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Past, Present and Future Tenses in Mandarin Chinese

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If you don’t have time to read this post now, you can download your Past, Present and Future Tenses in Mandarin Chinese PDF and read it later!

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.

Completed Actions

Usually, in order to indicate 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  (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu). The  (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  (hái) can also be used here to in suggest that something ‘has not yet happened’.

我还没吃饭。(wǒ hái méi chī fàn.) I haven’t eaten yet.

Present

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 everyday.

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.

Past

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 emphasise that specific time.

以前我是一个老师。(yǐ qián wǒ shì yī gè lǎo shī.) I was a teacher before.

Action Verbs

An action verb describes a doing thing, such as ‘ to look’  (kàn) and ‘to eat’  (chī).

To indicate that an action verb is completed or past, add the particle,  (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,  (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  (le) is used in the same sentence as  (guò), this emphasises 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  (méi) or 没有 (méi yǒu).

 (méi) + verb +  (guò)

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.

Future

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 emphasise 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

 (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.

Future Verbs

准备 (zhǔn bèi) get ready/ prepare

 (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  (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.  (bù) is used to express a subjective wishes 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)

 (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  (yǒu).

教室里没有人。 —— 教室里有人

(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)‘.

没有吃饭。 —— 吃了饭

(méi yǒu chī fàn —- chī le fàn.)

Has not eat the meal —— Has eaten the meal.

If you have any questions or comments about time frames in Chinese, please leave them below.

           

Facebook Comments

  • Zhi Shan

    “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 and ‘will eat’ for future, the chinese verb 吃 (chī) stays the same.”

    First of all, the English verb only changes for the past tense; English doesn’t have a future tense. English, like Chinese, uses time adverbials with modal auxiliaries to frame events in the future.

    Second, if the Chinese verb never changes, then why call it ‘tense’? Tense is a change in time found in the verb.

    This explanation is filled with contradictory claims.

    • Danilo Pablo

      Yes, you may be right about the “contradictory claims” but it does not turn the explanation into an incomprehensible explanation. So it still useful

      • Zhi Shan

        So poor writing gets a pass on utilitarian grounds? Do you have such low standards for everything?

        • friendofthepeople

          Do you need a hug?

          • Zhi Shan

            You’re one of those people who think an intelligent critique is an emotional deficiency. American, right?

          • Danilo Pablo

            “Intelligent critique” sounds more like a selfish poor person.

            And I don’t have low standards for anything. I’m just saying that the post still useful since it was written to help begginers on learning mandarim and not only those who speak english to understand how mandarim works. I speak Portuguese and the way she wrote about the “tenses” help me to understand the rest, even though I know that “will” it’s a particle which puts the verb into the future tense.

          • Zhi Shan

            First, Mandarin has no tense. Second, ‘will’ is not a particle; it’s a modal auxiliary. Third, it isn’t a future tense. Modals express one’s attitude towards an event, not tense.

            I rest my case.

          • Danilo Pablo

            I didn’t say mandarim has tenses, did I? I didn’t say “will” is a future tense, did I? You need to learn about interpretation.

          • Zhi Shan

            Yes, you did. You wrote, “I speak Portuguese and the way she wrote about the “tenses” help me to understand the rest, even though I know that “will” it’s a particle which puts the verb into the future tense.” If you’re going to claim that “‘will’… puts the verb into the future tense” does not in fact mean the future tense, then you’re playing a game of obfuscation. Grow up.

          • haruspex

            @zhishan:disqus People don’t learn from you when you’re being obnoxious. This is a poor attempt to share information.

          • Zhi Shan

            Having worked in Fortune 500 companies and top 10 universities, I don’t need lessons in education from you. My original note was for the author of the OP, with whom I have corresponded. ‘Being obnoxious’ probably refers to my rebuttals against several under-educated idiots who had some pet theories about language. You’re apparently another one. You haven’t said anything constructive or critical, you’re just making noise. Why should I care what you think?

          • haruspex

            @zhishan:disqus You’re textbook /r/iamverysmart, no one cares about your “credentials.” Your behavior is unacceptable.

          • Kyle O’Brien

            Zhi Shan: Just visited this site for the first time and read your comments. I’m appalled by your behavior. You should be ashamed of yourself.

          • Zhi Shan

            A faceless person who doesn’t actually say anything except he is offended expects me to care? I don’t.

            If people want to get upset while saying nothing, that’s their problem. Go to bed angry. It doesn’t bother anyone else.

          • Kyle O’Brien

            Different blog and I have no recollection of it. I’m not angry, so you can relax. I just hope you treat people better in person than you do online, and I hope you find peace.

