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How Does Chinese Work If It Doesn’t Have Tenses?

Chinese doesn’t have tenses like European languages do.

Unlike in French, Spanish, Russian etc, verbs don’t change their form depending on who is doing them, and when they are doing them.

我喜欢 – I like
你喜欢 – You like
他(她)喜欢 – He (she) likes
我们喜欢 – We like
你们喜欢 – You like (referring to more than one person)
他们喜欢 – They like

喜欢 xǐhuan is the verb and it stays the same

The Chinese character(s) that represent the verb always look the same, past, present or future.

我昨天走了
Wǒ zuótiān zǒu le
I left yesterday

我今天走
wǒ jīntiān zǒu
I am leaving today

我明天走
wǒ míngtiān zǒu
I will be leaving tomorrow

走 is the verb, and it stays the same

So if you don’t have tenses in Chinese, how do you talk about the past, present and future?

And how do you know when things are happening?

1. Chinese uses more time words than English

今天很冷
jīntiān hěn lěng
It is very cold today

昨天很冷
zuótiān hěn lěng
It was very cold yesterday

明天很冷
míngtiān hěn lěng
It will be very cold tomorrow

Some more examples

我那个时候很小
wǒ nàge shíhou hěn xiǎo
I was very young then (at that time)

当时我13岁
dāngshí wǒ 13 suì
I was 13 years old.

现在三点了
xiànzài sān diǎnle
It is now 3 o’clock.

我一直在看书
wǒ yīzhí zài kànshū
I have been reading a book (all this time)

我会永远爱你
wǒ huì yǒngyuǎn ài nǐ
I will always love you.

我是上周到的 wǒ shì shàng zhōu dào de
I arrived last week.

2. There are certain marker characters that give you clues about when things happened.

了 refers to completed actions, which are often in the past

我去了
wǒ qù le
I went there.

我已经吃饭了
wǒ yǐjīng chīfàn le
I have already eaten.

我昨天拜访了她
wǒ zuótiān bàifǎng le tā
I visited her yesterday

过 refers to an experience that you have had before, sometimes with 曾经.

我去过上海
wǒ qùguo shànghǎi
I have been to Shanghai (before)

我曾经爬过泰山
wǒ céngjīng páguò tàishān
I once climbed Mount Tai.

我已经去过巴黎两次
wǒ yǐjīng qùguò 
bālí liǎng cì
I have been to Paris twice before.

会, 会的,将 or 将会 are markers that indicate actions that are going to happen in the future.

我会联系你
wǒ huì liánxì nǐ
I will contact you.

我将会告诉你
wǒ jiāng huì gàosù nǐ
I will tell you.

我会的
wǒ huì de
I will (do it).

公司将举行一个会议
gōngsī jiāng jǔxíng yīgè huìyì
The company will hold a meeting.

要 – to want to, have to, have a strong intention to, and 打算 – to plan to are often used when talking about future events.

明天我要去上海
míngtiān wǒ yào qù shànghǎi
I am going to Shanghai tomorrow

你打算什么时候去?
Nǐ dǎsuàn shénme shíhou qù
What time are you planning to go?

我打算三点去看你,好吗?
Wǒ dǎsuàn sān diǎn qù kàn nǐ, hǎo ma?
I plan to go and see you at 3:00, ok?

3. The 是….+ action…的 construction is sometimes used to refer to past events

This construction is often used to emphasise the time something happened in the past or the means.

你是什么时候到的?
Nǐ shì shénme shíhou dào de?
What time did you arrive?

我是昨天到的 
Wǒ shì zuótiān dào de
I arrived yesterday.

我是坐飞机来的
Wǒ shì zuò fēi jī lái de
I came by plane.

4. You can use ..以前 (before something) or ….以后 to refer to the sequence of events

我到家以后吃饭了
Wǒ dào jiā yǐhòu chī fàn le
I had dinner after I got home

去加拿大以前,他在英国教书
Qù jiānádà yǐqián, tā zài yīngguó jiāoshū
Before he went to Canada, he taught in the UK.

遇到了她以后,我的生活就不一样了 Yù dàole tā yǐhòu, wǒ de shēnghuó jiù bù yīyàngle.
After I met her, my life was different.

But be careful..

A lot of Chinese learners who speak European languages try to make Chinese ‘have tenses’, by adding in a lot of marker characters, when they are not always necessary.

To learn to speak the most authentic Chinese and avoid ‘forcing Chinese to work more like a Western language’, learn from more example sentences, and pay attention to how native speakers talk about events that happen at different times.

Some examples

For example, you wouldn’t normally say ’我明天会上班’ but ‘我明天上班’ I am going to work tomorrow.

You wouldn’t say 我去年在大学教书了, but 我去年在大学教书

我昨天没有看见他了 but 我昨天没有看见他.