The three are often confused and misused, partly because they are all pronounced the same (‘de’).
It’s a similar problem to ‘there’, ‘their’ and ‘they’re’ in English; identical when spoken but very different grammatically.
Another difficulty for English-speaking learners is that the use of these particles often has no obvious equivalent in English. You have to learn to think differently about how the world is described, rather than simply converting the words you use to do it. This is especially true for 得.
的 – the possessive particle
This particle is described in Mandarin as báisháo de, as it’s composed of the characters 白 (bái) and 勺 (sháo).
It’s a possessive particle. On a basic level, it works like ‘s (apostrophe s) in English, e.g.
Yuēhàn de shū
It’s also important to remember, however, that ‘possession’ is used much more widely in Mandarin than it is in English. The particle is also used as an attributive. That is, it assigns qualities to things:
hóngsè de dàyī
the red coat
Literally this is “red colour‘s coat”, i.e. “the coat that belongs to [the category of] red”.
The general structure is:
(noun, pronoun or adjective) + 的 + (noun)
的 is so widely used that it is often found to be the most common character in Mandarin Chinese.
地 – the adverb marker
地 is described as tǔyě de, as it contains 土 (tǔ) and 也 (yě).
This particle is a bit easier for English speakers. It’s pretty much the same as the suffix -ly. It goes on the end of adjectives to make them into adverbs. For example:
mànmàn de pǎobù
It also marks adverbs in general. The general structure is:
(adjective or adverb) + 地 + (adjective or verb)
得 – the complement marker
This one is described as shuāngrén de, as the 彳 radical is colloquially known as shuāngrén (‘double person’).
This is probably the hardest one to grasp for speakers of English. Unless you’ve spent time studying grammar or linguistics, you probably won’t have heard of complements. There are two kinds of complement that may use 得: degree and potential. Both of them are used to modify verbs.
The degree complement assesses the extent or quality of an action, or the state of things after it. For example:
tā chī de hěn kuài
She eats very quickly.
Here, ‘很快’ is the quality of the verb ‘吃’ and it’s marked by 得. 得 directly follows the verb in a sentence. It can also describe what happens after the action of a verb or adjective takes place:
Tā gāoxìng de tiào qǐláile.
He was so happy he started jumping up and down.
This often matches up with the English structure ‘so (adjective) that … ‘.
The rules get a lot more complex when you start adding in negatives, questions and objects for the verbs, but this article is just a summary.
Key point: the degree complement is used to assess or describe verbs.
The potential complement indicates whether or not something can happen, or someone has the ability to do something. As the name suggests, it’s all about the potential of something. For example:
wǒ kàn de dǒng zhōngwén
I can read (and understand) Chinese.
This sentence is not about whether or not you have read some Chinese, it’s about whether you understand it if or when you do. It describes your ability in general; your potential to read Chinese.
Only the positive form of the potential complement uses 得. In the negative form, 得 is replaced by 不:
wǒ kàn bu dǒng zhōngwén
I can’t read (and understand) Chinese.
Key point: the potential complement is about possibility and ability
A quick summary of 的 地 得
- 的 is a possessive or attributive particle.
- It is often equivalent to ‘s (apostrophe s) in English.
- 地 marks adverbs.
- It is often equivalent to ly in English.
- 得 marks the degree complement and the potential complement.
All this is a lot to digest for a beginning learner. If you’re at that stage, it’s maybe best to have a quick read of this and bear it in mind. A better focus, for the time being, is to keep reading and keep listening. The more you encounter the grammar, the more you’ll get an intuitive feel for how it works.
- Potential vs degree complement (an in depth explanation with numerous examples)
- A Guide to Proper Usage of Spoken Chinese – very clear and reader-friendly
- Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar – this is the Bible of Mandarin grammar