English and Malay/Contrastive grammar

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Indefinite and Definite

In Malay, there is no usage of articles. For instance, translating a noun with a preceding article in English to Malay will render this result:

  • (en) a/the table → meja
  • (en) a/the son → anak
  • (en) a/the cat → kucing
  • (en) a/the father → bapa
  • (en) a/the door → pintu

Subject Prominence

Every sentence in English requires a subject. The subject can be a proper name, pronoun, or something else. But in Malay, the subject can be omitted, with the use of a suffix, "-nya", to reference a particular noun in a conversation. It is somewhat similar to "his" or "her" in English, but the subject must have been previously referenced in the context.

  • (ma) John sedih kerana ibuyna marah. → John is sad because (his) mother is angry.
  • (ma) Cikgu memberi Jack kerjarumahnya. → Teacher gave Jack (his) homework.
  • (ma) Mary ambil bukunya. → Mary took (her) book.
  • (ma) Jessica terlupa namanya. → Jessica forgot (her) name.
  • (ma) Priscilla suka begnya. → Priscilla loves (her) bag.
  • (ma) Ibuyna marah. → (His) mother is angry. (John must have been referenced previously in a sentence)
  • (ma) Cikgu memberi kerjarumahnya. → Teacher gave (Jack his) homework.

If the noun is first referenced in the conversation or text, or if the subject being referenced is ambiguous, then there is no need for "-nya".

  • (ma) Bapa memberi John ais-krim. → Father gave John ice cream.
  • (ma) Saya bermain bola. → I played ball.
  • (ma) Mary beritahu John tentang kucing baru Jack. → Mary told John about Jack's new dog.
  • (ma) Mereka makan makanan malam. → They ate dinner.
  • (ma) John dan Jack pergi ke perpustakaan di dalam kereta John. → John and Jack went to the library in John's car.

There is also a word, 'tersebut', that is used to reference previously-mentioned objects, nouns, or ideas, from a longer text or conversation. A good translation of this word to english is "the aforementioned" or "the above".

  • (ma) Sila mengikuti arahan tersebut. → Please follow the aforementioned instructions.
  • (ma) Memberi saya buku tersebut. → Give me the aforementioned book.
  • (ma) John membaca cerita tersebut. → John read the above story.
  • (ma) Pencuri tersebut mencuri dompet ibu.The aforementioned thief stole mother's wallet.
  • (ma) Arash mencuci kereta tersebut. → Arash washed the aforementioned car.


In English the possession is possessor before possessee. However, in Malay, it is possessee before possessor.

  • (ma) Bapa saya pergi ke sekolah. → (Good English: My father went to school.) (Literal English: Father my went to school.)
  • (ma) Kucing saya mahu makan. → (Good English: My cat wants to eat.) (Literal English: Cat my wants eat.)
  • (ma) Ibu saya suka makan kacang. → (Good English: My mother likes eating peanuts.) (Literal English: Mother my likes eating peanuts.)
  • (ma) Baju putih terbesar untuk saya. → (Good English: The white clothes are too big for me.) (Literal English: Coat white too big for me.)
  • (ma) Manusia selalu menguna ubat doktor. → (Good English: People always use the doctor's medicine.) (Literal English: People always use medicine doctor.)


In Malay, the determiner comes before the noun in English, but after the noun in Malay.

  • (ma) Saya suka buku ini → I like this book.
  • (ma) Saya suka buku itu → I like that book
  • (ma) Saya suka buku dia → I like his/her book.
  • (ma) Saya suka rambut ia → I like its hair.


English expresses plural explicitly by the suffixes '-s' and '-es'. Malay on the other hand expresses plural implicitly. There are no definite rules on creating plural form of a word in Malay, except by duplicating the word. That means that plural form of a word can depend on the context.

