Once you’ve made some headway with Chinese grammar, you’ll come across one of the major stumbling stones: the 把 structure. This structure is extremely common, so it’s essential to learn. However, it can be a little tricky to grasp at first.
First we’ll explain what the 把 structure looks like and how to use it. Usually people find that’s the easier part to understand. After that, we’ll talk about when you should use the 把 structure in Chinese, which is what most people struggle with.
The basic 把 structure
A very basic Chinese sentence has an SOV (subject · verb · object) word order, as in English. For example:
I eat noodles.
The 把 structure re-arranges this basic word order. The structure for it is:
[subject] 把 [object] [verb]
Now the word order is SOV. Cool, right? (We think grammar is cool, anyway). At its most basic, that’s all there is to the 把 structure. You make the word order SOV, and put 把 after the subject.
Let’s have a look at some examples:
I ate the noodles.
I put the bag on the table.
She threw the scrap paper into the bin.
If you’re really on the ball, you might have noticed that there is something else going on in those example sentences. As well as the word order being SOV, there’s a little bit of extra information in each one: what happened to the object.
This will be explained in more detail below, but for now just remember that the 把 structure is always used to talk about the result of the action on the object. The noodles got eaten, the bag got put down, the scrap paper got thrown in the bin.
The technical term for this is the disposal of the object, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it got chucked out! It just means that some sort of action was completed on the object.
Asking questions with 把
You can of course combine 把 with question formations to make questions. This happens pretty much as you would expect for the different ways of asking questions in Mandarin. Let’s have a look at some examples:
Did you finish all my beer?
Have you put your clothes in the washing machine?
Which book did you give him in the end?
Notice how the 把 structure doesn’t really alter the way the question is asked. It just functions as a part of the sentence.
Making negative sentences with 把
You can have negative sentences that include 把. All you do is put 不 or 没有 in front of 把. That negates the whole 把 structure. Remember, though, that you can never negate within the 把 structure.
This is because, as mentioned above, the 把 structure is about what happened to the object. If you negate within that, it doesn’t fit, because then nothing happened to the object.
Let’s have a look at some negative 把 sentences:
I didn’t lose my phone.
Don’t mess up my stuff!
Don’t take the book away.
He never wrote down his theories.
Hopefully you can see how the 把 structure itself remains ‘intact’ despite the whole sentence being negated. The point is that you can’t negate the verb inside a 把 structure, only the structure as a whole.
When should you use the 把 structure?
Most students understand what the 把 structure is and how to form it, but aren’t sure when to use it. We mentioned briefly above that the 把 structure is about the disposal of the object. In other words, that means that the 把 structure is about what happens to the object. There has to be an action on the object, or some sort of ‘fate’ for the object.
Is the object affected, changed or used?
One way to think about disposal is that it means the object has been affected, changed or used. Something has happened to its position, state, ownership, qualities, etc. If the sentence seems to be focusing on what happened to the object, then you should try to use 把.
Notice that the character 把 has a hand radical (扌), and can mean “to grasp” or “to hold” on its own. I like to use this as a little mnemonic device: the object has been handled or manipulated (at least figuratively). This may help you remember what the 把 structure is about.
Are there situations where you have to use 把?
There are quite a lot of verbs (and situations that they describe) that really lend themselves to using 把. The most common one is the verb 放. It’s just not really possible to talk about putting things in places in Chinese without using 把. In general it is better to use 把 wherever the object has been affected, changed, used etc., as this is likely to be the most natural way to express it.
When should you definitely not use 把?
Because the 把 structure is about the disposal of the object (how it is directly affected), you can’t use it in any situation where nothing happens to the object. This includes all psychological verbs such as 想 (to think of), 喜欢 (to like), 爱 (to love) etc. With those verbs, the object isn’t actually affected in any way, so you can’t use 把.
What difference does it make if you use 把?
This is a question that pretty much everyone learning Mandarin will ask at some point, but it seems that it’s pretty hard for anyone to answer it. Sometimes you can’t use 把 (because the object isn’t affected), and sometimes you really should use 把 (because you’re talking about the disposal of the object). But what about when using it and not using it are both OK? What’s the difference?
As far as I know, if there is any real difference, it’s incredibly subtle. I don’t think that it makes any significant difference in meaning.
Imagine asking a native English speaker what the difference is between “I bought my friend a book” and “I bought a book for my friend”. There does seem to be some difference there, but it’s negligible. I believe that it’s a similar situation when using 把 or not using it are both acceptable.
The best thing, as always, is to do as much listening as possible to get a natural feel for when 把 is used. Learning grammar is helpful, but it can only ever be a shortcut to faster understanding when listening and reading. Those should be the core of your learning, not focusing on grammar.
If you have any more insight into what difference it makes if you use 把, please share your knowledge in the comments at the end of the page!
Looking at 把 and 被 as a set
One final thing to note is that 把 and 被 can be seen as a matching pair. They both go in the same place in the sentence, and both are used to talk about what happens to the object. 把 and 被 are almost like mirror images of each other: 把 is for active sentences and 被 is for passive sentences.
It can be helpful to make this link in your mind, as it may help you get a better understanding of both 把 and 被. See them as two sides of the same coin, and then whenever you see one you can understand a little bit more about the other.
A very silly example
Obviously there aren’t many situations where you can swap 把 and 被 around and still have a sentence that makes sense. However, here’s a very silly example that kind of works:
I sold my grandma.
Now if we turn the tables and swap 把 for 被, we get:
I was sold by my grandma.
As we said, it’s quite silly, but hopefully it illustrates how 把 and 被 are counterparts.
If you have any questions or suggestions, please share them in the comments below!