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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.


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*


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.

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: 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!

Saturday Grammar: The Differences Between 的 (de), 地 (de), and 得 (de)

8 Feb chinese grammar particles de de and de

For this blog’s very first grammar lesson, we’ll explore the mysteries of 的 (de), 地 (de), and 得 (de).

They are not interchangeable. Repeat: they are not interchangeable. Natives casually substitute them for one another, especially 的 for the other two, but grammatically speaking they are completely distinct. Sorry, guys.

So how are they used, then? Though I knew they were different, I didn’t know the formal rules until I researched it this past week. I found one source in particular that really cleared it up for me. If you can read Mandarin without pīnyīn, here is an explanation meant for Chinese elementary school students. (Update: If you prefer English, here is a concise explanation by Much easier to read than the Chinese one. 😀 )

If those two cut it for you, you need read no further. However, I’ll also summarize the rules as I understood them, as individual explanations differ slightly. If you still feel like a bird in Beijing smog after trying one of the explanations, try reading the others or searching online for yourself.

chinese grammar particles de de and de

双人 “得” -I prefer tackling the most challenging first, so we’ll start off with 双人得.

“得” is called 双人得 because of the radical “彳”, which is the doubled version of the people-indicating radical. If that didn’t make sense, just ignore it – it’s not actually important, just sometimes helpful to know when you have to describe a “de” out loud.

abc semi-adverb de chinese particle

得 is quite the tricky bastard for most English speakers. It’s not exactly an adverb, but it does modify verbs. To put it simply, 得 modifies in terms of degree or in terms of potential.

An example in terms of degree would be 他洗得很干净 -Tā xǐ de hěn gānjìng – He washed it very clean (ly). To what degree did he wash it? Very cleanly. Another example, this time with an adjective, would be 她累得想要倒下 – Tā lèi de xǐang yào dǎoxìa – She was so tired that she wanted to fall down (collapse). To what degree was she tired? She was tired to the degree that she wanted to collapse.

Another use of 得 is in terms of potential. For instance: 我喝得下这碗汤 – Wǒ hé de xìa zhè wǎn tāng – I am able to drink this bowl of soup. I’m haven’t drunk the bowl of soup yet, and maybe I never will. I’m just sitting there with a bowl of soup in front of me, telling you that I could drink it, if I felt like it.

For most, 双人得  is the most confusing of the lot, so please post if you’ve got any questions.

白勺 “的” - This is the most common of the de’s, and may in fact be the most commonly used character in all of Chinese. 的 is referred to when speaking as 白勺的, because of the two characters that can be found inside of it: 白 (bȧi – white) and 勺 (sháo – spoon)。的 is the possessive particle in Chinese (ex. my cat – 我的猫 – wǒ de māo), much like “no” in Japanese or the apostrophe + s in English.

abc possessive de chinese particle

Another important use is for descriptive expressions. In Chinese, objects are said to “belong” to a color or characteristic, rather than having an adjective actually modify the noun. For example, the brown duck would be 棕色鸭子。鸭子 (yāzi – duck) belongs to the group of 棕色 (zōngsè – brown).

That makes it sound more complicated than it is if you’re familiar with spoken Chinese. Let me just give a few more examples.

Your dog – 你的狗 – nǐ de gǒu.

Yun Yun’s book – 云云的书 – yúnyun de shū

The very tall teacher – 很高的老师 – hěngáo de lǎoshī.

The red scarf – 红色的围巾 – hóngsè de wéijīn

土也 “地” -Hopefully it’s fairly obvious why 地 is called 土也地. 地’s usage has an exact English equivalent – the “-ly” that makes an adjective into an adverb.

For an artistic example:  春雨轻轻地落。Chūnyǔ qīngqīng de cóng hūiyún lùo. The spring rain gently falls.

“轻轻” is the “gent-“of gently, while “地” is the “-ly”. 轻轻地 is modifying the verb “落”, exactly like an adverb.

chinese particle de

And just as a last note, 他喝得很慢 uses 双人得,while 他慢慢地喝 uses 土也地。I’ll apologize in advance for what I’m about to say. They are not the same. Not the same. Sorry.

They are very similar, though, so don’t freak out. If you say or write the wrong one, it really won’t matter that much. However, for those who really want native-like fluency, there is a subtle difference. 他喝得很慢 implies that 他 usually 喝得很慢, along the lines of a habit. 他慢慢地喝 is more of a present, happening-right-now kind of sentence, along the lines of 他慢慢地喝.

This is almost identical to English. Think about, “He drinks slowly,” versus, “He slowly drinks.”

Yes? Nods and smiles? If anything’s unclear, feel free to post in the comments.

chinese grammar particles de de and deOnce more.

To recap, let’s briefly go over our de’s.

得 is used for modifying in terms of degree or possibility. If that’s just confusing, don’t worry. Like most Chinese, just remember that it usually comes after the thing it’s modifying, whether that be adjective or verb. (Ex. 他喝得很慢,

的 is the possessive particle, which is also used in Chinese to assign qualities to nouns (like adjectives in English).

地 is the “-ly” in adverbs. It follows adjectives that modify verbs.

I’ve basically confused myself, so I’ll be practicing often. If you have a correction or addition to make, please do so! Best of luck, everyone.