What’s the Deal with 的

Read this sentence aloud:

我带我的太太和我的小孩儿去我的朋友的家吃他做的饭
wǒ dài wǒ de tài tɑi hé wǒ de xiǎo hái ér qù wǒ de pénɡ you de jiā chī tā zuò de fàn

Does this sentence read funny? Does it sound funny when read out loud?

Try it again:

我带我太太和我小孩儿去我朋友家吃他做
wǒ dài wǒ de tài tɑi hé wǒ de xiǎo hái ér qù wǒ de pénɡ you de jiā chī tā zuò de fàn

What’s 的 problem?
Herein lies the problem: too many ‘s!!! Grammatically there’s no problem with this sentence, but it’s not smooth. Locals will look at you funny if you talk like this.

But what’s the meaning of 的 anyway?
的 is called a “particle” – a word that doesn’t have a specific definition but changes the relationship between the parts of a sentence.

For example: 我的太太

Between 我 (me) and 太太 (wife), we see 的, which, in this case turns

我 (me)
into 我的 (mine).

Because the particle “的” is present, 太太 has become mine (我的). If only grammar reflected real life…sigh.

So 的 can demonstrate possessiveness (Good thing grammar doesn’t always reflect real life), as it does in every case in the sentence above. But in spoken language, locals don’t use so many 的s. It sounds awkward.

So when do you use 的 and when do you NOT use 的?

“我带我的太太和我的小孩儿去我的朋友的家吃他做的饭”

It’s pretty simple. When you have a personal pronoun such as I, my, he, she, they (我, 他, 她,他们), and you want to show possession of something, you can leave off 的.

“我带
我太太
我小孩儿
我朋友
吃他做的饭”

However, you CANNOT leave off 的 when:

To show possession between a noun and another noun.

For example, 王老师的学生 (Miss Wong’s student). In this case you see that acts like “‘s“, a possessive.

If you leave off 的, you get
王老师学生

What’s that mean? Miss Wong student? Does it mean Miss Wong is a student? But she’s a teacher.

王老师的学生
王老师学生
is as different as
Miss Wong’s student
Miss Wong student

So in this case, 的 cannot be left out. A and a ‘s makes all the difference. Here’s another more specific case:

的 Cannot be left out when the two nouns in the sentence cannot have a relationship with each other, i.e. a human and an inanimate object. See the difference:

总统的水饺
总统水饺
The President’s dumplings
President dumplings

超人的保暖内衣
超人保暖内衣
Superman’s thermal underwear
Superman thermal underwear

布兰妮的猴子
布兰妮猴子
Britney’s monkey
Britney monkey

Hope this helps! If something’s unclear or you have some other questions about Mandarin, let us know in the comments.