How to use ‘de’ in Chinese – 的, 地 and 得

There are three de character in Chinese which often confuse learners. My intention is to explain these in detail. In summary the three Chinese de characters are:

de indicates possession – the same as ‘apostrophe s’ in English
de is the equivalent of “-ly” in English e.g. quickly
de indicates possibility or how an action was performed

I have also covered the use of the shìde pattern for completeness. As always I will try and keep the grammar, characters and jargon to a minimum so you can focus on how to use ‘de’ and not spend energy looking up characters or understanding complex grammar.

How to use 的 in Chinese

de is used to show possession or ownership. The sentence order is:

somebody/somethings + de + noun

Let’s look at some simple examples:

Chinese English
wǒ de bāo
my bag
tā de shū
her book
tāmen de chē
their car

All of the above are simple pronouns, however this doesn’t have to be the case. de can also be used to describe things, specifically meaning they can use an adjective. The formula here is:

adjective + de + noun

Some examples:

Chinese English
hěn rè de shuǐ
very hot water
tài chǎo de háizi
too noisy kids
zuì kuài de chē
the fastest car
huángsè de huā
yellow flower

This is unlike English where we do not use possession so often. To take the last example, we never say “yellow’s flower” or “hot’s water” in English

You can also use 的 with a verb, this follows the familiar formula:

verb + de + noun

zuòfànderén zuò fàn de rén
The person who cooks
kāichēderén kāichē de rén
The person who drives
chàngderén chànggē de nǚrén
The woman who sings

The above is really the equivalent of saying in English “the <noun> that <verb>”, or to be more specific, “The person/thing or thing who does something”, where “something” is the verb.

When can 的 de be left off or omitted?

There are several situations where you can simply leave 的 off completely:

Situation 1: You do not need to use de when referring to people who you are familiar with, so for example not to describe your mother, father, friend, teacher, etc.
For example:

English Correct 的 not required
My mother ma
wǒ māmā
wǒ de māmā
My father ba
wǒ bàba
wǒ de bàba
My friend péngyou
wǒ péngyǒu
wǒ de péngyǒu
My teacher lǎoshì
wǒ lǎoshī
wǒ de lǎoshī

Situation 2: 的 can be dropped is in the case of a single character adjective:

English Correct 的 not required
Fast car kuàichē
kuài chē
kuài de chē
Cold water lěngshuǐ
lěng shuǐ
lěng de shuǐ

When the subject of a sentence can be removed from a 的 sentence

The subject of a sentence can be removed if it is understood from context. Dropping words or details is common in Mandarin common where context is understood. 
For example:

Question Correct – with 的 Also correct – with the subject
zhè shì shéi de chē?
Whose car is this?
zhè shì wáng lǎoshī de chē
This is the teacher Wang’s
zhè shì wáng lǎoshī de
This is teacher Wang’s car
nǐ yào qù shéi de jiā?
Whose house do you want to go to?
wǒ yào qù wáng de
I want to go to Wang’s 
wǒ yào qù wáng de jiā
I want to go to Wang’s house

You do not have to drop the subject, however doing so will make your Chinese sound more authentic and reduces unnecessary repetition. In English we similarly drop words, so for example if you were asked: “whose car is this?” you could respond “this car is Mr Wang’s” or “this is Mr Wang’s car”, however you most likely would just reply “it’s Mr Wang’s”.

As you can see Chinese and English are similar in this respect.

How to use 的 multiple times in a sentence

You are able to combined 的 multiple times in a sentence, as usual here are some examples:

Chinese English
wǒ de lǎopó de chē
My wife’s car
wǒ qùnián de hěn xǐhuān de lǚxíng
My last years enjoyable holiday

This again shows the flexibility of de, as in English we don’t “say my’s wife’s car” or “last year’s enjoyable’s holiday”

Similar to English, order doesn’t matter when listing attributes of a noun, that is attributes of a person, place or thing. you for example the following are equivalent:

Original Chinese Sentence Order reversed
hěn gāo de hěn shuài de nánrén
this/those very tall, very handsome guy(s)
hěn shuài de hěn gāo de nánrén
this/those very handsome, very tall guy(s)
nàgè hěn dà de hěn hóng de qiú
the very large, very red ball
Nàgè hěn hóng de hěn dà de qiú
the very red, very large ball

The above only applies to listing attributes of a noun, and not possession. For example:

Correct Incorrect
zuótiān dezhōngwén de bàozhǐ
yesterday’s Chinese language newspaper
zhōngwén de zuótiān de bàozhǐ
Chinese language yesterday’s newspaper
wǒ de tóngshì de péngyǒu de wánjù
my colleague’s son’s toy
wǒ de tóngshì de wánjù de péngyǒu
my colleague’s toy’s son

As you can see from the above examples, reversing the order doesn’t make sense when using de for possession. As this is the same as English, just use common sense rather than trying to memorise this as a special rule.

Using 的 multiple times with quantities

It is important that any numbers be included at the start of the setnence prior to the multiple 的 in a sentence, so for example

English Correct Incorrect
Those two tall, handsome guy zhèliǎnghěngāodehěnshuàidenánrén hěngāodehěnshuàideliǎngnánrén
Those ten large pink birds shízhīdefěnhóngdeniǎo defěnhóngdeshízhīniǎo

English is somewhat similar but less strict, so for example we would probably say “those two tall, handsome guys” instead of “those tall, handsome two guys” or “those ten large pink birds” rather than “those large pink ten birds”. 

How to use 地 in Chinese

地 is the equivalent of “-ly” in English

For example:

Chinese English
tā hěn kuài dì kāichē
She quickly drove
tā màn man de shuō
He slowly spoke

There are a few important rules to remember when using de

  1. Because 地 is used to add the equivalent of ‘-ly’ this means it is being used with adjectives e.g.
    • quick becomes quickly
    • slow becomes slowly
  2. 地 should be used with a two syllable word (adjective), you can do this by either repeating the single character character or add a degree to the word. To repeat my previous two examples:
English Correct Incorrect
She quickly drove hěnkuàidekāichē
tā hěn kuài dì kāichē
tā kuài de kāichē
He slowly spoke mànmàndeshuō
tā màn man de shuō
tā màn de shuō

How to use 得 in Chinese

de (known because of it’s “ren” radical chì as shuāngrénde (shuāngrén de) is the most difficult to understand without getting in to language jargon, which I try to avoid where possible.

de is used to explain how an action is or was performed. For example speaks, climbs, runs

As always, I prefer examples:

Chinese English
tā pá dé hǎo
She climbs well
tāmen zuò fàn de bù hǎo
He doesn’t cook well
tā shuō dé màn
He talks slowly

Note: when I wrote the above on the computer using pinyin input, the computer wrote these as shuōdekuài and kāidemàn, in both cases using de instead of de. While you can generally rely upon the pinyin input to use the correct character, this is not always the case.

The formula could be summarised as follows:

action verb  + //ssttrroonngg>>eemm>>ssttrroonngg>>de + adjective


  • action verb examples are speaks, drives, climbs, walks, talks, etc.
  • adjective describes the action such as fast, slow, good (well), bad

If you want to add intensity to the above, you can insert this in fron of the adjective.

tā shuō dé tài màn
He talks too slowly
tāmen zuò fàn de zhēn bù hǎo
He really doesn’t cook well
tā pá de hěn hǎo
She climbs very well
tā kāi dé bǐjiào kuài

She drives comparatively fast

You can also use de to ask a question, for example:

Question Answer
tā shuō dé zěnme me yàng
How does he speak?
tā shuō dé tài màn
He talks too slowly
tāmen zuò fàn de hào chī ma?
IS his cooking tasty?
tāmen zuò fàn de zhēn bù hǎo
He really doesn’t cook well
tā pá de zěnme yàng
How is her climbing (ability)?
tā pá de hěn hǎo
She climbs very well
tā kāi de kuài háishì mǎn?
Does she drive fast or slow?
tā kāi dé bǐjiào kuài
She drives comparatively fast