          • Zhi Shan
          • Zhi Shan

            You write, “Just visited this site for the first time” and yet here I find that you posted on this site two years ago. Aren’t you appalled at making such a ridiculous lie? Why did you do it? Did you think, by claiming to be a newbie, it somehow gave your moral high ground some kind of high ground? Pathetic. Just sad, really.

          • didotte

            Thank you Zhi Shan for your valuable input.

          • Zhi Shan

            You’re welcome

    • Hollie Sowden

      Hi there,

      I see why my introduction is problematic, it was certainly unclear and perhaps not as accurate as it could have been. I will make some changes to this paragraph and other areas to make the article clearer.

      I used the word ‘tense’ in order for people to understand the idea behind the article, especially because I feel lots of beginners to Chinese will expect to learn about ‘tenses’. I hope, however that the rest of the article is helpful to those new to studying Chinese.

      Thank you for taking the time to comment on the post, as I am sure there are other people who may have been in disagreement or confused.

      • Zhi Shan

        Thank you for the thoughtful reply. It’s true that beginning learners often carry a lot of ‘baggage’ (i.e. expectations) when learning a new language. Surprise! Chinese doesn’t have case, tense, or grammatical gender! (Just one of the most complex writing systems ever invented… Thank God it’s not medieval Tangut…)

        Best of luck!

        • John Carpenter

          Significant differences exist in educational backgrounds — educational foundations. You’d do well to consider the fact that people learn based on prior learning, the human mind being an association-machine. Native English speakers have no foundation at all to prepare them for learning an Asian language. Time and space being as important to the non-Asian mind as they are to the Asian mind, it’s as hard for the English speaker learning Mandarin to do without tenses as it is for the Asian learning English to learn to use all 12 tenses appropriately. Our textbooks for Mandarin give proper service to our difficulty, but that doesn’t mitigate the difficulty. By your diction I strongly suspect you learned English at an early age, probably in an English-speaking country. I think you didn’t have to do the CET exams, for example. I have a university friend who’s currently obsessing on CET-6. Her use of verb tenses absolutely sucks. Her comprehension of spoken English also struggles, as mine does when hearing Mandarin at normal speed. I’m a 3rd year student.

          By your reference to Tangut, also, I feel a “slight” coming from you that’s particularly unwarranted, the typical American having no idea whatsoever the number or identities of Chinese minority populations or their histories. You might be somewhat justified in your reference if your competence at Old English warrants it. Does it? Are you knowledgeable about Europe’s Old English? It’s about the same period as later Tang…And a lot more has been published about it in our school system…while nothing about China’s minorities has been published in our system…
          Zhī Shàn, (支讪) I replied to you because you needed to hear it from somebody as arrogant as you are. That would be me!

          • Zhi Shan

            First of all, my name is not 支讪; that’s a terrible guess.

            Second, as a native speaker of English who has studied Indo-European, Uralic, Tibeto-Burman, and Sinitic (i.e. Chinese) languages, I can assure you that learning a language without tenses is not a challenge.

            “You’d do well to consider the fact that people learn based on prior learning, the human mind being an association-machine.” You might consult the literature on Second-Language Acquisition in order to get an update on your pathetically old-fashioned understanding of how the mind learns languages. (We’ve made some progress since Locke!)

            “Time and space being as important to the non-Asian mind as they are to the Asian mind,…” Seriously? No one disputes this!

            “…it’s as hard for the English speaker learning Mandarin to do without tenses as it is for the Asian learning English to learn to use all 12 tenses appropriately.” No, it’s not. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence for this. Nor have I ever met any teacher of Chinese as a Second Language assert this.

            Also, English does not have “12 tenses.” This has so many false assumptions, I don’t know where to begin. It’s true that English has sometimes been broken up into 12 time constructions according to the rather old-fashioned ‘Bull Framework’, with a simple future (‘will’+base form), etc., based on Latin conjugation. However, English has only two ‘tenses’–present and past–used in conjunction with aspect (present and perfect) and modality. For example, the so-called present perfect is not a ‘tense’ but is a ‘tense-aspect’ compound: present tense, perfective aspect. It’s even written in the NAME of the construction. This should be obvious. But the Bull Framework, based on Latin, has limitations. For example, the simple future is often introduced very early on (‘will’ + the base form of the verb); however, in actual corpus studies of English usage, simple future constructions only make up about 10% of English future time constructions. It is much, much more common for native speakers to either use the present progressive (BE + V-ing + time adv) or the BE-going to+Base Verb construction: “What are you doing Friday?” “I’m meeting Mike for lunch.” “What are you going to do now?” “I’m going to finish this and then move on.” We avoid the ‘logic’ of the Bull Framework, since the English system is much more complex than the Romance-based Bull Framework. English has far more tense-aspect-modal constructions than only 12, and learning to talk about events and time in Mandarin is much, much easier than trying to learn them in English.

