Foreigner Faux Pas: Too Many Words (2)

Continuing on from the last article where we dealt with the tempting trap of adding too many articles and too many ‘的’s to your Chinese sentences, this article will look at how to whittle your sentences down to sheer succinct masterpieces, just like a real native speaker.

Chinese is great because it lets you cut out all the niceties and accessories and just say what you need to say.


  • Cut the pronouns:

Whenever it is obvious who you are talking to/about, just give the pronoun the boot.

Would you like to go and see a movie?
In full: 你要不要去看电影?(Nǐ yào bùyào qù kàn diànyǐng?)
What you only really need: 要不要去看电影?(Yào bùyào qù kàn diànyǐng?)

Let’s talk about it tomorrow.
In full: 我们明天再说吧。(Wǒmen míngtiān zàishuō ba.)
What you only really need: 明天再说吧。(Míngtiān zàishuō ba.)

  • Express double-character words as singles:

It is quite common to drop the second character of two-character words, especially with names.

Beijing University 北京大学 (Běijīng Dàxué) is often shortened to only two characters: 北大(Běi Dà). I mean, who wants to use 4 syllables when you can use two? This can be confusing if you have not seen the full-length version before; as you will be wondering what it is at “North Big” that everyone is going to see.

Even conjunctions such as 或者 (huòzhě/ or) can be shortened:

“I want to go to Beijing University or Xiamen University.”
Instead of 我想去北京大学或者厦门大学 (Wǒ xiǎng qù Běijīng Dàxué huòzhě Xiàmén Dàxué), you can just say 我想去北大或厦大(Wǒ xiǎng qù BěiDà huò XiàDà). Refreshingly simple isn’t it?

This is often how 成语 (Chéngyǔ/ Sayings) are formed. The art is to take a proverb and condense it to its most condensed form (usually only 4 characters long) – so much so that it can be often hard to guess what it means after all those unnecessary frills have been trimmed.

For example:

入乡随俗 (Rù xiāng suí sú)

Here, 入 (rù) means ‘to enter’; 乡村 (xiāngcūn) a village; 随 (suí) to follow, and 风俗 (fēngsú) customs and habits. The full meaning would be 入乡村的时候,最好顺从当地的风俗文化 (Rù xiāngcūn de shíhòu, zuì hǎo shùncóng dāngdì de fēngsú wénhuà) i.e. When you enter a new place, its best to follow the local customs and culture, or, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

If you are worrying about how far is too far when pruning your Chinese, Chenyu’s are proof that you can’t really go too far. Who knows why brevity is so attractive in Chinese? Perhaps paper was expensive back in the day, or maybe they just had better things to get on with – either way, it is clear that long-winded fools are not suffered gladly.

Back to everyday speech, let’s put our newfound knowledge into action and practice chipping away at some sentences:

“Shall we go for a walk after dinner?”
吃完饭以后我们去散散步吧 (Chī wán fàn yǐhòu wǒmen qù sàn sànbù ba).

Or simply:
吃完后我们去散散步吧 (Chī wán hòu wǒmen qù sàn sànbù ba).

Then cut out the pronoun altogether:
吃后去散散步吧 (Chī hòu qù sàn sànbù ba).

“When I got to the supermarket I forgot what I needed to buy.”
(Wǒ yī dào chāoshì jiù wàngle wǒ yīnggāi mǎi shénme dōngxī).

Or just:
(Yī dào chāoshì jiù wàngle yāomǎi shénme).

“I’m feeling a bit tired so I’d like to go home and rest for a while.”
(Wǒ gǎnjué yǒudiǎn er lèi, suǒyǐ wǒ xiǎng huí jiā xiūxí yīxià).
(Wǒ yǒudiǎn er lèi, xiǎng huí jiā xiūxí yīxià).

“When you leave the house don’t forget to bring my keys and my jacket with you.”
(Nǐ yào chūmén de shíhòu, bié wàng shùnbiàn bǎ wǒ de yàoshi hé wǒ de wàitào dài guòlái).
(Chūmén bié wàng dài wǒ yàoshi hé wàitào).

Great isn’t it?

Share some examples of any concise and compact sentences you have used recently that saved you the breath you would have used, had you been speaking the long-winded and verbose language of English.


One thought on “Foreigner Faux Pas: Too Many Words (2)

  1. Love this. After you figure out how chengyu happen, speaking feels so much more comfortable and conversant. It’s hard to have or follow conversations when you go into it with an English mindset!

    It also helps you realize just how reliable context actually is.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s