For example, the sentence "Serigala itu binatang" can have three interpretations outside of context:

  • (ma) Serigala itu binatang → A wolf is an animal
  • (ma) Serigala itu binatang → Wolves are animals
  • (ma) Serigala itu binatang → Wolf is animal

Another example is "Tukang pos selalu membawa surat" with two interpretations.

  • (ma) Tukang pos selalu membawa surat → A postman always brings letters
  • (ma) Tukang pos selalu membawa surat → Postmen always bring letters


Personal Pronouns

In Malay, the verb doesn't agree in number and person with the pronoun. This is unlike English

  • (ma) Saya bermain bola sepak → I played soccer.
  • (ma) Awak bermain bola sepak → You (singular) played soccer.
  • (ma) Dia bermain bola sepak → He/she played soccer.

(In Malay, there are no distinctions between he or she.)

  • (ma) Kami bermain bola sepak → We played soccer
  • (ma) Kamu bermain bola sepak → You all (plural) played soccer.
  • (ma) Mereka bermain bola sepak → They play soccer.

Terms of Address

In Malay, the term of address is to differentiate positions of people. It is also used to show politeness in conversation. In English, such terms are not used. English only addresses "You" to all of their interlocutors.

  • (en) Have you eaten? (To a formal guest) → Anda sudah makan?
  • (en) Have you eaten? (To a friend or informally) → Awak sudah makan?
  • (en) Have you eaten (To father/mother) → Bapa/Ibu sudah makan?
  • (en) Have you eaten? (To younger/older sibling) → Adik/Kakak sudah makan?


Adjectives in Malay succeed the nouns they modify, unlike English which has the adjective precede the noun it is modifying.

  • (ma) rambut hitam → black hair (literally translated "hair black")
  • (ma) ikan besar → big fish (literally translated "fish big")
  • (ma) anak kecil → little sister (literally translated "sister little")
  • (ma) lelaki tinggi → tall boy (literally translated "boy tall")
  • (ma) cikgu gemuk → fat teacher (literally translated "teacher fat")
  • (ma) ibu cantik → beautiful mother (literally translated "mother beautiful")
  • (ma) kotak tinggi → tall box (literally translated "box tall")
  • (ma) taxi kuning → yellow taxi (literally translated "taxi yellow")
  • (ma) televisyen warna → color television (literally translated "television color")
  • (ma) pokok epal → apple tree (literally translated "tree apple")
  • (ma) isteri muda → young wife (literally translated "wife young")


Verb "be"

The verb "be" may or may not have its equivalent in the Malay language.

  • (en) He is clever. → Dia pandai

In this sentence, the verb 'is' has no equivalent in the Malay language.

  • (en) He is a teacher → Dia se-orang cikgu
  • (en) He is a teacher → Dia ada se-orang cikgu

The English sentence has two grammatical Malay translations. In this case, the verb 'is' may or may not be translated and both are correct in Malay language.

  • (en) He is at home → Dia ada di rumah

The verb 'is' is usually translated into 'ada' when the sentence stands alone, but in some situations like an answer of a question: "Dimana dia?" (Where is he?), the question may be answered, "Dia di rumah". The word 'ada' is elliptic.

Tense Conjugations

In Malay, there are verb conjugations. These conjugations are prefixes attached to the verb. These prefixes make the tense understood. In English, the subject most always has to be stated (an exception for the imperative). Below are some examples of simple past tense in English.

  • I went
  • You (singular) went
  • He/She/It went
  • We went
  • You all (plural) went
  • They went

  • I screamed
  • You (singular) screamed
  • He/She/It screamed
  • We screamed
  • You all (plural) screamed
  • They screamed

  • I saw
  • You (singular) saw
  • He/She/It saw
  • We saw
  • You all (plural) saw
  • They saw

However, in Malay, prefixes added to the verbs make the tense understood.

