In the Chinese language, there technically isn’t such a thing as verb tenses.
However there are still terms you can use to show whether an event is happening in the past, present, or future.
If you’ve been learning Mandarin Chinese for a while now, you may have noticed something very unique about the language.
In English, the verb is modified based on when the action happens. For instance, the past tense of “swim” is “swam.” So, you’re probably used to switching the form of the verb to express tenses.
However, this verb tense concept doesn’t apply to the Chinese language.
Whether or not the action happened months ago or will happen three years in the future, you’ll use the exact same form of the verb.
In other words, all verbs have a single form.
But there are other methods of expressing the future or past tense in Mandarin Chinese, so in this guide, I’ll show you how you can differentiate different tenses in Mandarin Chinese.
Let’s dive in!
Expressing the past tense
In Chinese, you will need to rely on the context of the sentence to show that something has already happened.
This sounds complicated, but don’t worry, let’s break it down. 😊
Using time-related phrases
Because there is only one form of a verb in Mandarin, one of the most common ways to refer to the past is to use phrases that state a certain point of time when an event occurred.
There are a whole bunch of different time-related words you can use to do this, and we’ll explore some of the most commonly used ones.
Here’s a table of them:
|The day before yesterday
|上个星期 / 上周
|Shàng gè xīngqī/ Shàng zhōu
|Two weeks ago
|两个星期前 / 两周前
|Li ǎng gè xīngqī qián / Liǎng zhōu qián
|Shàng gè yuè
|Two months ago
|Liǎng gè yuè qián
|Two years ago
|Liǎng nián qián
These time-related phrases should either appear at the beginning of the sentence or after the subject. Though in English, phrases such as last week or yesterday can end up at the end of the sentence, this isn’t the same for Mandarin.
Here are some examples of sentences using these time-related phrases to express the past tense.
It’s also important to note that the word 了 (le) in a sentence does not necessarily symbolize that the action occurred in the past.
了 can appear in sentences using the past tense, but it can also be found in sentences about present and future events.
Using 的时候 (de shíhou)
The phrase 的时候 translates to “when.”
This phrase can be used to refer to the past, present, or future and is used to talk about something that happens during or at a specific time.
的时候 should never appear at the end of the sentence.
Here are some examples of how you can correctly use 的时候 to refer to past events.
In casual conversations, native speakers tend to remove the 的 (de).
Using 是…的 (shì… de)
This method of expressing the past tense can be a little tricky.
You’ll have to get used to the sentence order, which usually is as follows.
[subject] 是 [details] [verb] 的
These are some examples of how you can use this phrase to talk about past events.
是…的 can be used in Mandarin to emphasize a certain part of the sentence.
In the examples above, this phrase brings focus to the time aspect of each sentence.
Expressing the present tense
Using time-related phrases
Using time-related phrases is one way to show that an action occurring in the present is habitual.
Here are some phrases you can use to indicate a habitual action or event.
|Měi gè yuè
In English, we use phrases such as “last week” or “every time” at the end of the sentence.
However, in Mandarin Chinese, all the above time-related phrases should never appear at the end of the sentence.
These are some examples of using time phrases to talk about habitual events.
Using the present continuous tense
If you want to talk about an action right now, you’ll have to use auxiliary verbs to express that.
**在 (zài) and 正在 (zhèngzài) **can be used as auxiliary verbs for this purpose. These two phrases are usually interchangeable, but 正在 can be used in place of 在 if you would like to emphasize that the action is happening now.
The words 正在 modify 吃 (chī), which means “eat” to become “is eating.”
And this shows that the action is being done now.
However, do keep in mind that 在 can be used in other contexts and situations.
The sentence doesn’t automatically become the present tense just because the word 在 is in it. For instance, this word can also be used as a preposition, and in this case, it means “in” or “at.”
着 (zhe) is a word you can use to talk about a continuous static action and is used to emphasize the continuous aspect in Mandarin.
Basically, you’d use 着 to show that the action is in progress and will continue for a while.
It can be a little tricky to use the word 着. Some textbooks might note that the word 着 can be used to modify a verb by adding the -ing at the end. But this isn’t as simplistic as it sounds, and 着 isn’t that commonly used.
It is also not interchangeable with 正在 or 在.
Here are some scenarios where 着 can be used to express a present continuous state.
In this case, 着 shows that the person is wearing an accessory. You can also use 戴着 (dàizhe) for other accessories, such as hats, watches, or jewelry.
Using related adverbs of time
You can also use adverbs to indicate that something is happening now.
|At the moment
|此时此刻 / 此刻
|Cǐ shí cǐkè / Cǐkè
Here are some examples showing how you can use them.
Again, these phrases will never appear at the end of a sentence.
Expressing the future tense
Using time-related phrases
Since there are no grammatical tenses in Mandarin, you can use adverbs of time to show that an event will be happening in the future.
|The day after tomorrow
|下周 / 下个星期
|Xià zhōu / Xià gè xīngqī
|Xià gè yuè
Here are some examples of how you can use these phrases.
Using non-specific time phrases
In English, we use adverbs of time that do not specifically pinpoint a certain timeframe.
Words like “soon,” “later,” or “in the future,” do not let us know exactly when something will happen, but refers to the future nonetheless.
In Mandarin, there are phrases that carry the same function.
|In a moment
|In the future
Here’s how you can use them.
Using verbs (and auxiliary verbs) that imply future events
Since there is only a single form of verbs in the Chinese language, you’ll have to use auxiliary verbs to modify their meaning.
Just like in English, adding something like “will” in front of a verb, let’s say “eat,” will symbolize that the action is to be carried out in the future.
Some verbs can also imply that something is likely to happen in the future. For example, something like “planning to” shows that a person intends to perform the action in the future.
Here’s a table of verbs and auxiliary verbs that can be used to express the future tense.
|Will (likely to)
|Will (wish to/thinking of)
|Will (about to happen)
|打算 / 计划
|Dǎ suàn / Jì huà
You may have noticed some of these terms being used in the sections above.
Let’s take a look at some examples of how you can use each of these words.
Technically, you can say 我要去吃火锅 (wǒ yào qù chī huǒguō) without a specific time mentioned to show that you’re going to have hotpot.
But this sentence could also mean that you want to eat hotpot, since 要 also translates to “want.”
会 (huì) in this context shows that an action is likely going to happen in the future.
However, 会 also carries the meaning “can” (the ability to do something) in other situations.
将 (jiāng) is usually used in formal contexts and can be combined with the auxiliary verbs 会 or 要, though this doesn’t make a significant difference in meaning.
将 indicates that a certain event will be happening.
It’s important to note that auxiliary verbs like 会 or 要 do not always refer to the future tense.
They have different meanings, so it’s not safe to assume that any sentence containing these words refers to future events.
Expressing the past, present, and future tense doesn’t involve modifying the form of the verb.
That’s because there’s only one form of each verb in the Chinese language.
Without a doubt, it can take some practice to wrap your head around the different auxiliary verbs, adverbs of time, and time-related phrases used to express various tenses.
But I promise this will come with practice and immersion! 😁
Know of any other ways to express tenses in Mandarin Chinese?
Let us know in the comments below!
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