Saturday Grammar: Verb Tenses – How to Express the Past

2 Mar

If you’re at all familiar with spoken Chinese, you’ve probably been using different verb tenses for years already. What I’ve found, though, is that I sometimes have to clarify whether I mean past, present, or future when I speak – something fluent speakers seem to never have to do.

However, because of how “simple” Chinese verb tenses are said to be, I had to compile my own overview of all the ways Mandarin speakers differentiate between past, present, and future. Here’s Part 1 of the finished product.

Chart of past, present, and future Chinese verb tenses

Many have already heard of this, but for those who haven’t, I’ve got some good news for you. There are no verb conjugations in Mandarin. None. Nada. (If you’ve ever studied a European language (including English if it isn’t your first), you know how exciting this news is.)

But after you’ve finished dancing with joy, a question might come to mind. How do the Chinese differentiate between past, present, and future? Is it all from context? Do they frequently think that you’ll be born in the coming September?  I finally have the answers.

The short answer: yes, it is basically all from context. Expressing context, however, becomes its own art, and so there are still some things to learn before we can fluently cobble sentences together. Also, the Chinese have some other verb tense tricks. I won’t go back on my promise of no conjugations, but there are also some modifiers and particles we should know about.

Excited? Let’s start with part one of three, expressing the past.

_________________________________________________________

The Past

The past tense in Mandarin is simple: if it can be understood from context, it looks exactly like the present. For example, “我吃米饭,” can mean both “I eat rice,” and “I ate rice.” More frequently, though, the past tense needs to be clarified somewhat, either through time expressions or verb modifiers.

Time expressions highlight Mandarin’s Lego-block glory. Simply stick the time expression into the sentence, whether at the beginning or just before the verb. Examples: 我昨天去银行 / 昨天我去银行. (Wǒ zúotīan qù yínháng / Zùotīan wǒ qù yínháng. – I went to the bank yesterday.)   Suddenly, your action is grounded firmly in the past.

Chart of Chinese past tense

There are plenty of time expressions for the past, but here’s a quick list of some of the most common.

昨天 (Zhúotīan – Yesterday)

前天 (Qíantīan – Day before yesterday)

大前天 (Dàqíantīan – The day before the day before yesterday)

上星期 (Shàng xīngqī – Last week)

上个月 (Shàng gè yùe – Last month)

去年 (Qù nían – Last year)

五个月前 (Wǔ gè yùe qían – Five months ago)

The other way to indicate the past is through verb modifiers. The two main modifiers are 了 (le) and 过 (gùo).

Chart of Chinese past tense

了 indicates that the action has been completed. An example: 我去了北京 / 我去北京了。(I went to Beijing.) Just plop it either right after the verb or at the end of the sentence, and you’ll have made it clear that this action took place in the past. (了 is also used to indicate the near future, but we’ll get to that later.) This particle is used all the time. In fact, the grammatically correct ,”我吃米饭,” sounds strange to me when it’s used to describe an action in the past. I would definitely instead say, “我吃了米饭.”

了 can’t be used with a few specific verbs, because they’re considered to be “never-ending” – even if the action took place solidly in the past. Off the top of my head, those verbs include 是 (shì – to be),爱 (ài – to love),and 想 (xǐang – to think). (Update: About.com also adds 认识 – rènshi – to be acquainted with.) Besides those, 了 is your buddy.

The other modifier is 过. 过’s use is somewhat more limited. It’s used to indicate that you’ve done the action before, in the past. Here’s an example: 我去过北京. Wǒ qù gùo Běijīng. I have been to Beijing before. That’s basically all there is to using 过. The only thing to note is that you can only place it immediately following  the verb; it would be incorrect to put it at the end of the sentence.

Whew. That’s the past tense done. Edits, comments, questions, or additions? Please comment with them.

Chart of Chinese Past Tense

A quick summary, then! In order of amount of info conveyed, these are the ways you could express an action in the past.

我吃米饭。Wǒ chī mǐfàn. I ate/eat/will eat rice.

我吃了米饭。Wǒ chī le mǐfàn. I have eaten rice.

我刚吃了米饭。Wǒ gàng chī le mǐfàn. I have just eaten rice.

我昨天吃米饭。Wǒ zhúotīan chī mǐfàn. I ate rice yesterday.

我昨天吃了米饭。Wǒ zhúotīan chī le mǐfàn. I ate rice yesterday. (More common than above)

我吃过米饭。Wǒ chī gùo mǐfàn. I have eaten rice before.

And for “never-ending” verbs – 我爱北京。Wǒ ài Běijīng. I loved/love Beijing.

我爱了北京。(Incorrect)

我以前爱过北京。Wǒ yǐqían ài guò Běijīng. Before, I loved Beijing.

我 (去年) 爱上了北京。Wǒ (qùnían) àishàng le Běijīng. (Last year) I fell in love with Beijing.

– Just as a note: the reason 了 can be used here is because the verb is actually 爱上, which means to fall in love. Not the “never-ending” 爱.

我爱过北京。Wǒ ài gùo Běijīng. I have loved Beijing before (in the past).

Part two (the present) and part three (the future) are coming up soon. If I can get them written before next Saturday, maybe I’ll just post them ASAP. In any case, happy studying!

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5 Responses to “Saturday Grammar: Verb Tenses – How to Express the Past”

  1. Katie Burgess August 6, 2013 at 11:48 pm #

    I’m an ESL teacher in China, and just want to say, Bless you for doing this !! 🙂 also, -if it’s not much trouble, can you please make sure that you add pinyin whe you write with characters?? thank you!!

    • TheZingR August 7, 2013 at 9:46 am #

      Haha, glad to be of service! I’ll make sure to include the pīnyīn in all future posts, but it might be a while until I can add it to all of my previous posts.

      If you find that you’re unfamiliar with a lot of the characters, I recommend nciku.com or thepurelanguage.com. You can copy-paste sentences or even passages into both of them, and they’ll translate them word-by-word for you. Great way to quickly pick up vocab.

      • Nick Nelson December 28, 2014 at 6:13 pm #

        Excellent post! Truly empowering for a beginner. A couple aspects that I would check as you write in Pin Yin is to ensure that you put the tone mark over the correct vowel and that you spell the syllable correctly. For instance, you typed yue (month) with the tone mark over the “u” when it should be placed over the “e” and you typed “zhuo tian” (yesterday) when the correct spelling is “zuo tian” big difference in pronunciation 🙂 Aside from that, brilliant! Thank you for making Mandarin grammar accessible.

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