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I am new to Chinese (Mandarin), and looking at some grammar guides like this word order page, it suggests a very rigid word order (saying sometimes you break the order, but doesn't say when/how):

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Does Chinese literally have these -^ sorts of "templates" to sentence structure, "sentence patterns", or is it more flexible? If it is flexible, what are some ways in which you can break standard/common sentence patterns? If it is not flexible, and does rely heavily on sentence templates, how do you express subtle differences in meaning if you can't reorder the words like you can in English?

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Chinese does indeed have templatic word order, but the categories in the post are not the real ones used. That source is laying out the typical ordering, not the required ordering.

Overall, I would say that word order feels about as flexible in Chinese as it is in English, but the specific rules are quite different.

The overwhelming majority of Mandarin Word order rules derive from a few principles.

  1. Phrases and clauses must following the order of the senses, and so
  2. follow the flow of time and space;
  3. You must proceed from general to specific, which entails that
  4. modifiers precede what is modified and
  5. Topics precede comments.

In harmonizing between the orders, Chinese word order is rigidly determined by pragmatics; however, since pragmatics can be flexible, the word order can also often be flexible. Sometimes additional function words can allow even more flexibility.

The only exception I can think of that violates these principles is that bare indirect objects must precede direct objects; however, you can often use "prepositions" to vary pragmatics.

The posted example gives two similar sentences. The first one is:

  1. Who 谁 on the road 在路上 in Chinese 用中文 (of) the/a stranger 向陌生人 asks/asked for directions? 问路?

At the highest level, the order can be represented as a topic-comment structure:

(Who) (.....asks/asked for directions?)

For these pragmatics, the order is rigid; however, the clauses could be reversed to make a similar, but different assertion:

(The asking for directions)问路 person/one 的) (is/was 是 who? 谁)

Both in English and Chinese, a few extra words are necessary.

Within the original comment (i.e., (on the road 在路上) (in Chinese 用中文) (of the/a stranger 向陌生人) (asks/asked for directions? 问路)), the last phrase serves as the sub-comment for the total comment, and the other phrases are like sub-topics. The subtopics have free ordering, but earlier topics scope over later topics in terms of generality, time, space, and modifications according to the five principles I listed above. Within each phrase, the order is semantically fixed.

The second sentence is:

  1. She 她 what time 什么时候 on the road 在路上 in Chinese 用中文 (of) the/a stranger 向陌生人 asks/asked for directions? 问路?

The first two phrases ((She 她) and (what time 什么时候) are just additional topics and can be put in any order with the other other topics; however, this will affect the pragmatics, sometimes severely. Some of the resulting orders would require very unusual communication needs, since earlier topics scope over subsequent ones pragmatically and semantically.

To get a sense of what the change of order of topics can do, consider the following English sentences that produce a similar range of possibilities with different specifics:

I played tennis in the park yesterday. I played tennis yesterday in the park. Yesterday, I played tennis in the park. In the park yesterday, I played tennis.

Because of the requirement to follow the order of the senses, temporal topics in Chinese can never follow their comments or be made into comments by themselves. A time must exist before something can happen in it. On the other hand, durations must follow their verbs, since a duration cannot exist until the verb happens. Again, there are ways to work around these constraints if needed.

To obey the flow of time, places precede the activities that take place in them, but must follow when they represent the result of an activity. Two structures are necessary to distinguish the subsequent location of an agent and of an object.

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Chinese heavily relies on word order. The subject and object of the verb are determined by its place, not its conjugation.

But that doesn't mean you can't change the order of different parts.

Given this sentence:

谁 在路上 用中文 向陌生人 问路?

The key structure is 谁 问 路? This structure can't be changed.

Well, all the other adverb parts can be reordered or omitted. All the following sentences are valid:

谁 用中文 问路?

谁 向陌生人 用中文 问路?

谁 用中文 向陌生人 问路?

谁 在路上 向陌生人 用中文 问路?

谁 用中文 向陌生人 在路上 问路?

...

The three parts 用中文, 向陌生人, 在路上 can be placed in any order as long as they are between 谁 and 问.

谁 问路 用中文. x

The key structure is fixed, and adverb parts usually are a little flexible.

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  • Place word or time word can go before the subject: 在路上 谁 向陌生人 用中文 问路? 下午三點誰打電話給你?
    – monalisa
    Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 5:05
  • Can you include a literal gloss next to each sentence, so I can see better how it is rendered in "Chinglish" (speaking English in Chinese word order)?
    – Lance
    Commented Aug 1, 2023 at 2:28
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Chinese grammar, if in a standard manner, is quite like English. It is an SVO structure. In your question, the basic structure is:

她问路。她(subjective), 问(verb), 路(objective)。

All of the other components in a sentence are quite flexible, depending on the logical relationship of the words. In general, people make a sentence or tell a story in the order of when, where, who (s), how (adverb), do (verb), and what (o). For example,

昨天在路上,她用中文向陌生人问路。

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Chinese has a very flexible sentence structure

我昨天晚上睡得不好

昨天晚上我睡得不好

The examples given in the OP are arguably not Chinese per se. Or not the Chinese a Chinese would use.

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