            “I have a university friend who’s currently obsessing on [sic] CET-6. Her use of verb tenses absolutely sucks. Her comprehension of spoken English also struggles [sic!], as mine does when hearing Mandarin at normal speed. I’m a 3rd year student.” In Standard Written English, you OBSESS OVER a test, not *OBSESS ON; ‘sucks’ is hardly an appropriate term here, and ‘comprehension’ doesn’t struggle. “She struggles with spoken English” or “her listening comprehension is inadequate,” but “*[h]er comprehension of spoken English also struggles [sic]”? Seriously? That must be quite a sight!

            Regarding Tangut… I might have forgotten that the average American sometimes wears his ignorance as some kind of universal badge of honor. I am familiar with the Anglo-Saxon language, having studied it as part of one of my two post-graduate degrees in Linguistics. (We had to memorize and recite bits of Old English and Chaucer’s Middle English in my High School; what were you doing back then?) And Tangut is not a ‘minority’ language–it’s been extinct for centuries. This is, however, a topic on language in China, and, seeing that the Tangut Empire (西夏) is one of the dynasties listed in any standard history book of China, it should be fair game.

            “And a lot more has been published about it in our school system…while nothing about China’s minorities has been published in our system…” This does not make sense. Are you confusing your pronouns? We have learned about Mongolians and Tibetans (linguistic cousins of the Tanguts) in American global studies courses, and Chinese learn about them there as well. What is the problem with citing minorities?

            Finally, you are truly arrogant. For only someone so incredibly ignorant about the issues and so stupid in argument would be so arrogant as to make so many claims without checking any facts! Only an American could be so arrogant and idiotic: You’re making your country proud.

          • John Carpenter

            http://terrywaltz.com/terry-waltz-TPRS-exec-summary.pdf.pdf

            And Mandarin taught Beijing-style (Confucius Institute) at Universities and other schools in America.

            That you haven’t met any Chinese teacher bla bla bla simply identifies your limitation. Drop over to CLTA on facebook. There’s 2300 teachers there you can mix it up with. They come from a variety of approaches, and let me warn you: They disagree with each other. What that makes you is: Fresh Meat.

            [my name is not 支讪; that’s a terrible guess.] isn’t a guess, it’s a well-reasoned “slight” meant to provoke you. To avoid intentional mistakes with your name, you should publish the hanzi..:) How simple is that? How respectable is that?

            I have more important things to do right now so I leave you with the following:

            As an obvious expert you should experience little or no difficulty converting (and explaining your conversion) the following sentences to Mandarin:

            1. They will be playing by the time I arrive tomorrow.

            2. They will have been playing for less than 2 hours by the time I arrive tomorrow.

          • John Carpenter

            Many Chinese students of English appear to have a somewhat greater knowledge of grammar than some other ESL students. However, Chinese students still have many problems correctly using the grammar that they “know” in their oral English. One reason for this appears to be their first language. In the study that I did for my PhD in Applied Linguistics, it became apparent that Chinese learners had more errors in using the simple past tense in their spoken grammar than, for example, Tamil learners did. Interestingly, Tamil has a grammatical past tense while Chinese does not. It appears that what the Mandarin-speaking participants in my PhD study often did was revert back to thinking in Chinese when they were formulating their oral English grammar. It is plausible to argue that some of their other errors are caused by interference from their first language as well; I argue that this is the case with adult native speakers of English learning Mandarin as well. The concept and feelings of “Right and wrong” are strongly coded in L1, making of L1 an effective barrier to acquisition of new information. That’s my tongue-in-cheek code for “learning disability.”
            Only plausible because of the potential for argument from teachers whose paychecks depend on their squashing research that differs from their own.
            Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to develop mastery in a given field. He didn’t include E-C or C-E in his book “Outliers.” Nor did he reference the FSI or DLI immersions programs for military/diplomatic/managerial people.

      • Jess Ng

        Hi! Some people is confused with 我看了这本书 and 我看这本书了. It is obvious that the first one if correct to you right?
        Hope you can explain to them because there was someone who reply with a ridiculous answer saying that both sentence are the same…thks!

        • Chamcen Liu

          Both sentences are correct, the meaning is similar. If I have to say any difference between them, I think it is the tone of the 2nd one is softer.

        • Yu Stephen

          Both sentences have the same literal meaning, that “I” have read “this book”. However, the second one is much more emphatic and has great emphasize on the fact that you have read “this book” and not just any book. For example, you might use the second sentence to correct someone who has falsely stated that you have not read “this book”.

          Actually, having thought about it further. The fist sentence translates better as “I read this book”, while the second translates better as “I have read this book” or “I read this very book”.

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  • Hollie Sowden

    Thanks, Pierre! I appreciate it 🙂

    • Kyle O’Brien

      Yes, thank you Hollie!!!

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