I take 我不明白你刚说的第一句话 to mean

"I don't understand what you said in the first line"

I'm trying to understand what 的 does in this sentence (or grammar function). Relatedly, would it be possible to omit it and still have a well formulated sentence?

Thanks in advance!

  • 3
    "I don't understand the first line that you've just said." 的 here functions as the indicator of an attributive clause so it can't be omitted. In another similar sentence "你说的是对的", 的 can be either considered as a pronoun "what you said was right", or considered there is an ellipsis 你说的(话)是对的 as "(The word) that you said was right." – Stan Dec 9 '15 at 6:06
  • 1
    的 marks the attributive relationship between 你刚说 and 第一句话. Roughly "the first sentence that was just said by you". This sounds broken in English, but the Chinese logic is that there is a certain "first sentence" and this is described as being "just said by you". – Drunken Master Dec 9 '15 at 14:06
  • in view of the site motto "Chinese LSE is a question and answer site for students, teachers and linguists to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language" some users may wonder whether questions may be rejected as not involving sufficiently fine points – user6065 Dec 9 '15 at 17:38
up vote 9 down vote accepted

A completely parallel English version of the Chinese would be:

I didn't (or don't) understand the first word (or sentence) that you just said.

的 is functionally equivalent here to 'that':

the first word (or sentence) | that | you just said.
你刚说 | 的 | 第一句话

Notice that the order of the clause is reversed in Chinese and English. This is because Chinese treats "the first word" as the head of the phrase, and puts it where all heads in Chinese phrases go: on the right side. It treats 你刚说 as if it were modifying the head, and puts it where all modifiers (attributives) go in Chinese phrases: on the left side.

Notice that this is exactly parallel to how adjective - noun phrases are treated in Chinese:

the red | _ | pen
紅色 | 的 | 筆

So Chinese treats this kind of adjectival phrase in the same way that it treats relative clauses. This is very logical, since in both phrases the descriptive part and the head part get the exact same treatment.

English, on the other hand, is weirdly inconsistent, putting head first in relative clauses and head last in adjectival phrases, where it doesn't even bother to mark which is which.

In both these cases in Chinese the 的 is required. To omit it will confuse people and even if they can figure out what you mean, they will feel you have said something very odd.

  • thanks, your comparison to a simple phrase like 紅色 | 的 | 筆 really made it click for me! – cd98 Dec 10 '15 at 4:55

的 is really a hard word to learn. It has toooooooooooooooooo many usages

Here the structure of "verb + 的" (说的) is used as a noun, which means "what you just said"

also, "verb + objective + 的" is a different structure, which means "the person who do it"

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