起价” is often used in Singapore to refer to rising prices, but it could mean “starting price” elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking world. “涨价” is a clearer term that may be used in its place.


  11. 你别得罪他,小心他对付你!

    In Singapore, the word “对付” carries a connotation of penalty or retribution. In standard Mandarin, the term is neutral and merely means "to deal with".


  12. 你等我,我的班机一点三个字抵达。

    The use of the word “字” as a unit of time stems from Classical Chinese. There are eight “刻” in one”时辰” (equivalent to two hours) and three”字” in each “刻”. These measurement units are now rarely used in Mainland China and Taiwan.


  13. 我先把行李放在酒店,才去开会。

    It is not uncommon to hear Singaporeans use”才” in place of ”再” to indicate a future action that follows the completion of an earlier one. In standard Mandarin, “再” should be used.


  14. 那里有间书店,您能到那里看看。

    “能” and “可以” are sometimes interchangeable but they carry slightly different meanings. The word “能” implies the ability to do something while the word “可以” denotes the possibility of an action.


  15. 这本书五块钱才。

    The word “才” should not be used at the end of a sentence. It should come before the object.


  16. 你是来新加坡做工的吗?

    In Singapore, “做工” is often used to mean "work". In most parts of the Chinese-speaking world, “做工” denotes physical or manual labour, so “工作” would be a more appropriate term in most contexts.


  17. .我们可以公私这碗面吗?

    The word “公私” is often used colloquially in Singapore to mean “share”.  “分享”,”共享” or ”一起” are the more appropriate words to use.


  18. 任何参加活动的人都必须先购买门票。

    Due to the influence of the English language, “任何” (any) is increasingly being used in Singapore Mandarin. However, “所有” would be a more appropriate choice in many cases.


  19. 我们学校只有一位学生符合参赛条件。

    The classifier “一位” is usually used before an individual of a higher standing. Example: “一位老师” or “一位学生家长”。When referring to a student, “一名” would be more appropriate and neutral.


  20. 我昨天有看见你上超市。

    In Singapore, one sometimes hears the word “有” used in front of a verb or verb predicate. This likely comes from Hokkien grammar and is not considered proper in standard Mandarin.


  21. 好采我的房间在角头,没那么吵。

    ”好采” and “角头” are part of the local lexicon and mean “fortunately” and “corner” respectively. These words are rarely used in other Chinese-speaking regions or may mean completely different things there.


  22. 电梯的人不出,外面的人又怎么 进?

    Postpositions such as "里" and directional complements such as "去" and "来" are often overlooked in Singapore Mandarin. They are considered indispensable in standard Chinese grammar.


  23. 你如果忘了撕固本,有50巴仙的机会会中三万。

    Singapore Mandarin features many words borrowed from other languages. This sentence, as an example, would be gibberish to those in other regions where the Chinese language is mostly used.

    How do you think this should be expressed in standard Mandarin?

  24. Tan Dan Feng

    Tan Dan Feng deals with different aspects of language in his work as a translator, language software developer and publisher. He has taught translation at various levels and is happiest discussing with his students and his two young children how language should be used.

    陈丹枫从事翻译、语言软件开发和出版业务,曾参与不同级别翻译课程的设计与教学工作。 他常和学生们与自己的两个孩子讨论如何正确使用语言,从中获得无穷乐趣。