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Your Guide to Cantonese Word Order

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Word order refers to the order in which words are structured to form a sentence. One example is the “Subject + Verb + Object” pattern in English. One can not speak, read, or write properly without knowing how to put sentences together. 

That’s why we’ve decided to introduce you to Cantonese word order and grammar. Let CantoneseClass101.com be your guide to mastering Cantonese!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Cantonese Table of Contents
  1. Cantonese Word Order Overview
  2. Basic Word Order with Subject, Verb, and Object
  3. Word Order with Prepositional Phrases
  4. Word Order with Modifiers
  5. How to Form a Negative Sentence
  6. Bonus: Translation Exercises
  7. Conclusion: How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

1. Cantonese Word Order Overview

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Cantonese word order is fairly flexible and may be said to follow the pattern “Subject + Verb + Object,” which is the same basic word order in English. As there are so many ways to structure a sentence in Cantonese, some think that Cantonese is very difficult—especially HongKongers who love to “not follow the grammar” and throw words around.

But don’t worry. In addition to the most common sentence patterns we’ll cover below, you can always learn Cantonese word order by chatting with the locals or reading more examples on CantoneseClass101.com. The key to mastering a language is not being afraid to make mistakes. After all, it’s from mistakes that we learn the most!

Now, let’s look closer at this pattern of word ordering in Cantonese…

2. Basic Word Order with Subject, Verb, and Object

Cinema

The basic word order for English is subject (S), verb (V), and object (O). If we break down the English sentence “I watch a movie,” we can see that the subject “I” is presented first. This is followed by the verb “watch,” and then finally, the object “movie” is positioned last. We’ve removed the particles here to keep it simple.

“Subject + Verb + Object” is the basic word order for sentences in both English and Cantonese.

Now let’s compare that same sentence, “I watch a movie,” with the Cantonese translation: 我睇戲” (ngo5 tai2 hei3). If we break down the Cantonese sentence, we see that the subject 我 (ngo5), meaning “I,” comes first. Then comes the verb 睇 (tai2), meaning “watch.” And finally, we have the object 戲 (hei3), meaning “movie.”

Below is a summary of the basic word order in Cantonese:

1 – Subject (S) + Verb (V) + Object (O)

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我睇戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 tai2 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watch (a) movie.”

We’ll keep using the above example sentence, 我睇戲 (ngo5 tai2 hei3), and expand upon it throughout the article for better illustration.

3. Word Order with Prepositional Phrases

A Question Mark

Now we’ll expand the basic Cantonese word order “S + V + O” with prepositional phrases (e.g. “when,” “where,” or in “in what way”).

2 – S + Time (T) + V + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜睇戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tai2 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched a movie last week.”

Note 1: Time can either be placed in front of or after the subject, though it’s more common to place time after the subject. For example, 上個禮拜我睇戲 (soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 ngo5 tai2 hei3) also works.

Note 2: Time and duration are placed differently in Cantonese sentences. We’ll cover duration later in this article. 

3 – S + T + Manner (M) + V + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊睇戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 tai2 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched a movie last week with my friends.”

4 – S + T + M + Place (P) + V + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched a movie at the cinema last week with my friends.”

Note: Place can either be placed in front of or after prepositions of manner, though it’s more common to place it after. For example, 我上個禮拜喺戲院同朋友一齊睇戲 (ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 tai2 hei3) also works.

4. Word Order with Modifiers

A Plus Sign

Modifiers usually modify nouns. In Cantonese, they are often adjectives, determiners (e.g. “this,” “that”), or numerals (e.g. “one,” “two,” “three”).

Now let’s further expand our sentence with modifiers!

5 – S + T + M + P + V + Determiners (De) + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗呢場戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 ni1 coeng4 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched this movie at the cinema last week with my friends.”

6 – S + T + M + P + V + De + Numerals (N) + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗呢一場戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 ni1 jat1 coeng4 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched this (one) movie at the cinema last week with my friends.”

Note: We don’t have “these” or the plural of “this” in Cantonese. We use numerals directly to tell how many there are of something.

7 – S + T + M + P + V + De + N + Duration (Du) + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗呢一場兩個鐘頭嘅戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 ni1 jat1 coeng4 loeng5 go3 zung1 tau4 ge3 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched this two-hour-long movie at the cinema last week with my friends.”

