The Nine Chinese Verb Tenses

February 13, 2020

Well, actually Chinese doesn't technically have verb tenses. Instead, Chinese in one of the languages that employs verb aspect (nine aspects, to be exact).

That means no conjugation and no exceptions to the rules! What a relief after those tricky irregular verbs in other languages, am I right? We are looking at you, English…

So now we know that Chinese has verb aspect instead of verb tense, but what do “tense” and “aspect” actually mean?

Merriam Webster says [grammatical tense](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/tense) is when a verb changes to show WHEN or HOW LONG an action takes place.

Let’s contrast that with Merriam Webster’s definition of [grammatical aspect](https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/aspect), which says aspect describes an action in the context of its beginning, length, completion, or repetition, with NO connection to time.

The difference between the verb tense and verb aspect comes down to time. Verb tense specifies when an action happens, and verb aspect focuses on the fact that an action happens at all. This means that in Chinese, verb aspect allows us to describe an action without specifying exactly when the action of the verb occurs. We can express when the action takes place by adding additional time-related words and phrases to our sentence.

So let’s take a look at what Chinese verb aspect looks like:

1) Progressive Aspect

This aspect indicates that an action is currently happening. A progressive aspect sentence often includes “正在 zhèngzài”  and may also include “呢ne”.

For example:

我正在去。
Wǒ zhèngzài qù.
I am going.

我正在去呢。
Wǒ zhèngzài qù ne.
I am going.

2) Continuous Aspect

This aspect shows that an action is continuing.  For example:

他走着回去。
Tā zǒuzhe huíqù.
He is walking back.

3) Perfective Aspect

This aspect is used to show number of objects or number times. If you have been reading our blog for a while, you might recognize this as “Perfective Aspect 了” from our post on “Five Common Uses of 了”.

我在北京的时候,我去了三次长城。
Wǒ zài běijīng de shíhòu, wǒ qùle sāncì chángchéng.
When I was in Beijing, I went to the Great Wall three times.

 

For any of the above aspects, you can also form a negative sentence using “没(有) méi (yǒu)” before the verb.

4) Change Aspect

This aspect indicates a change has occurred. You can also think of it as showing that the situation is in a new state. As above, you may recognize this as “Sentence 了” from our earlier blog.

下雨了。
Xià yǔle.
It’s raining.

To form the negative version of this aspect, you can simply add “还没 hái méi” before the verb:

还没下雨了。
Hái méi xià yǔle.
It isn’t raining yet.

 

5) Imminent Aspect

This aspect is used to show that something will happen very soon. It can be formed in several ways. For example:

飞机快(要)起飞了。
Fēijī kuài (yào) qǐfēile.
The plane is going to take off soon.

飞机要起飞了。
Fēijī yào qǐfēile.
The plane will take off soon.

飞机就(要)起飞了。
Fēijī jiù (yào) qǐfēile.
The plane is taking off right now.

There are slight differences in implication of each of these patterns. Using 就 jiù indicates that the action will happen immediately, with 要 yào being less urgent, and 快 kuài the least imminent.

The negative version of this aspect is formed with “还没”, as in:

飞机还没起飞。
Fēijī hái méi qǐfēi.
The plane has not taken off yet.

6) Experiential Aspect

The experiential aspect may seem pretty obvious—it shows that the subject has experienced the event, and that the event is over. This aspect is formed with the character “过 guò”. For example:

我吃过火锅。
Wǒ chīguò huǒguō.
I have eaten hotpot.

As in, you are not currently gorging yourself at Haidilao, but you’ve been there before.

 

7) Tentative Aspect

This is also known as delimitative aspect, and by some sinologists, “verb reduplication”. It is used to specify the number of times or duration of time that an action takes place. It is often use in sentences encouraging action. For example:

问问他吧。
Wèn wèn tā ba.
(I suggest you) Ask him.

等一等,她还没来。
Děng yī děng, tā hái méi lái.
Wait a while, she has not come yet.

8) Focal Aspect

This aspect is very useful for shifting the focus of the sentence to the time, place, or any additional condition of the action. It is formed with the 是 shì。。。的  de structure. For example:

我是去年来中国的。
Wǒ shì qùnián lái zhōngguó de.
I came to China last year.

You can also say:

我(是)去年来的中国。
Wǒ (shì) qùnián lái de zhōngguó.
I came to China last year.

In the second structure, 是 is optional.

9) Unmarked Aspect

Depending on your point of view, this final aspect may either be the easiest or most difficult to spot. As the name implies, there are no markers for this aspect! For example:

我去年去旅游。
Wǒ qùnián qù lǚyóu.
I went travelling last year.

The time phrase “去年“gives all the information needed to determine when the action took place. You do not need any additional words, particles, markers, or anything else. Easy!

 

Don’t worry if you do not remember all nine aspects and how to use them right away. Now that you are aware of verb aspect, you may begin to notice as people around you use the various forms and you will start to use them yourself as well!

Have more Chinese grammar questions? Let us know in the comments below!