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“In” or “At” In Chinese – Chinese Preposition 在 zài

in or at in Chinese
Learn Mandarin Chinese Location Words 在 – LOCATION WORDS IN CHINESE: Space OR Time

How do people, places, things, events, etc., relate to each other? Is someone doing something “for” someone else? How about “to” them? What’s the origin “from” one thing to another, or distance “from” two places? We’ll discuss all of these but for now, let’s focus on the Chinese Preposition 在 zài (in/at in Chinese).

When I was a kid, the word “preposition” made my brain shut off. There was (and still is) something about linguistic jargon that aggravated me because it always felt so pointless. 

When I started learning about Chinese grammar, I came across the word 介词 jiècí – ‘preposition,’ but instead of my brain shutting off, I suddenly realized that prepositions are “relators.” 介 is the main character in the word “介绍 jièshào – to introduce.” Another way to conceptualize “introducing” is “to create a new relationship.” Now, the idea of a ‘preposition’ wasn’t so scary. They’re mere ‘relators’!

“In” or “At” In Chinese – Chinese Preposition 在 zài

在 zài (in/at in Chinese) is a highly dynamic character, and this article will tackle two of its most important uses. The first is the “在-DoesWhat-Usage,” and it’s quite simple to understand. It means that “在 zài (in/at in Chinese)” is serving as the verb in a sentence. For example:

Sentence 1:

他在中国。 – Level 14
Tā zài zhōngguó.
He’s in China.

Host: 他 He
Does What: 在 is (located) in
Guest: 中国 China

在 zài (in/at in Chinese) only shows up as the “Does What/Verb” in simple sentences when it’s the only point the speaker is making. A: Where is he? B: He’s in China. Easy peasy.

Sentence 2:

他在中国生活。 – Level 14
Tā zài zhōngguó shēnghuó.
He lives in China.

Here we have the same sentence, but by adding the word “生活 shēnghuó,” the “Does What” of the sentence shifts to “生活 shēnghuó” and “在 zài (in/at in Chinese)” becomes a preposition showing the relationship between ‘生活 shēnghuó’ and ‘where 在 zài (in/at in Chinese)’ it’s happening.

We can see that (so far) the structure is:

Host + 在 + Location + Does What

“In” or “At” In Chinese – Sentence 3:

我在台上唱歌。 – Level 14
Wǒ zài táishàng chànggē.
I sing on stage.

Once again, the point of this sentence is not that “我 wǒ” is “on the stage 在台上 zài táishàng” but rather that “我 wǒ” is “singing 唱歌 chànggē.” Therefore, the function of 在 zài is to relate the ‘does what’ of singing to the location of the singing (台上 táishàng). Here we still have the “Host + 在 + Location + Does What.” 

Sentence 4:

爷爷在门口坐了下来。 – Level 15
Yéye zài ménkǒu zuò le xiàlái.
Grandpa sat down at the entrance.

爷爷坐了下来 Yéyé zuò le xiàlái “Grandpa sat down” is a perfectly fine sentence, but by adding “在门口 zài ménkǒu” you are becoming more precise in your description. Prepositions like 在 zài are almost always not necessary grammatically, but they help convey more detail and change the meaning of a sentence significantly.

We chose this sentence as our final example of “Host + 在 + Location + Does What” because “坐 zuò” can be one of the special verbs that change the word order. In a moment we’ll explain why it didn’t change the word order in the above sentence, but let’s take a look at the next example:

“In” or “At” In Chinese – Sentence 5:

我坐在桌子上吃饭。 – Level 14
Wǒ zuò zài zhuōzi shàng chīfàn.
I’m sitting at the table eating.

Here the word order changed:

Before: Host + 在 + Location + Does What 

Now: Host + [Movement/Location Verb] + 在 + Location + (Does What)

You’ll notice this word order when dealing with a particular set of verbs that imply movement or location. Some of them include: 

坐 zuò – to sit
走 zǒu – to walk
放 fàng – to put, to place
站 zhàn – to stand
住 zhù – to live, to reside
吐 tǔ/tù – to spit (tǔ), to vomit (tù)

This is not an exhaustive list, but as you can see, all of these verbs include either movement or location

Note that the “Does What” in this structure isn’t required. If you only want to say, “I sit at the table我坐在桌子上 Wǒ zuò zài zhuōzi shàng,” that’s fine.

But wait! Why was “爷爷在门口坐了下来 Yéye zài ménkǒu zuò le xiàlái” in the original word order? It’s because there is a resultative complement placed after “坐 zuò”(下来 xiàlái). When you have a complement after the verb, the word order reverts to the “Host + 在 + Location + Does What + (Complement).”

Let’s look at a few more examples with the “Host + [Movement/Location Verb] + 在 + Location” structure:

Sentence 6:

他吐在地上。 – Level 14
Tā tǔ zài dìshàng.
He spits on the ground.

This sentence is an example of no further action after the “location” (地上 dìshàng). The entire point of the sentence is that he’s spitting on the ground, so there’s no need to add anything else.

“In” or “At” In Chinese – Sentence 7:

他站在一边看着我们说话。 – Level 16
Tā zhàn zài yībiān kànzhe wǒmen shuōhuà.
He stood on one side, watching us talk.

Again, if the sentence were “他站在一边 tā zhàn zài yībiān” that’s fine, but once you establish the Host’s location, you can then add what he’s doing while “standing to the side 站在一边 zhàn zài yībiān,” which in this case is “watching us talk 看着我们说话 kànzhe wǒmen shuōhuà.”

Sentence 8: 

我们今年住在这边。 – Level 20
Wǒmen jīnnián zhù zài zhèbiān.
We live here this year.

住 zhù is a verb that implies location, even if it doesn’t necessarily imply movement. You must reside somewhere, so that’s why it gets placed before 在 zài (in/at in Chinese). Also, note that if you want to add a time word like “今年 jīnnián” that you’ll put it either before or after the “host,” but before the movement/location verb.

在 zài (in/at in Chinese) will come up so often in your input that if you haven’t mastered it yet, you will soon. Keep an eye out for those “Movement/Location” verbs, and as always, don’t overthink it!

Also, don’t forget there is no such thing as “learning” grammar, it is more about an acquisition.

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