Best Chinese Grammar Book for Beginner and Intermediate Students

In this article, we’re going to look at four of the most recommended Chinese grammar books for beginner and intermediate students.

Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar (MMCG)

MMCG is excellent but not necessarily the best option for everyone. It’s divided into two sections: ‘Structures’ and ‘Situations and functions.’

Structures

The first half of MMCG resembles a traditional grammar book. This is best used to reference various questions you have about grammar usage. For example, if you’re forgetting how to use the passive voice – this is where you would find explanations. It has a lot of breadth but is a bit too short on examples. It starts at the beginning with pinyin and covers lots of topics that beginner and intermediate students would need to learn. The material will probably be too simple for those who have moved past the intermediate level. Although, many people who study independently may neglect grammar a bit too much. So for those, even with a higher level of spoken Chinese, it may still be a suitable book.

The content is laid out very clearly and is easy to find what you’re looking for. The explanations are very clear and easy to understand. They don’t go into excessive details of things that aren’t important to learn at an early stage.

MMCG uses Simplified and Traditional characters, pinyin and English translations and explanations. One weird and semi-annoying thing is that they’ve chosen to bold the pinyin. I really dislike this as it distracts my attention away from trying to read the characters. It leads to me being a bit lazy with my reading attempts.

Another disappointing aspect is the lack of examples and practice exercises. You’ll have to buy a separate workbook to get practice materials.

Situations and functions

The second part of the book is longer and branches off from the grammar focus. It more closely resembles a grammar-heavy general textbook. This section has some unexpected information like a quick section on common family names and the organization of a business card. These are fairly rare occurrences and most of the second part focuses on additional grammar explanations as well as introducing new vocabulary. Some of this can be a bit dated – I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the word beeper included. This is quite minor though.

Some people have complained about this second part of the book because they’d prefer MMCG to be strictly a grammar book and that part two resembles a traditional textbook or phrasebook. I think these complaints are a bit unjustified. While there are some unnecessary things included it’s relatively minor and the quality of the grammar explanations makes up for that. Also, while I’d prefer to learn vocabulary from other places, I find that the vocabulary that is included is helpful in understanding their examples.

Very good but not perfect

MMCG is an outstanding resource for beginner and intermediate level students to get a better understanding of Chinese grammar. However, it’s not without its faults. There are relatively few examples for each section. So, you may find yourself looking for other resources to solidify your understanding of a particular section. Also, there aren’t any practice problems. This means that you’ll probably want to pick up the workbook to go along with it. Without that, you won’t really be able to test your understanding of the material. One more issue is that the chapters don’t build on each other very much. You’ll get an explanation, see a few examples, and then move onto the next thing. If you don’t go back and review or find other resources – there’s a good chance the material won’t stick with you.

Final thoughts

MMCG is one of the most often recommended grammar books because it’s very good. It may be a bit tough for an absolute beginner but as you get a few months of studying underway, it’s a great resource. It’s easy to navigate, concise and has clear explanations. However, without the workbook it’s difficult to know if you’ve really understood the material enough to use correctly.

Also, it seems like the 2nd edition is formatted well with Kindle.

Click here to see Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar on Amazon.

Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar (SOCG)

Both Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar and Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar are written by Claudia Ross with SOCG being significantly cheaper. They’re quite similar but their differences will make one better for some students and the other better for other students. In SOCG, the extra non-grammar stuff we saw in MMCG has been removed. Instead of this, you’ll find practice exercises with the answers in the back of the book.

Both MMCG and SOCG has information in simplified and traditional characters, pinyin and English.

SOCG is much more condensed compared to MMCG. It is after all called Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar. I found the layout of MMCG to be much friendlier on the eyes and more intuitive to use. In SOCG, the sections run right into each other. There isn’t even any white space to separate the sections. Reading through this book feels a bit claustrophobic. There isn’t much space to just breath.

SOCG is broad and shallow. It covers a lot of different grammar points but there aren’t enough examples. You’ll find yourself moving onto the next thing a bit too quickly and before you’ve really had the chance to figure it out. In this way, it feels like you’re expected to use with additional resources to get more examples.

Other reviews have said that there are lots of errors in SOCG. I’m not sure if this is true or not. There were a few times where I thought there may have been a mistake and I asked my Chinese girlfriend if it was correct and she said it was right. I think maybe the way the author decided to write the tone marks – changing them if two characters form a word – so kéyǐ instead of kěyǐ but hěn hǎo and not hén hǎo. I think this may have caused some readers confusion, but it was mentioned in the beginning of the text.

