Tips for Mandarin
Singapore's rich linguistic milieu and history have influenced how Mandarin is used within her shores. While Singapore Mandarin can play a useful role as an "identity marker", it is just as important for users to know the differences between standard and colloquial usage, deviations from standard grammar or convention, and how Singapore Mandarin differs from the Mandarin used in other parts of the world.
Not all examples here can be considered "errors". Language lovers will be able to discern influences from Chinese dialects, Classical Chinese and other languages. These examples will spur readers to reflect on the Mandarin used and heard in Singapore.
One often hears the classifier “粒” used for any spherical object, be it a ball, a mantou or a watermelon. “粒” literally means “grain” or “particle” and should only be used for items the size of a pellet or smaller.
In standard Mandarin, “烧” is usually used as a verb to mean “burn” or “heat up”. In the above context, one should use “热” and “烫”.
The word “懂” means "to understand " and not merely to "know". In this particular example, “知道” would be a more appropriate choice.
It is not uncommon to hear the word “先” being used behind the subject in a sentence（e.g.”你睡先”，”我走先”）. This structure is likely Cantonese in origin and is not considered proper grammar in Mandarin.
The construction of this sentence seems to be influenced by English grammar. In proper Mandarin, the subject should come first.
“还钱” literally means to “repay or return money” and should not be used to refer to the act of making a payment.
One often sees “被” being used to indicate that an action has been completed. Such usage is not considered good grammar. The words “已” or “已经” should be used.
The placement of the determiner “不够” before the noun “经验” is considered poor grammar and should be avoided.
In standard Mandarin, the object should not be placed before the complement.
The word “起价” is often used in Singapore to refer to rising prices, but it could mean “starting price” elsewhere in the Chinese-speaking world. “涨价” is a clearer term that may be used in its place.
In Singapore, the word “对付” carries a connotation of penalty or retribution. In standard Mandarin, the term is neutral and merely means "to deal with".
The use of the word “字” as a unit of time stems from Classical Chinese. There are eight “刻” in one”时辰” (equivalent to two hours) and three”字” in each “刻”. These measurement units are now rarely used in Mainland China and Taiwan.
It is not uncommon to hear Singaporeans use”才” in place of ”再” to indicate a future action that follows the completion of an earlier one. In standard Mandarin, “再” should be used.
“能” and “可以” are sometimes interchangeable but they carry slightly different meanings. The word “能” implies the ability to do something while the word “可以” denotes the possibility of an action.
The word “才” should not be used at the end of a sentence. It should come before the object.
In Singapore, “做工” is often used to mean "work". In most parts of the Chinese-speaking world, “做工” denotes physical or manual labour, so “工作” would be a more appropriate term in most contexts.
The word “公私” is often used colloquially in Singapore to mean “share”. “分享”,”共享” or ”一起” are the more appropriate words to use.
Due to the influence of the English language, “任何” (any) is increasingly being used in Singapore Mandarin. However, “所有” would be a more appropriate choice in many cases.
The classifier “一位” is usually used before an individual of a higher standing. Example: “一位老师” or “一位学生家长”。When referring to a student, “一名” would be more appropriate and neutral.
In Singapore, one sometimes hears the word “有” used in front of a verb or verb predicate. This likely comes from Hokkien grammar and is not considered proper in standard Mandarin.
”好采” and “角头” are part of the local lexicon and mean “fortunately” and “corner” respectively. These words are rarely used in other Chinese-speaking regions or may mean completely different things there.
- 电梯的人不出，外面的人又怎么 进？
Postpositions such as "里" and directional complements such as "去" and "来" are often overlooked in Singapore Mandarin. They are considered indispensable in standard Chinese grammar.
Singapore Mandarin features many words borrowed from other languages. This sentence, as an example, would be gibberish to those in other regions where the Chinese language is mostly used.
How do you think this should be expressed in standard Mandarin?
Tan Dan Feng deals with different aspects of language in his work as a translator, language software developer and publisher. He has taught translation at various levels and is happiest discussing with his students and his two young children how language should be used.