How to Express an Ongoing State or a Continuity of an Action in Chinese

In Chinese, and unlike in English, people don’t change the form of a word to express the ongoing continuity of an action or a state of being. Instead, Chinese focuses on using other words to express this. Here are some important words in Chinese that are used for this purpose: “在”(zài), “正”(zhènɡ), “正在”(zhènɡzài ) and “着”(zhe).

1. “在”, “正”and “正在” are used to indicate that an action is ongoing.

Form 1):  Subject+在/正在+Verb/Adjective+……

E.g.

1)我在/正在看电视。(Wǒ zài/zhènɡzài kàn diànshì.)

   I am watching TV.

2)整个上午她都在哭。(Zhěnɡɡè shànɡwǔ tā dōu zài kū.)

  She was crying all morning.

 

  Form 2):Subject +正 + Verb/Adjective + 着……/呢/着呢

  E.g.
1)他正忙着,没看到你。 (Tā zhènɡ mánɡzhe, méi kàndào nǐ.)

         He is busy, so he can’t see you.

2)(京剧)我正看着呢。(Jīnɡjùwǒ zhènɡ kànzhe ne.)

         (Peking Opera) I was watching it.

Notes

  • “在” stresses the condition of an action, “正” indicates the time of an action, while “正在” indicates the time and state of an action.
  • “在” can be enhanced with some adverbs like “又”(yòu), “一直”(yìzhí), “总”(zǒnɡ), “还”(hái) to express the repetition and long continuity of the action, while “正在” cannot be used for this.

E.g.

1)这些天他一直在想出国的事。(Zhèxiētiān tā yìzhí zài xiǎnɡ chūɡuóde shì.)

       He has been thinking about going abroad these days.

2)你又在喝酒了。(Nǐ yòu zài hējiǔ le.)

       You’re drinking again.

3)他总在说过去的经历。(Tā zǒnɡ zài shuō ɡuòqùde jīnɡlì.)

       He’s always talking about the past.

4)过去一周,他都在写论文。(Guòqù yìzhōu, tā dōu zài xiě lùnwén.)

       He has been writing papers for the past week.

  •  “正” usually does not connect with a single Verb (especially monosyllable Verbs). Its usual form is “Subject+正+Verb/Adjective +着……/呢/着呢”, while “在” and “正在” have no such limitation.

E.g.

1)我正在吃晚饭。(Wǒ zhènɡzài  chī wǎnfàn.)

       I’m having dinner.

2)我在看。(Wǒ zài kàn.)

         I’m watching.

2. “着” is used after a Verb and Adjective to indicate the continuity of an action or a state.

Basic Form:Subject + Verb/Adjective +着……

E.g.

1)冰箱开着。(Bīnɡxiānɡ kāi zhe.)

       The refrigerator is open.

2)你说,我听着。(Nǐ shuōwǒ tīnɡ zhe.)

    You speak, and I listen.

3)她一路唱着不知名的歌。(Tā yílù chànɡzhe bù zhīmínɡ de ɡē.)

    She sang an unknown song all the way.

In order to emphasize this present state, it could connect with “正” or “在”, or place “呢” at the end of the sentence. The specific situations for this are as follows:

Subject + (“”, “”) + Verb/Adjective + + (……/)

1) To indicate the continuity of a state, the subject is usually a thing. But if not, the Verb or Adjective are usually static words, like “坐”, “站”, “等” etc.

E.g.

1)灯开着呢。(Dēnɡ kāi zhe ne.)

         The light is open.

2)窗户正开着,雨飘了进来。(Chuānɡhu zhènɡ kāizheyǔ piāole jìnlái.)

         The windows were open and the rain drifted in.

3()别坐着了,起来走走。((Nǐ)bié zuòzhe leqǐlái zǒuzou.)

         (You) Don’t stay seated, get up and walk.

2) To indicate the continuity of an action, the Subject can be an animated one.

E.g.

1)兔子正高兴地吃着胡萝卜。(Tùzi zhènɡ ɡāoxìnɡdi chīzhe húluóbo.)

         The rabbit is happily eating carrots.

2)我听着音乐,不说话。(Wǒ tīnɡzhe yīnyuèbù shuōhuà.)

         I am listening to music, not speaking.

For better understanding, see the chart below:

zaizheng

Note

These are situations when we can’t use “着”:

(1)—你在干/想什么?(Nǐ zài ɡān/xiǎnɡ shénme)

    What are you doing/thinking about?

  —我在看电视。(Wǒ zài kàn diànshì.)

    I’m watching TV.

我在想今天的作业。(Wǒ zài xiǎnɡ jīntiānde  zuòyè.)

I’m thinking about today’s homework.

(2)—你在等谁?(Nǐ zài děnɡ shuí)

    Who are you waiting for?

  —我在等李华。(Wǒ zài děnɡ Lǐhuá.)

I’m waiting for Lihua.

We now know that “在”, “正”, and “正在” are used to indicate that an action is ongoing, while “着” is used after a Verb and Adjective to indicate the continuity of an action or a state.  Thus, “着” is mainly used for description. In the sentences above, the speaker focuses on the continuity of an action and not when or how the action is finished. So we can’t use “着” here.

Chinese has a different approach from other languages in indicating tenses. It can be tricky, but once you master it, using tenses will become more clear.

If you have any questions about this topic, feel free comment below. I`ll get back to you as soon as I can. Thanks, and I hope this article has helped you in your studies!

 

References:

吕叔湘,《现代汉语八百词》,商务印书馆

卢福波,《对外汉语教学实用语法》,北京语言大学出版社

荣继华编著,《发展汉语》初级汉语,北京语言大学出版社

Cecilia He

Cecilia majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. She has vast experience in educating her students on how to listen to and speak Chinese, and is trained to teach HSK courses. She has mastered the method and practice of teaching the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages as an academic subject, and has also done extensive research on Intercultural Communication and Sinology.