Others have also complained about there not being a table of contents for the Kindle which would make it very difficult to reference. Perhaps that was an old version because for me I didn’t have any problem with this.

Overall Schaum’s Outline of Chinese Grammar is a good barebones grammar book. It covers a lot of material in relatively few pages. This means a lot of the content is lacking explanations and examples. For some points, you’ll likely need to look elsewhere to get additional examples. The material covered is very similar to MMCG which makes sense considering they were written by the same author. Having the practice exercises included in the text is a major advantage. While Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar is much more thorough and in-depth, SOCG provides a comparable barebones book for significantly less money.

Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook (BCGW)

BCGW is only available in Simplified Characters.

Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook is the third book we’re looking at and is also a good option. This book really stresses learning by doing with tons of exercises for each chapter. Many chapters may only have five pages or so of text but around 50 practice problems for you to work through. There’s an answer key in the back as well.

The order of the book is a bit strange at times. For example, personal pronouns aren’t introduced until chapter three – after demonstratives. It just feels a bit weird reading the translation for ‘us’ or ‘hello’ after having already gone through examples like ‘Three kids attend school’, along with more complicated ones. Also, the use of 把,被, and the differences in the three de’s (的,地,得) aren’t included in this book. Strangely, the author decided to wait until the Intermediate book to include these. That’s quite surprising as most courses and books will include these very early on.

Also, some of the phrases are worded a bit strange. My Chinese girlfriend read a couple of them and said that “yea, it’s correct but nobody would say it like that.”

The English explanations are very clear and explained well. However, you may find yourself googling English grammar more than you’d like. There are a lot of “grammar words” that I found kind of confusing (what is a pre-verbal position or an interrogative pronoun?). I know it’s a grammar book but it’d be nice if more layman terms were used.

I’m not sure why these textbooks keep deciding to bold the pinyin. It’s just a distraction from the characters.

The Kindle version is just a scan of the book. This makes it really tough to use on that platform as a lot of the characters are hard to make out clearly.

Overall, Basic Chinese: A Grammar and Workbook is one of the better grammar books for beginner and elementary levels, but it’s not my favourite. I love all the example sentences but feel like it’s lacking in some other areas. Perhaps, with the addition of the Intermediate level textbook, it could be my top recommendation. It’s good a choice and works best for some and not for others.

Chinese Grammar Wiki

The last resource on the book isn’t necessarily a book, although it is available as a book. It’s a free Wikipedia style resource put together to learn grammar. Honestly, it’s pretty great. It provides an easy way for anybody to quickly reference a grammar point they’re interested in.

Chinese Grammar Wiki is organised by level. Currently, there are four levels: A1, A2, B1, and B2 – from beginner to upper intermediate. This organizational style works nicely as there are some things you may need to know at an earlier level, you won’t get bogged down in all of the details that aren’t necessary until you move up higher. You’re able to only look at what’s most relevant at the time. But, it’s still pretty easy to find yourself going down the rabbit hole and before you know it you’ve looked at 20 different pages.

There are 40 A1, 94 A2, 145 B1 and 129 B2 grammar points.

They provide very clear and easy to understand explanations. After the explanations there are quite a few examples. In fact, the number of examples given is comparable or more than many of the textbooks.

The biggest drawback to the Chinese Grammar Wiki is that there is no workbook. It’s very easy to read through examples and feel like you understand it. However, when you actually try to use the examples, you’ll generally find you need more practice with it.

While Chinese Grammar Wiki is awesome, it’s not as complete as some of the other resources. On their website, they mention that they don’t think it’s a replacement for a grammar textbook. I myself avoided a grammar book for quite a while. Only recently, I decided to start using Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar and the workbook. However, even with that book I still find myself occasionally consulting the Grammar Wiki.

It’s an awesome free resource. It works well in conjunction with other resources or simply as a quick reference to questions you have.

Final Conclusion

I wouldn’t fault you for choosing any of these resources as your main source to learn Chinese grammar. None are without their faults but they all are quite good still. As I mentioned, I decided on Modern Mandarin Chinese Grammar and the workbook for myself. Because you have to buy the workbook separate, it does end up costing more than the other options. If cost is a primary concern, you can get by with one of the other textbooks, or even sticking with the Chinese Grammar Wiki. In the end, different people will have different preferences and different things that work for them.

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