'Nǐ zhù zài nǎli?'
As a man who may or may not have taken two semesters of Mandarin, this phrase threw me for a loop at first. It sounded so clunky and redundant to my Western ears. Not satisfied with simply memorizing it and applying the pattern to other similar phrases, I decided to crack open my dictionary and parse it word-for-word. The result came out something like:
"You live in where at?"
It made little sense to me. Chinese, in case you haven't been told, is a whole 'nother language, and runs on a whole 'nother set of underlying ideas than English and other Indo-European languages. Properly Englished, the sentence would be understood as "Where do you live?", but I was left wondering why one needed two particles surrounding the word for 'where'. This is where my linguistics professor came to my rescue. Y'see, apparently, many East Asian languages use what are called 'stative verbs' to an extent that us Indo-European speakers do not. Stative verbs are basically verbs that indicate some sort of ongoing state. The difference between a stative verb and an eventive verb gets pretty tricky at times (but the basic idea is fairly simple).
Furthermore, practically all of what are called 'particles' in Mandarin textbooks are actually these stative verbs or nouns. You might go so far as to say that Mandarin lacks adpositions entirely. The only things that can be properly called 'particles' are a class of little words that add to a sentence or phrase's pragmatic or syntactic content: 'ne' as a sort of topicalizing marker (as in the phrase 'nǐ ne?' — 'and you too?'), 'ma' as an interrogative marker that turns a statement into a question ('Nǐ chībǎo le ma?' — 'have you eaten your fill today?') and 'hé' as a conjunction roughly meaning 'and'. There are many more of these little particles, and they're probably one of the most difficult parts of Mandarin grammar to grasp.
So, let's take this sentence apart and figure out what's going on under the hood. 'Nǐ' is pretty straight-forwardly 'you', and 'nǎ' is a word that
means 'where'. 'Zhù' means 'to reside, to live'. But what about 'zài' and 'li'?
More explanation from my linguistics professor: 'Zài' doesn't mean 'in', like some dictionaries would like you to believe; it means something more like 'to be in' or 'to be located in'. Same with 'li'; it's actually a noun that means 'the inside of something'. 'Nǎli' means 'the inside of where'. 'Zài nǎli' means 'to be located in the inside of where'.
So, once more unto the breech:
'You live, being located on the inside, at where?' (this is a riduculously contrived translation, but I hope you, Dear Reader, get my point)
Hey, no one ever said learning Mandarin was gonna be easy!
But it gets better! Not only are most of these so-called particles actually nouns or stative verbs, pretty much all adjectives are in these same two classes! You would have a pretty good case if you said that Mandarin has no proper adjectives, just as you would if you claimed that Mandarin has no adpositions. So, by that logic, 'hǎo' means 'to be good', and 'dà' means 'to be big'. 'Yīběn dà shu' means something more like 'a book that is big' than 'a big book'.
So, let's come up with more examples here, to illustrate. Certain dialects of Mandarin treat adjectives differently depending on whether or not they are monosyllabic (like 'xiǎo', which means 'to be small') or multisyllabic (like 'piàoliàng', which means 'to be good-looking').
Single-syllabic adjectives are pretty easy to deal with. In a verbal sentence, just use them as you would in English: 'Zhèiběn shū hěn xiǎo,' or in English,
"This book is very small." As part of a noun phrase, you would say 'yīběn xiǎo shū', or just 'xiǎo shū', meaning 'a small book'.
Polysyllabic adjectives are more fun than a barrel of Japanese snow monkeys to deal with; in addition to being more than one syllable in length (forcing you to remember more than one character to write down, and more than one tone pattern to speak aloud), they require the particle 'de' (something like the Japanese 'no' or the English possessive construction with the apostrophe-S) to exist in the real world:
"Wēi, nǐde mèimei hěn piàoliàng," or in Americanese, "Hey, your little sister's cute!" This is pretty much the only sentence pattern that will allow a polysyllabic adjective to run around naked without its 'de'. Everywhere else will require it: 'nǐde piàoliàng de mèimei', 'your cute little sister', 'nǐde mèimei shì shìjiè shàng de zuì piàoliàng de', 'your little sister is the cutest in the world'.
Note: this, I'm told, only applies in Shanghai and Taiwan. Other places in China typically do not require you to postpone a 'de' after a two-syllable adjective; I originally thought it was something that all Chinese did, since my teacher was from Taiwan (and I kept up my Chinese through an online service called Chinesepod, which is based in Shanghai). But kalen graciously informed me otherwise.
Another interesting thing pointed out about Mandarin grammar is the so-called 'serial verb construction', where two perfectly good verbs are juxtaposed to add a nuance of meaning. For example, I once saw a T-shirt that read 'bǎirén kàn bú dǒng': 'white people (can) read (this), (but) don't understand'. Not a very nice thing to say, but it illustrates the serial verb construction nicely; you have the verb 'kàn', which means 'to see, to watch, to read', and the verb 'dǒng', which means 'to understand'. 'Kàndǒng' means 'to read and understand' in this case.
Examples of this abound in Mandarin, almost to the exception of puny single-verb constructions: the aforementioned 'zhùzài': 'to live in', 'chībǎo': 'to eat one's fill', 'xiǎngniàn': 'to miss someone', and countless others. Usually, these verbs are what are called 'resultative complements': the first element describes the action undertaken, and the second element describes the result of the action. Reading leads to understanding, eating leads to being full, going leads to arriving, thinking of someone leads to missing them, and so on.
Thanks to Excalibur, shaogo, The Debutante and WaldemarExkul for their kind suggestions and corrections.
And special thanks to kalen for patiently explaining to me which of my ideas about Chinese were wrong, and furthermore, why they were wrong. Fēichàng gānxiè!