Grammar: Verb Tenses – The Differences Between Present Tense 在 and 着

17 Mar

Happy weekend, everyone, and of course you know why. It’s grammar day! (If WordPress allowed sound embeds, I would have put a “Hooray!” where this sentence is.)

Last week, we covered the past tense and everything related to it. I wrote a nice little introduction on that post, so you may want to check it out. This week, let’s focus on the present.

Easy, right? Just stick the non-conjugate-able verb in the sentence, and it defaults to present.

Yeah, not quite. Sorry, even the present tense isn’t the “no conjugation” paradise that Chinese verb tenses are described as. It’s true that there are no conjugations. 吃 is going to stay 吃, no matter when you ate. However, just like the past tense, expressing the present is its own art as well.

While you’re certainly allowed to just plop verbs in your sentences, the Chinese present tense actually has a few subtleties. Foremost among them, in my opinion, is a grammar distinction that doesn’t exist in English: the difference between 在 and 着.

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The Difference Between 着 (zhe) and 正在 (zhèngzài)

I’d say that there are two main forms of present tense in English: the simple present (He swims. In Chinese, 他游泳) and the currently ongoing present (he is swimming). Grammarians might disagree, but those are the two that seem actually distinct from each other.  着 and 正在 are used for the latter, the currently ongoing present.

In English, you express a currently ongoing action by using a pronoun + conjugated “to be” + the “-ing” form of the verb. I am swimming. He is getting dressed. The painting is hanging on the wall.

In Chinese, there are two ways of expressing a currently ongoing action: 着 and 正在. They are not interchangeable. Sincere apologies.

“I am swimming,” would be written as, “我正在游泳/我游泳. Wǒ zhèngzài yóuyǒng / Wǒ zài yóuyǒng.”

Likewise, “He is getting dressed,” would be, “她正在穿衣服/她穿衣服. Tā zhèngzài chūan yīfù / Tā zài chūan yīfù.”

However, “The painting is hanging on the wall,” would be, “墙上挂一幅画. Qiáng shàng guà zhe yí fù huà.”

“墙上一幅画挂,” sounds completely incorrect. Similarly, 她在穿衣服 = She is getting dressed, while 她穿着衣服 = She is dressed.

All Mandarin speakers agree that this is correct, but like native speakers everywhere, most don’t know the rules behind why. As a non-native without immersion as an option, I need rules. Need them. And so the hunt was on.

After hours of searching, hunting through obscure language forums and consulting quite a few native speakers, I finally found the answer – on Wikipedia. Yep.

In my defense, it’s not on a page about Mandarin grammar, or even on a page about Chinese. Nope. It was hidden in the convoluted grammar pages, under “Continuous and progressive aspects”.

*Exasperated forehead slap*

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I’ll spare you the work and just give you the link, here. It’s quite literally only two paragraphs, not counting the page intro explaining the difference between “continuous” and “progressive”, but it finally cleared up the issue for me.

在 (zài) and 正在 (zhèngzài) are fully interchangeable, and they’re used for actions that are happening right now. Wikipedia describes them as “dynamic”, as opposed to 着’s “static” – we’ll get to why in a second.  They come before the verb.

着 (zhe) is used for descriptions of things happening in the present. This is the “static” indicator for this currently ongoing tense. Unlike 在 and 正在,着 comes after the verb.

There’s a great quote from the Wikipedia grammar page: “If the sentence could be rephrased using “in the middle of”, then zhèngzai would be best; otherwise, zhe. “I’m [in the middle of] hanging pictures up” would take zhèngzài, while “A picture’s hanging on the wall” would take zhe.” The “in the middle of” strategy works very well whenever you’re uncertain.

The two can also occasionally appear together. Here’s an example taken from Wikipedia: “The two imperfectives may both occur in the same clause, e.g. 他正在打着电话 (Tā zhèngzai dǎ zhe diànhuà – He is in the middle of telephoning someone).” I’m sure that there are better examples; I’ll post them here when I think of them. Suggestions will be loved and cherished.

Hopefully that explanation helped a little, but I know that examples usually help me way more than grammar explanations do. So let’s have a few! Try and take a guess on how to translate the English sentences below – I’ll put the translations underneath.

He is eating rice.

I am hanging a painting on the wall.

The painting is hanging on the wall.

I am (in middle of) swimming.

The dog is lying down on the sofa.

😀 😀 😀 Stop scrolling here, answers below. 😀 😀 😀

He is eating rice. 他正在吃米饭。Tā zhèngzài chī mǐfàn.

I am hanging a painting. 我正在挂一幅画。Wǒ zhèngzài guà yífù huà.

The painting is hanging on the wall. 墙上挂着一幅画. Qiáng shàng gùa zhe yí fù hùa.

I am (in middle of) swimming.  我正在游泳。Wǒ zhèngzài yóuyǒng.

That dog is lying down on the sofa. 那只狗在沙发上躺着。Nà zhī gǒu zài shāfā shàng tǎng zhè.

How was that? If you still have any questions, I’ll do my best to answer them (or research them for you) if you put them in the comments. Also, suggestions and edits would be much appreciated, especially on the translation of the last few example sentences. Are there better ways to phrase those?

In any case, have a great week and happy studying, everyone.

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6 Responses to “Grammar: Verb Tenses – The Differences Between Present Tense 在 and 着”

  1. wodezitie March 19, 2013 at 4:02 pm #

    Hi Rene, I agree this can be a bit complicated. How I would approach it is by thinking of 正在 by adding the word, “now,” to a verb or action, e.g. I am now doing this. It’s a more active expression of someone or something happening now than 着 which i s more passive, as in your example, 那只狗在沙发上躺着 (That dog is lying down on the sofa)。 For example, you could also say, 那只狗正在沙发上躺着, which would be, “That dog is now lying down on the sofa.” I love your pic, by the way!

    • TheZingR March 19, 2013 at 7:23 pm #

      Yep, completely agreed. Instead of using “now”, I use “in the middle of”, but the idea is almost exactly the same. Your use of 正在 actually makes that dog example a good deal clearer, and I think I’ll make that edit in the post. Thanks!

      Also, glad you liked the picture. Trust me, it’s pretty close to what my actual expression was.

  2. Guy July 27, 2014 at 5:14 am #

    great explanation, thank you!

    • TheZingR July 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm #

      Cheers! Glad it was helpful.

  3. Nicholas Nelson December 28, 2014 at 4:42 pm #

    As someone who is trying to learn this language, I thank you so so much for posting these grammar points (past and present). You can have the largest vocabulary of all China, but if you don’t know how to properly express your ideas past and present, the vocabulary is useless. Granted, the person with whom you speak can most likely guess your meaning from the context, but why put that pressure on him/her when you could do the work to learn proper grammar. Of course, we all know too that in this world people doesn’t always speak good even if their intentions are well. Anyway, thank you!!!

    • TheZingR December 28, 2014 at 4:46 pm #

      Glad you found it helpful. 🙂

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