So we have learned in the overview about Vietnamese grammar that it has the same Subject + Verb + Object (SVO) sentence structure as English. If you haven’t gone through that lesson, it’s highly recommended you read it before proceeding with this lesson because you can find there the big picture of Vietnamese Grammar as well as the most important differences from English.
The grammar of Vietnamese nouns is plain and simple. There is no singular and plural form: pen in two pen has the same form as pen in one pen: no adding of suffix –s whatsoever.
In English, we know that there are countable nouns, which can be counted such as pens and books, and uncountable nouns, which are uncountable such as water, air. For countable nouns, we simply use them directly, and with numbers when needed, as in I have 2 books. On the other hand, as uncountable nouns such as water can’t be counted, we need to use “containers” such as “glass” or “bottle” for water.
In Vietnamese, we’ll use “containers” for uncountable nouns as in English. However, for countable nouns, we also need to put in front of them a type of words known as measure words or classifiers. To illustrate this, let’s take the simple sentence: I have a book. Its direct word-by-word Vietnamese translation is Tôi(“I”) có(“have”) một(“a”) sách(“book”)”.
If you use the above direct translation Tôi có một sách, native speakers would still completely understand what you mean. In addition, they’d also know that you are…still learning the Vietnamese Grammar! Here, even though book is a countable noun, we still need to use its measure word, which is quyển. The correct translation is thus: Tôi có một quyển sách.
The reason why every (countable) noun in Vietnamese needs a measure word is that nouns alone without their measure words carry an abstract meaning. For example, sách, without its measure word quyển, arouses a general abstract notion, similar to what the plural form books does to English speakers. Its measure word has the effect of “concretize” that abstract meaning into a specific book instance, which is countable.
This explains why in Reading books is a very effective way of learning, the Vietnamese translation of books is just sách, without its measure word since we are not talking about any particular book but just books in general. In English, to refer to such a general notion, we normally use plural nouns. In Vietnamese, this is expressed by using nouns without their measure words: givent that read translates into đọc, the phrase reading books in our example is therefore translated to đọc sách, not đọc quyển sách.
About counting using numbers, how do you translate I have two books given that hai is the translation of two? Yes, it’s Tôi có hai quyển sách. From this example, we see that measure words should be put closer to their nouns than numbers. Indeed, there is no type of word that can separate a noun and its measure word!
We have seen one measure word: quyển for sách(“book”). You can find the most common measure words and their brief usage in the following list.
The common measure words:
- cái/chiếc: for most inanimate objects. When both are interchangeable, “chiếc” is more formal.
- con: for animals and children.
- bài: for songs, drawings, poems, essays and the likes.
- câu: for sentential units of verses, lyrics, quotes.
- cây: for stick-like objects such as umbrella, sticks.
- quả/trái: for round-shape objects such as fruits.
- quyển/cuốn: for book-type objects: book, magazine.
- tờ: for sheets of paper or newspaper.
- lá: for smaller sheets of paper such as letters, cards.
If you are interested in learning more about measure words, you can find more information at .
That’s about it for measure words. There are quite a couple of them so it may takes you some time. Beyond that, please take note of the point about the absence of measure words when expressing general notions.
The next section introduces the commonly used articles (“a”, “an”, “the”) and demonstratives (“this”, “that”, “these”, “those”)
It’s commonly acknowledged that a/an and the are among the words(to be more precise, articles) that are used extensively in English. And the same holds true for the demonstrative determiners this, that, these and those. This is the reason why it would probably be good to know how to translate them into Vietnamese.
As a quick recap, the two words a and an are used in English to refer to a singular and indefinite noun, a noun which has not been clearly specified or previously mentioned as in I have a grammar book. The word the is just the opposite, referring to definite nouns. In Vietnamese, it’s generally the case that a or an is translated to một, which is actually the literal translation of one; and the is either translated to này or kia, which are the literal translations of this and that in that order, or it’s dropped completely.
|I have||a||grammar book.|
|Tôi có||một||quyển sách ngữ pháp.|
This Vietnamese way of translating a/an to “một” is actually not too peculiar since we could have written the example English sentence using one instead of a: I have one grammar book although the use of one may lead to a slight change of emphasis.
Let’s now shift our focus to the with this example: I have just bought a book. The book is about learning foreign languages. As you can see, the second mention of book is qualified by the thanks to its first mention in the previous sentence. The translation of the book in the second sentence is quyển sách đó. Let’s analyse this translation snippet in more details:
As indicated in the table, đó is the translation of that. In Vietnamese, there is no direct equivalent of the and in order to express the definiteness of an object we would instead use this, that, these or those. You might have also noticed that đó is put after the noun sách, which is a general rule. As a quick exercise, given that this translates to này, how do you translate the phrase this book into Vietnamese? Well, the translation process in slow motion goes like this: this book –> book this —> quyển sách này. Feeling okay? Just a bit more and you would become a master of Vietnamese nouns.
It’s proper time we give an example in which the needs no translation. Consider the sentence The weather is sunny today (and of course, you’re feeling happy :). In English, there is no doubt that we need the with weather. In Vietnamese, however, there is no grammatical requirementfor an equivalent of the: weather alone is the correct way. Similarly, the translation of the sun in the sun rises in the east is just mặt trời(“sun”).
Last but not least, the translation of these and those are slightly less easy than those of this and that. Recall that this book is translated into the order book this. The phrase these books is not translated simply in the order books these because there is no one-word direction translation of these. The correct translation of these is Những … này wherethe the 3 dots is the place of nouns. As such, these books is translated into những (quyển sách) này. By the way, can you recall where did you see the word này? If you say it’s the translation of this: well-done!
The translation of those is Những … đó. Do you find anything in common? The word những? Yes, it’s the word encoding plurality in our translations.
We’ve briefly discussed “subject pronouns”, which include I, You, He/She, etc. in English. The only difficulty in using subject pronouns in Vietnamese that there is no single translation of, for example, I and the correct one to use varies with the situation. An in-depth discussion on the various ways of usage for subject pronouns can be found at .
Examples of “object pronouns” include me, you, him, her, etc. In Vietnamese, this is simple: the same word is used for both I and me! In other words, subject and object pronouns are the same in Vietnamese.
Possessive pronouns in English refer to such words as my, your, his, her, etc. The Vietnamese equivalents are given below:
The important difference is that while possessive pronouns are put in front of nouns in English, they are put after nouns in Vietnamese. Consider the following example:
|Đây||là||quyển sách||của tôi|
The literal English translation of của tôi is of me so that the way to say This is my book in Vietnamese is to say This is the book of me. The only note here is that because there are different ways to translate me, there are different ways to translate of me or my.
That’s about it for possessive pronouns. Let’s summarise what we’ve learned in this short lesson:
In this lesson on Vietnamese nouns, we’ve gone through the following important aspects:
- There is no plural form of nouns: only one form for both singular and plural meanings.
- Nouns, whether countable or not, require the use of measure words in front of them. When used in the abstract sense, measure words are not used.
- This and that are put after the nouns they modify. These and Those are translated into Những … + này/kia,respectively.
- The way to express my book in Vietnamese is book of me.