  • (ma) Saya pergi → I went
  • (ma) Awak pergi → You (singular) went
  • (ma) Dia pergi → He/She went
  • (ma) Kami pergi → We went
  • (ma) Kamu pergi → You all (plural) went
  • (ma) Mereka pergi → They went

  • (ma) Saya menjerit → I screamed
  • (ma) Awak menjerit → You (singular) screamed
  • (ma) Dia menjerit → He/She screamed
  • (ma) Kami menjerit → We screamed
  • (ma) Kamu menjerit → You all (plural) screamed
  • (ma) Mereka menjerit → They screamed

  • (ma) Saya melihat → I saw
  • (ma) Awak melihat → You (singular) saw
  • (ma) Dia melihat → He/She/It saw
  • (ma) Kami melihat → We saw
  • (ma) Kamu melihat → You all (plural) saw
  • (ma) Mereka melihat → They saw

Below are the same verbs translated to present perfect tense from Malay to English. In the simple present tense, the prefixes change because the tense changed.

  • (ma) Saya dipergi → I have gone
  • (ma) Awak dipergi → You (singular) have gone
  • (ma) Dia dipergi → He/She has gone
  • (ma) Kami dipergi → We have gone
  • (ma) Kamu dipergi → You all (plural) have gone
  • (ma) Mereka dipergi → They have gone

  • (ma) Saya dijerit → I have screamed
  • (ma) Awak dijerit → You (singular) have screamed
  • (ma) Dia dijerit → He/She has screamed
  • (ma) Kami dijerit → We have screamed
  • (ma) Kamu dijerit → You all (plural) have screamed
  • (ma) Mereka dijerit → They have screamed

  • (ma) Saya dilihat → I have seen
  • (ma) Awak dilihat → You (singular) have seen
  • (ma) Dia dilihat → He/She has seen
  • (ma) Kami dilihat → We have seen
  • (ma) Kamu dilihat → You all (plural) have seen
  • (ma) Mereka dilihat → They have seen


Direction Prepositions

Prepositions in Malay follow a similar format to English, but there is only one word to indicate it is a preposition, "di", with the direction modifier behind it. "di" alone means "at".

  • (en) above the table → di atas meja
  • (en) below the table → di bawah meja
  • (en) near me → di dekat saya
  • (en) far from me → di jauh saya
  • (en) He is at home. → Dia ada di rumah.

Moving Prepositions

In Malay, a different word is used to indicate "to" and "from" depending on the context. If the subject is moving to/from a place, the Malay equivalent is "ke/dari". But if the subject is receiving an object from another person, the Malay equivalent is "kepada/daripada". The "pada" suffix indicated receiving something from another person.

  • (en) He came home from school. → Dia pulang dari sekolah
  • (en) He went to school. → Dia pergi ke sekolah
  • (en) He received a letter from Father. → Dia diberi surat daripada bapa.
  • (en) Father gave him a letter. → Bapa memberi surat kepada dia.


Open Ended Questions

In English, we put the question word at the front, then the auxiliary verb, then the subject, e.g. "When will you be back?". In Malay, "-kah" is attached to the question word, which goes at the beginning of the question. So, the above is translated into "Bilakah awak pulang?". Remember that the verb 'be' need not be translated as well.

  • (en) How did you win? → Bagaimanakah awak jaya?
  • (en) Why did you win? → Mengapakah awak jaya?
  • (en) When did you win? → Bilakah awak jaya?
  • (en) Who won? → Siapakah menjaya?

Yes/No Questions

In English, we put our auxiliary verbs at the beginning, followed by the subject, followed by the main verb phrase, e.g. "Did you paint the house?". In Malay, the auxiliary verb is also omitted, but the question word is not necessarily at the start of the sentence. In fact, in some cases, '-kah' is not necessary.

  • (en) Are you hungry? → Awak laparkah?
  • (en) Did you eat? → Awak sudah makan? (Have you eaten?)
  • (en) Did you paint the house? → Awak sudah mencatkan rumah? (Have you painted the house?)
  • (en) Will you come tomorrow? → Adakah awak datang hari esok?