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Unlike in English, the form of a Chinese verb never changes, regardless of whether it is present, past, or future tense. For example, whereas in English the verb ‘eat’ will become ‘ate’ for past tense, the Chinese verb 吃 (chī) stays the same.
That’s great news right?! You don’t have to spend time learning those dreaded past participles or future perfect continuous tense!
So how does someone know that you are referring to something that happened in the past? Or that you are talking about something that still hasn’t happened?
There are still some rules that need to be followed when constructing sentences that indicate past and future actions in Chinese. But trust me, they’re not as complicated as you might think.
Chinese verbs will not change state, instead, we add a time adverb or an aspect particle to the sentence to indicate past, present, or future.
Here are some basic principles you should follow in order to indicate a past, present, or future event in mandarin Chinese.
Usually, in order to indicate the completion of an action, the particle 了 (le) is added after the verb.
我找到了那本书。(wǒ zhǎo dào le nà běn shū) I found that book.
我吃过早饭了。(wǒ chī guò zǎo fàn le) I have had breakfast.
Completed Actions That Did Not Happen
If you wish to indicate that something did not happen in the past, you must negate the verb using 没 (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu). The 了 (le) particle is also removed from this kind of sentence.
我昨天没看见她。(wǒ zuó tiān méi kàn jiàn tā) I didn’t see her yesterday.
The adverb 还 (hái) can also be used here to suggest that something ‘has not yet happened’.
我还没吃饭。(wǒ hái méi chī fàn.) I haven’t eaten yet.
Commonly used Time Adverbs
经常 (jīng cháng) often
有时 (yǒu shí) sometimes
每天 (měi tiān) everyday
每周 (měi zhōu) every week
每年 (měi nián) every year
每周一次 (měi zhōu yī cì) once per week
(在)周一 (zài zhōu yī) on Monday
Sometimes, the time adverb can be omitted, but they are often used to indicate that something is occurring presently.
我喜欢你。(wǒ xǐ huan nǐ.) I like you.
我不爱你。(wǒ bù ài nǐ) I don‘t love you
我(每天)骑车上学。(wǒ měi tiān qí chē shàng xué) I ride a bike to school every day.
我没有天天去酒吧。(wǒ méi yǒu tiān tiān qù jiǔ bā) I don’t go to the bar everyday.
Ongoing Actions in the Present
正 (zhèng), 在 (zài) and 正在 (zhèng zài) all indicate that something is still happening at the present time. They are only used when there is an action involved, and cannot be used with modal or stative verbs.
我在洗碗。(wǒ zài xǐ wǎn.) I am washing the dishes.
他正在游泳。(tā zhèng zài yóu yǒng) He is swimming now.
Commonly Used Past Time Phrases
以前 (yǐ qián) – before/ previously
过去 (guò qu) – in the past / previously
上周 (shàng zhōu) last week
去年 (qù nián) last year
昨天 (zuó tiān) yesterday
刚刚 (gāng gang) just now/ a moment ago
往年这个时候 (wǎng nián zhè ge shí hou) at the time over the last few years
The clearest way to indicate that an action occurred in the past, is to use a time phrase or adverb (listed above). The time phrase tends to go before the verb to emphasize that specific time.
以前我是一个老师。(yǐ qián wǒ shì yī gè lǎo shī.) I was a teacher before.
An action verb describes a doing thing, such as ‘ to look’ 看 (kàn) and ‘to eat’ 吃 (chī).
To indicate that an action verb is completed or past, add the particle, 了 (le) after the verb.
她上了一节课。 (tā shàng le yī jié kè) She had a class.
我看电影了。 (wǒ kàn diàn yǐng le) I watched a movie.
To suggest an action was experienced in the past, use the particle, 过 (guò). It is most commonly used to talk about something that does not happen often or for action that happened some time ago.
我问过我的朋友。(wǒ wèn guò wǒ de péng you.) I asked my friend.
If the particle 了 (le) is used in the same sentence as 过 (guò), this emphasizes the action that occurred in the past.
我用过那个了。(wǒ yòng guò nèi gè le) I used that before.
To say that an action has never happened before, negate the verb using 没 (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu).
我没做过瑜伽。(wǒ méi zuò guò yú jiā) = I have never done yoga before.
If you wish to say that an event has never happened before, then use the adverb 从来 (cóng lái), meaning ‘in the past’.
我从来没去过北京。(wǒ cóng lái méi qù guò běi jīng) I have never been to Beijing before.
Mandarin does not have a future tense, so something that has yet to occur is expressed by using time phrases that indicate the future.
Commonly Used Future Time Phrases
明天 (míng tiān) tomorrow
今天晚上 (jīn tiān wǎn shang) this evening
后天 (hòu tiān) the next day tomorrow
下个星期 (xià gè xīng qī) next week
下个月 (xià gè yuè) next month
明年 (míng nián) next year
将来 (jiāng lái) in the future
下次 (xià cì) next time
A time phrase usually comes after the subject to emphasize that particular time expression.
今天晚上我会去北京。(jīn tiān wǎn shang wǒ huì qù běi jīng.) I will go to Beijing this evening.
下次请告诉我你的电话号码。(xià cì qǐng gào su wǒ nǐ de diàn huà hào mǎ.) Next time tell me your phone number.
Adverbs and the Future
Adverbs that refer to the future go before the verb phrase in the sentence.
就要 (jiù yào)
我就要走了。(wǒ jiù yào zǒu le) I am going to leave now
可能 (kě néng)
我明天可能去不了了。(wǒ míng tiān kě néng qù bù liǎo le) I may not go there tomorrow.
会 (huì) and the Future
会 (huì) can sometimes be used to indicate there is a high possibility that something will happen.
他三点钟会到了。 (tā sān diǎn zhōng huì dào le.) He will probably arrive at 3pm.
准备 (zhǔn bèi) get ready/ prepare
要 (yào) to want
打算 (dǎ suàn) to plan
我打算去学游泳。(wǒ dǎ suàn qù xué yóu yǒng.) I am planning to learn how to swim.
我准备出国。(wǒ zhǔn bèi chū guó.) I am preparing to go abroad.
Negation with 不 and 没 (有)
Both 不 (bù) and 没 (有) (méi yǒu) are always put before the verb or adjective to express negation. Here are the differences between the two:
没 (有) (méi yǒu) is used when expressing objectivity and therefore can only be used for the past and present time. 不 (bù) is used to express a subjective wish or expectation and can be used for past, present, and future time.
今天他没来。(jīn tiān tā méi lái.) He has not come today. (objective)
你不叫他他肯定不来。(nǐ bù jiào tā tā kěn dìng bù lái.) If you do not call him, he will not come. (subjective)
不 (bù) can also be used before modal verbs such as 不愿意 (bù yuàn yì) – not willing, 不应该 (bù yīng gāi) – should not, 不会 (bù huì) – can’t.
没有 (méi yǒu) can be used before nouns to act as verbs, the affirmative form is 有 (yǒu).
(jiào shì lǐ méi yǒu rén — jiào shì lǐ yǒu rén)
There is no one in the classroom —— There is someone in the classroom
没有 (méi yǒu) can also act as an adverb, the affirmative form is ‘verb+了(le)‘.
(méi yǒu chī fàn —- chī le fàn.)
Has not eaten the meal —— Has eaten the meal.
If you have any questions or comments about time frames in Chinese, please leave them below.