Using 得 to express possibility

得 can be used to indicate the possibility. Again this is best demonstrated by some examples

Chinese English
tā chī dé wán
he can eat it all
tā zuò dé hǎo
She can do it well
nǐ kàn dé wán
you can finish reading it
wǒ xǐ dé gānjìng
I can wipe it clean

The formula here is as follows:

verb + de + result

But what if you wanted to say something wasn’t possible? In this case you replace 得 with 不. Strictly this doesn’t use 得, however I am stating this for completeness:

Chinese English
tā chī bù wán
he cannot eat it all
tā zuò bù hǎo
she cannot do it well
nǐ kàn bù wán
I cannot finish reading it
wǒ xǐ bù gānjìng
I cannot wipe it clean

Here the formula is:

verb + + result

Don’t confused 得 (de) with 得 (dei)

It is important not to confused the two pronunciations of de:

  • de pronounced as “de” is used to explain how an action was performed, as I’ve already discussed above
  • de pronounced as “děi” and means must for example:
    děimǎishūcài (wǒ dé mǎi shūcài) “I must by vegetables”

There shouldn’t be opportunity to confused these as the correct 得 should be obvious from the context.

How to use shi de (是的) in Chinese

The shìde combination allows you to focus on details of an event that has taken place in the past such as the time or place.

To use shìde, simply pace shì before the phrase you are focusing on and de at the end of the sentence. For example

With 是的 Without 是的
Chinese English Chinese English
shìyuèqiányuànde He went to the hospital last month yuèqiányuànle. He went to the hospital last month
shìzàirēngqiúde?? Where did he through that ball? zàirēngqiú? Where did he through the ball?
shìgēnshéiyóude With whom did he go on holiday? gēnshéiyóu? Who did he go on holiday with?

As you can see from the above examples, the shìde adds emphasis and can be used time or location.

The 的 in 是的 can also be placed after the verb rather than at the end of the sentence, so modifying the previous examples:

的 at the end of the sentence 的 after the veb
Chinese Chinese English
shìyuèqiányuànde shìyuèqiándeyuàn He went to the hospital last month
shìzàirēngqiú de shìzàirēngdeqiú Where did he through that ball?
shìgēnshéiyóude shìgēnshéideyóu With whom did he go on holiday?

There are exemptions to moving 的 after the verb, specifically where the object of the sentence is a pronoun (for example him, her, they, us, etc) the 的 needs to be placed at the end of the sentence.

Correct Incorrect English
wǒ shì měitiān doū cháoxiào tā de
wǒ shì měitiān dū cháoxiào de tā
I tease him every day
nǐ shì wèishéme dǎ tā de
nǐ shì wèishéme dǎ di tā
Why did you hit him?

Negative sentences with 是的

Only 不 can be used with shìde to create a negative sentence, this is done by placing before shì:

Correct Incorrect English
zhèběnshūshìzàishūdiànmǎide. zhèběnshūshìzàishūdiànmǎide. I did not buy this book at the bookshop
zhèběnshūshìjiàode. zhèběnshūshìjiàode.
this book is not the biggest

When 是 can be ommitted from 是的

When using the shì combination, shì can be left off when the sentence is positive (affirmative) but not negative sentences

Examples of positive sentences:

With 是
Without 是
(Also correct)
zhèběnshūshìzàishūdiànmǎide. zhèběnshūshìzàishūdiànmǎide. I bought this book at the bookshop
zhìběnshūshìjiàode. zhèběnshūjiàossttrroonngg>>de//ssttrroonngg>>. this book is the biggest
menshìcóngláide ? mencóngláide? They came from where?

Based on the above examples you can see how you can’t use without shì.  Just think of this as being “is not” or literally not is, shì.


Wrapping it up, knowing which de to use comes with experience. I recommend mentally focusing on how to use de and not which character corresponds to the it’s specific use. To recap the use of de is

  • possession: The ball is mine zhègeqiúshìde
  • -ly equivalent: He ran quickly hěnkuàidekāichē
  • possibility: shuōdekuài
  • as emphasise: shìzàimǎidemǎizhèběnshū