How to express tense of verbs in Chinese

So far you haven’t seen any change of forms in Chinese verbs, pronouns, nouns or adjectives. Does this ever leave you wonder where do I need to change form then? The answer is quite simple: never!

Or let’s put it this way, Chinese language is like a big bucket of legos. Each single lego has a unique look. A major part of these legos have their own meaning and can be used on their own as a single-character word. Some legos have to be used with another lego, or another few legos to form a word or phrase.

Each single sentence of Chinese is a combination of a couple of, or even tens of legos. As a learner of Chinese, your goal is to understand and memorize the way of putting together the right legos to express your thoughts. At the same time, understand the lego pattern that other people use to communicate to you. Remember, none of the legos need to change its look ever!!

That being said, you might ask? If no conjugation is needed, then how can I tell the difference between things that is happening now, happened before or already happened?

The answer is, use more legos! Normally you only need to know some generally used “help words” for each tense to accurately express the tense of the verb.

Before we jump into our core content, let’s take a bit of time to learn some new words first.

chī wǔ fàn zhèng zài
 (eat) 午饭 (lunch)  正在 (in the process of doing something)
shàng xīng qī qù nián zuó wǎn
上星期 (last week)  去年 (last year)  昨晚 (last night)
 yǐ jīng dù jià kāi huì
 已经 (already)  渡假 (go on vacation)  开会 (have meeting)
 zuò fēi jī
  (sit on, ride)  飞机 (plane)

Time to see some examples:

  1. Present time:

wǒ chī wǔfàn


I have lunch.

No “help word” is needed.


  1. Present time (progressive):

wǒ zhèngzài chī wǔfàn.


I’m having my lunch.


“正在” is the “help word” that is used before a verb to represent progressive aspect of the verb.

You can also just use one character from the word of “正在”. The result is the same:


wǒ zhèng chī wǔfàn.


I am having lunch.


wǒ zài chī wǔfàn.


I am having lunch.


  1. Past tense:


wǒ zuótiān chī wǔfàn


I had my lunch yesterday.




wǒ zuótiān chī de wǔfàn.


I had my lunch yesterday.


昨天(zuótiān) is “yesterday”. You can put any time word that indicates the time that happened in the past to replace 昨天 in your own sentence. Such as 上星期(shàng xīng qī) – last week, 去年 – last year, 昨晚 – last night, etc.. And the time word is all you need to use to tell people it happened in the past. You can also add “的”right after the verb to make the sentence sound more balanced. (It’s a habbit that acient Chinese poet would think for days to find a word to fit into their peom or lyrics to make it sound more rhymed and balanced.)


  1. Past tense (completion)

wǒ yǐjīng chī le wǔfàn.


I already had my lunch.


“已经 + verb + 了”is all you need to remember for a completion past tense combination.

Are you clear about all the above? If not, go back and read again till you fully understand the usage. Then we can move on with a little translation practice. Try not to peek back on the lesson while doing the practice. Could you use the new verb tense knowledge to translate the following Chinese sentences?


bàba yǐjīng qù gōngsī shàngbān le.



tā zhèngzài dùjià.



wǒmen qù kāihuì.



tā shàngxīngqī zuòfēijī qù Běijīng.


How well did you do on the practice? I believe it’s very good. 🙂

If you don’t have a Chinese article handy, please randomly search a Chinese article and see if you can see the words of “正在”and “已经”. With the help of online dictionary, see if you can figure out the meaning of the sentence. Don’t forget to share with me what you discovered. Have fun!

Welcome to have my face to face lesson on  !  🙂



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