The sentence structure of Thai is likely not the first thing you think about when you want to learn the language. However, as you start to progress, you will find that the way words are ordered in a sentence is an important consideration that greatly impacts the grammar of the language. Without knowing it, you will likely end up sounding very weird when you try to speak Thai, and many people will have trouble understanding.
To help you with this, we will have a look at Thai sentence structure and how it affects the way Thai is written and spoken.
The most basic explanation of Thai sentence structure is SVO - Subject, Verb, and Object. This is similar to English, which means that it is one less major change to have to consider.
As you can see in this basic sentence, it follows the same general order as in English. The subject of the sentence, the person or thing that the sentence is about, is followed by the verb or action, and finally, the object that the subject is acting upon.
However, there are a few situations where the sentence structure would move around a bit from this basic outline.
Adjectives are a commonly used element in any language. They help to describe or modify words. Think of words like big, small and strong. Of course, adjectives are often used in Thai sentences too, which begs the question - where do adjectives go?
The answer is quite easy, actually. They are placed after the noun that they are describing or modifying. Let's imagine that you are ordering something in Thai - a nice ice tea.
Here, you see that the adjective 'yen' (เย็น) or iced in English, is placed after the noun 'cha' (ชา) or tea in the Thai sentence. So, you would say something like:
I would like to order iced tea
Chan kor sang cha yen
That is really all there is to adding adjectives to Thai sentences. While it is the opposite of how we do it in English, you will get the hang of it after a while.
The way you make sentences negative is by using words like not or no. The same is true in Thai, and they have one magical word that can turn almost any sentence or statement negative - 'mai' (ไม่). Here is an example of how you would fit it into a Thai sentence:
I don't eat pad thai
Chan mai gin pad thai
As you may notice, the negative word 'mai' is placed before the verb. Here is another example to help you remember:
I cannot speak English
Chan puut pasaa angrit mai dai
The verb here is 'dai' (ได้). Once again, you can see that to make it negative, you place the word 'mai' before it.
Unlike in English, particles are used in Thai as a way to convey emotion, mood, and politeness.
We have talked before about the polite words/particles in Thai ‘khrap’ (ครับ) and ‘ka’ (ค่ะ). These are added to make a sentence more polite. However, there are many more particles you should know too:
There are also particles that are used to make a sentence of question less intense or sound softer. ‘Na’ (นะ) is an example of this:
What is it?
For what it is worth, you can combine two different particles to form something like 'na ka' (นะคะ) that provides the meanings of both particles to your statement.
On the opposite end, there is ‘wa’ (วะ), which is used to make a sentence more intense/sound more impolite. This is most likely used if someone is angry.
What the hell do you want?
The important thing to remember that particles always come at the end of the sentence, even after question words and tense words, which will move onto soon. There are many examples of particles, and these are just a few. These can be very helpful to know, so you should try learning them.
In Thai, verbs are not inflected (changed) to indicate tense as it is in English. Instead, separate time words are used. Let's take a look at the different words you need to use to use past, future, and present tense in Thai, and how they fit into sentences.
’Laew’ (แล้ว) is an example of a particle. It doesn’t translate exactly into English but it best translates to ‘already’. For example:
I already ate
Chan gin laew
As you can see here, ‘laew’ is added at the end of the sentence. It essentially changes the sentence to the past tense. Another way to make the past tense is to use time-based adverbs. By adding adverbs like yesterday in Thai to the end of the sentence, you will make it past tense.
I ate yesterday
Chan gin mua wan nii
Here's a tip - using the phrase 'mua...thi laew' (เมื่อ...ที่แล้ว) and placing a word like week, month or year in between, you can talk about what you did last week, last month, or last year:
I ate last year
Chan gin mua pi thi laew
As you can see, this phrase comes at the end of the sentence as well, following the same basic Thai sentence structure mentioned above. However, things do change around.
The word ‘ja’ (จะ), meaning ‘will’ or ‘shall’, allows a sentence to be changed to the future tense. Here is an example of that:
I will eat
Chan ja gin
‘Ja’ is added before the verb to make it future tense, like in English. If you want the negative form, it is as simple as adding the negative word 'mai' (ไม่) after it.
I will not eat
Chan ja mai gin
Finally, for the present tense, ‘gamlung’ (กำลัง) is used.
I am eating
Chan gamlung gin
In this case, ‘gamlung’ should be added before the verb. This would be the equivalent of adding ‘ing’ to an end of a verb in English. Now, if you want to change it to a negative, as in 'not eating', you would use 'mai dai gamlung' (ไม่ได้กำลัง):
I am not eating
Chan mai dai gamlung gin
These represent the so-called 'continuous tense' where you are currently performing the verb.
Another word that you need to know is 'yang' (ยัง). It is best translated to English as 'yet', so you can probably see how it will be applied to the sentence in Thai. Usually, you will see it paired with the common verb phrase 'mai dai' (ไม่ได้), meaning 'cannot'. Together, they form the phrase 'not yet' - 'yang mai dai' (ยังไม่ได้).
I have not yet eaten
Chan yang mai dai gin
In this case, the time/tense phrase goes before the verb.
Overall, the different placements for these words make it a bit more difficult to learn and remember, but you will eventually get used to it.
Question words, including why, what, where, and when are placed at the end of a sentence in Thai, while in English they generally go at the beginning. Here is an example of a question:
What will I eat?
Chan ja gin arai?
‘Arai’ (อะไร) means ‘what’ which you can see is placed right at the end of the question. This isn’t too difficult to get used to. What is more difficult is the word ‘mai’ (ไหม). This word can be seen as the equivalent of a question mark. It can be used to change a normal sentence to a question.
Want to eat?
In this case, just the verb with the question word forms a complete question, though this is more informal. Again, it is placed at the end of the sentence. We can do something similar in English by inflecting our voice (e.g. asking a friend ‘eaten?’ with your voice rising would have the same implication). However, since Thai is a tonal language, inflections can’t be used. It is also worth noting that punctuation is nearly completely absent from Thai.
Otherwise, there are also some 'yes-no' questions that you may come across. These are usually very short and have a simple structure:
Another common example of this you will hear is:
Again, these follow that same basic sentence structure for questions in Thai.
Prepositions are certainly not the easiest concept to get your head around, but they do serve an important purpose for Thai grammar. Essentially, prepositions in Thai allow you to link together two words in a sentence. This is usually between the object and the subject of the sentence. Examples of prepositions include on, in, above, behind, and near.
So then, how do they fit into the Thai sentence order? It depends on which types of words are involved. By that, I mean, if the preposition applied to anything but a noun, it is placed at the end of the sentence. You would also include the word 'kaang' (ข้าง) before these prepositions.
In the case that the preposition is placed before a noun, then the preposition will come before the noun, and you can drop the word 'kaang' if you want to. I included it here for reference:
How prepositions apply to Thai sentence structure
Ultimately, Thai sentence structure is not so different from English. It follows the same SVO structure, though it can deviate from that a bit. Things like particles may be a bit 'out there' compared to what the average English speaker is used to, but their use is actually quite intuitive. More importantly, their placement in a sentence is always the same. This is especially true overall for the shorter, more basic sentences you will be learning at the beginning.
Adding to that, there are no articles, which is overall good as it means fewer words to remember. There are, however, time words and phrases that specify when an action occurred, determining the tense. Question words will also impact how a sentence is made. You will need to familiarize yourself with these to increase your fluency and ability to structure sentences in Thai.
Using this knowledge, it is possible to place together sentences using the vocabulary you know. To help you learn vocabulary and test yourself further, try the Ling Thai app