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The Ways To Indicate The Time In Mandarin

By Yann, published on 29/11/2018 Blog > Languages > Chinese > How To Use The Tenses In Mandarin

Chinese Mandarin is a beautiful language which is very unique in its structure, as one of the only languages which doesn’t have its own time-related verb tenses. For example, if you eat an apple every day, then yesterday you ate an apple. The form of the verb in English is changed from ‘To eat’ (infinitive) to ‘You eat’ (present) to ‘You ate’ (past). But when using Chinese verb conjugation, this will remain the same, ‘Chī’ (to eat),  whether you are communicating the past, present or future.

The structure of the verb in Mandarin Chinese will not change in any way. Instead, a time adverb or aspect particle are used to express more detail about when something is happening. While this may seem complicated, because there are some sentence structuring rules to follow, it is much simpler than may be expected. Let take a look at how to express different periods of time in Chinese.

How To Use The Past Tense In Chinese?

While learning Chinese, you may have noticed that the language doesn’t conjugate its verbs or reference time within its organic verb structure. Unlike European language, sentences in Chinese mandarin uses adverbs and particles to communicate the specifics of meaning within the sentence. This is done in a few ways which are easy enough to implement straight away.

If you would like to speak about the past, there are a few common words to know. They are :

To Express Completed Actions:

  • Add the particle ‘le’ after the verb, for example – (wǒ zhǎo dào le nà běn shū) I found that book.

Note that this particle is not a substitute for the past tense, It is a marker to communicate that an action has been completed. It can be used in the past, Present or for the immediate future.

To Express Past Experience:

  • Add the verb suffix ‘guò’, for example – Wǒ yǐjīng kàn guò wò hǔ cáng long) I have already seen the movie Crouching Tiger Hidden

This is often used to talk about unspecific periods in time.

To Express Completed Actions That Didn’t Happen:

  • Add ‘méi’ or ‘méi yǒu’, for example – (wǒ zuó tiān méi kàn jiàn tā) I didn’t see her yesterday.
  • Or you can add the adverb ‘hái’, for example – (wǒ hái méi chī fàn.) I haven’t eaten yet.

To Express That An Experience Has Happened:

  • Add the aspectual particle ‘guò’ for example – (Nǐ xué guoZhōngwén ma?) Have you ever studied Chinese?
  • Or – (Nǐ kàn guo zhège diànyǐng ma?) Have you seen this movie?

Note that while ‘guò’ can be used with  ‘le’ it does completely change the meaning of the sentence when referring to the past.

When planning to travel to China or to learn the Chinese language, it is always the goal of language students to find the best ways to express themselves. Learning about how to best do that in Mandarin involves a lot of study and an understanding of how the sentence structure, grammar and tonal complexities of mandarin work. A key point is to realise that when you are learning a language like Chinese, that it is not like your native English language or other European languages like Italian or Spanish. Chinese is unique and requires a flexible and open-minded approach to learning.

Another way for you to express the past is by using commonly used time phrase or adverbs, such as

  1. (gāng gang) just now / a minute ago
  2. (zuó tiān) yesterday
  3. (shàng zhōu) last week
  4. (Shàng gè yuè) Last Month
  5. (qù nián) last year
  6. (guò qu) – in the past
  7. (yǐ qián) – before

These time phrases specify the time in Mandarin, by being placed before the verb,

  • For example (yǐ qián wǒ shì yī gè lǎo shī.) I was a teacher before.

Now we have learned some Chinese vocabulary for how to express the past in conversation. Let’s take a look at the present tense in the Mandarin language.

Adverbs help to express the present Its easy to communicate the present in a few ways. Photo Source: Unsplash

Words And Phrases When You Want To Speak Chinese In The Present Tense

A great thing about learning Chinese is the difference between Chinese and European languages. For the English speaker, we have to conjugate everything, but once the time frame is understood in Mandarin, there is no need to continue to reference it. This means that even though some parts of Chinese maybe intensive and challenging. To learn Mandarin Chinese is not as challenging as a foreigner might initially believe. Verb construction is a breeze thanks to the lack of tenses within the language as well as other structures within the language that makes mastering Chinese a joyful exercise.

The huge advantage is that once you have memorized the sentence construction, time phrases, adverbs, nouns and particles to memory you will be able to include the extra dimension of proficiency to your ever growing communication as you are learning how to speak the language fluently.

The Two Main Words In The Present Tense Are:

  • Zhe which expresses an action in the present. For example – Wǒ xiàozhe chī – I laugh and eat.
  • Zhèngzài which means ‘to be in the process of’ something. For example – Wǒ zhèngzài zuò chī de – I am eating.