8 – S + T + M + P + V + De + N + Du + Adjective (A) + O

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗呢一場兩個鐘頭好精彩嘅戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 ni1 jat1 coeng4 loeng5 go3 zung1 tau4 hou2 zing1 coi2 ge3 hei3
  • Meaning: “I watched this stunning two-hour-long movie at the cinema last week with my friends.”

Note: We sometimes break the sentence into two parts if it’s too long. For instance, we could split the sentence above as follows:

  • Format: S + T + M + P + V + De + N + A + O, V + Du
  • Chinese Characters: 我上個禮拜同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗呢一場好精彩嘅戲,睇足兩個鐘頭。
  • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 lai5 baai3 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 ni1 jat1 coeng4 hou2 zing1 coi2 ge3 hei3, tai2 zuk1 loeng5 go3 zung1 tau4

5. How to Form a Negative Sentence

a Lady Expressing

Forming negative sentences in Cantonese is easy. In most cases, we just need to add the character for “no,” which is 唔 (m4), in front of the verb.

Example Sentence

  • Chinese Characters: 我唔睇戲。
  • Romanization: ngo5 m4 tai2 hei3
  • Meaning: “I don’t watch a movie.”

6. Bonus: Translation Exercises

Pencil & Paper

Try to arrange the words in the correct order! 

[Note that: 1. English tenses are ignored in this exercise as there is no such concept as tense in Cantonese. 2. You may find the answers in the last paragraph of this section.]

Ex 1-

Words: 你 (romanization: nei5; meaning: “you”); 蘋果 (romanization: ping4 gwo2; meaning: “apple”); 食 (romanization: sik6; meaning: “eat”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 2-

Words: 你 (romanization: nei5; meaning: “you”); 蘋果 (romanization: ping4 gwo2; meaning: “apple”); 食 (romanization: sik6; meaning: “eat”); 好食嘅 (romanization: hou2 sik6 ge3; meaning: “delicious”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 3-

Words: 你 (romanization: nei5; meaning: “you”); 蘋果 (romanization: ping4 gwo2; meaning: “apple”); 食 (romanization: sik6; meaning: “eat”); 唔 (romanization: m4; meaning: “don’t”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 4-

Words: 錢 (romanization: cin2; meaning: “money”); 借 (romanization: ze3; meaning: “borrow”); 我 (romanization: ngo5; meaning: “I”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 5-

Words: 錢 (romanization: cin2; meaning: “money”); 借 (romanization: ze3; meaning: “borrow”); 我 (romanization: ngo5; meaning: “I”); 噚日 (romanization: cam4 jat6; meaning: “yesterday”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 6-

Words: 錢 (romanization: cin2; meaning: “money”); 借 (romanization: ze3; meaning: “borrow”); 我 (romanization: ngo5; meaning: “I”); 噚日 (romanization: cam4 jat6; meaning: “yesterday”); 問朋友 (romanization: man6 pang4 jau5; meaning: “from a friend”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Ex 7-

Words: 好靚嘅 (romanization: hou2 leng3 ge3; meaning: “beautiful”); 一個 (romanization: jat1 go3; meaning: “one”); 我 (romanization: ngo5; meaning: “I”); 今日 (romanization: gam1 jat6; meaning: “today”); 見到 (romanization: gin3 dou2; meaning: “see”); 手袋 (romanization: sau2 doi2; meaning: “handbag”)

Sentence: ____________________________

Answers

Ex 1- 你食蘋果。

Ex 2- 你食好食嘅蘋果。

Ex 3- 你唔食蘋果。

Ex 4- 我借錢。

Ex 5- 我噚日借錢。/ 噚日我借錢。

Ex 6- 我噚日問朋友借錢。/ 噚日我問朋友借錢。

Ex 7- 我今日見到一個好靚嘅手袋。

7. Conclusion: How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

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Cantonese word order isn’t that difficult after all, right? It might sound complicated at first, but if you’re patient and learn one step at a time, you’ll be able to master Cantonese word order before you know it!

Is there anything that’s still not clear to you? Is the sentence structure in Cantonese similar or different from that in your native language? Let us know in the comments! 

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