Remember that no matter when a verb is used in Mandarin Chinese it always remains in the infinitive form. For example – I am (wǒ shì) You are (nǐ shì) He Is (tā shì). This is essential to understand so that when you are making your sentences, you can correctly communicate in Chinese. These sentences may not translate directly from English, but as long as they are correct in Chinese, you can speak confidently with the awareness that you will be understood.

Another way for you to express the present is by using commonly used time phrases or adverbs, such as

  1. (zài zhōu yī) on Monday
  2. (měi tiān) everyday
  3. (měi zhōu yī cì) once per week
  4. (měi zhōu) every week
  5. (měi nián) every year
  6. (jīng cháng) often
  7. (yǒu shí) sometimes

These common time phrases specify the present time in Mandarin, by being placed before the verb,

  • (wǒ měi tiān qí chē shàng xué) I ride a bike to school every day.
  • (wǒ méi yǒu tiān tiān qù jiǔ bā) I don’t go to the bar every day

Now that we have seen how to speak Chinese using past and present aspects let’s learn to speak Chinese indicating the future.

Chinese Phrases And Words To Express The Future Tense In Chinese?

Although Mandarin is a tonal language, you should be confident about more than Chinese pronunciation and tones. While that is essential, you should also try to learn the word order of sentences, comprehension of grammatical rules, expand your vocab and expressions to make your conversational language skills robust, vibrant and clear.

When speaking about the future, you must know how to use the following time adverbs and particles.

  • Yào is the equivalent to the verb ‘To want’.
  • Jiāng assigns something into the distant future.
  • Yǐhòu which means ‘after’, ‘in the future’, ‘soon’ and ‘later’. The final meaning depends on the context of the sentence.

To construct a sentence expressed in the future, we must use the sentence structure with the temporal marker at the beginning of the sentence.

  • Adverb/particle + subject + verb + complement/object.

If you don’t do this, you will be either changing the meaning of the sentence or at worse making no sense at all.

Here are some examples to fully immerse yourself in the expressions of the future in Chinese:

  • (Wǒ yào qù fàguó) I’m going to France (expressing a certain action).
  • Yǐhòu wǒ yào qù zhōngguó) one day I will go to China(expressing a certain action in the future that is unspecified).
  • Wǒ yào kāi yīgè gōngsī) I want to start a company in the future (we express a future want, without the precision of time).

Easy to make sentences in Mandarin. There are no conjugations in Chinese Mandarin. Photo Source: Unsplash

Express The Liabilities In Chinese Mandarin

While around 80% of Chinese sentences are constructed using the SVO model (subject-verb-object/complement), passive sentences are also used, In Chinese language and culture these sentences are used primarily for three reasons:

  • To indicate a negative effect
  • To make person or thing that has been affected by the action more important
  • To avoid mentioning the person responsible for the action.

An example of the passive voice for a native English speaker will be I write a letter (active voice) A letter is written (Passive). To express this passivity grammatically in Chinese grammar, we must use bèi. To use bèi, beginners to Mandarin Chinese should remember the following rules:

  • Speaking Chinese in a passive voice and using bèi, means that the object of the action now becomes the subject of the sentence.
  • The verb may not be too simple and should contain a particle, a compliment or an additional object with the verb.
  • Bèi is not the only way to create a passive voice, but it is the most common way to do it.

For example, the standard sentence in the active voice;

  • Nà nánhái chīle règǒu – The boy ate the hot dog.
  • “The hot dog” has now become the subject, and “the boy” is the “doer”
  • Règǒu bèi nánhái chī le. – A hot dog was eaten by the boy.

Example of the passive voice with the “doer” omitted

  • Règǒu bèi chī le. – The hot dog was eaten.

It is also possible to build your passive sentence to the negative, but this more complicated technique that may be the subject of another article. It expresses itself with the preposition ‘méiyǒu’ which means ‘no’, and the sentence is conjugated according to the following: subject structure + negation + passive mark + agent + verbal sentence.

Particles can be used to express time Chinese speakers do not have to conjugate verbs to be understood. Photo Source: Unsplash

It would be good practice for English speakers interested in Chinese learning. To study new words like the ones in this article and memorize their placement within sentences when speaking Chinese. For any beginner, These Chinese words may seem difficult, but this structure does make it easier to decipher word order and how to speak, read and write.

While speaking Chinese could become more of a challenge if you forget word order and find that you are not understood. The simplicity of having no verbs to conjugate will be a welcome gift to all Chinese students.

To speak Chinese correctly, it is therefore essential to know the time markers for each tense as expressed in Mandarin and to know how each of them is used. Whether it is their place in the sentence, their association or their recurrence, placing them well, will be essential to the proper understanding of your sentence, both written and spoken.

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