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How to Tell Tenses in Chinese -Use the Adverbs and Nouns of Time Correctly

Unlike English and some other languages, Chinese doesn’t have a specialized pattern of verb changes to indicate tenses. So how do the Chinese tell the different tenses apart? Well, we usually use time words to express different tenses, and these words might be adverbs, nouns, or phrases. To be able to tell the different tenses apart in Chinese, it’s important to master those words.

In modern Chinese language, there are about 130 adverbs of time, which take up almost 30% of all the adverbs, and it is necessary to master how to use them. But Chinese learners usually mix up adverbs of time with nouns of time. There are several reasons why they do that.

First, some adverbs of time have the same grammatical functions as the nouns of time, that is, both of them can be an adverbial modifier. For example:

他常常吃中餐。(Tā chángcháng chī zhōngcān.) He often eats Chinese food.”

他现在去学校。(Tā xiànzài qù xuéxiào.)He goes to school now.”

“常常”is an adverb of time and situated right after the subject as the adverbial modifier in the sentence. “现在” is a noun of time and acts as the adverbial modifier in the sentence, too. And a small number of adverbs of time can even be an attribute modifier, same as the nouns of time. For example:

曾经的朋友(céngjīng de péngyǒu) Once a friend”.

Second, some adverbs of time and nouns of time have similar meanings. For example: “刚gāng” and“刚才gāngcái”, both indicate “in a very short time.”

Although adverbs of time and nouns of time are similar in many ways, they still have some differences which we should not confuse.

  1. Adverbs of time cannot be the subject and object, while nouns of time can.
  2. Nouns of time can be the adverbial modifier when it constitutes a prepositional phrase with prepositions.

I will differentiate with two groups of words to help you understand why these two types of words are different.

1.曾经 VS 当时

First, look at the following sentences and study which words are the adverbs of time and which words are the nouns of time.







(1)   a.我曾经是个老师。

(Wǒ céngjīng shì ge lǎoshī.)

I used to be a teacher.

(1)   b.我当时是个老师。

(Wǒ dāngshíshìge lǎoshī.)

I was a teacher at that time.

Adverbial modifier
(2)   a.我曾经学过画画。

(Wǒ céngjīng xuéguòhuàhua.)

I have learned to draw paintings.


(3)   a.我曾经上了几年学。

(Wǒ céngjīng shàngle jǐ nián xué.)

I have been studying for a few years.

(4)   a.我曾经忙了几天。

(Wǒ céngjīng máng le jǐ tiān.)

I have been busy for several days.

(2)   b.我当时正在学画画。

(Wǒ dāngshí zhèngzài xuéhuàhua.)

I was learning to draw paintings at that time.

(3)   b.我当时上了几年学。

(Wǒ dāngshíshàngle jǐ nián xué.)

I was studying some years ago during that period.

(4)   b.我当时忙了几天。

(Wǒ dāngshímáng le jǐ tiān.)

I was busy for a few days.

Adverbial modifier
(5)   当时还很热,但已是秋天了。

(Dāngshí hái hěn rè, dàn yǐshìqiūtiān le.)

It was hot then, although it was already autumn.

Adverbial modifier
(6)   a.我曾经并不知道。

(Wǒ céngjīng bìng bù zhīdào.)

I didn’t know.

(6) b.我当时并不知道。

(Wǒ dāngshíbìng bù zhīdào.)

I didn’t know then.

Adverbial modifier
(7)   a.曾经的我不知道未来在


(Céngjīng de wǒbù zhīdào wèilái zài nǎli.)

I didn’t know where my future was.

(7) b.当时的我不知道未来在哪


(Dāngshíde wǒbù zhīdào wèilái zài nǎli.)

At that time, I didn’t know where my future was.



(8)在当时的情况下, 这样做是对的。

(Zài dāngshíde qíngkuàng xià, zhèyàng zuòshìduìde.)

It was right to do so at that given time.

As the object in a



Now, do you see the part of speech of “曾经”and “当时”after reading these sentences? I believe all of you already know, because in sentence (5), “当时” is the subject and in sentence (8), it is the object of the prepositional phrase“在当时”. Remember what I said? Only nouns of time can be the subject and object, so “当时” is a noun of time, while “曾经”cannot be the subject and object, so it should be an adverb of time.

In addition to this, the actual meanings of “曾经” and “当时” have some differences, although both of them express a past time. The scope and emphasis of their meanings are different. “曾经” indicates a past time which has no specific reference. “当时” indicates a point in time which is mentioned in a specific context.

From the sentences (1)a and (1)b, we can view the difference clearly. The meaning of (1)a is I was a teacher in the past, while the meaning of (1)b is during that particular period, I was a teacher. The difference of meanings of sentence(3)a and (3)b, (4)a and (4)b, (6)a and (6)b, 7(a) and 7(b), are the same as that of (1)a and(1)b.

It is also worth noting that“曾经”is one of the few adverbs of time which can act as the attribute modifier. What’s more, “曾经” always matches with “过” when it modifies the predicate in the sentence, and sometimes it also matches with“了”. However, “当时” cannot be used with “过”.

Incidentally, “当时” has two pronunciations. When read as “dāngshí”, it is a noun of time, whose meaning is “then, at that time, for the moment”. When read as “dàngshí”, it is an adverb of time, whose meaning is “immediately, right away, at once”. In this article, we only talked about the first meaning. You should not confuse the second meaning of “当时” with “曾经”, because their meanings are totally different.

2.正在 VS 现在








(1)   a.你正在开车,不可以玩手机。

(Nǐzhèngzài kāichē, bùkěyǐwán shǒujī.)

You are driving right now, you cannot play with the telephone.

(1)   b.你现在正在开车,不可以玩手机。

(Nǐzhèngzài kāichē, bùkěyǐwán shǒujī.)

You are driving right now, you cannot play with telephone.


Adverbial modifier

(Ni gěi wǒ dǎ diànhuà de shíhou, wǒ zhèngzài dǎ yóuxì.)

I was playing games when you were calling me.

  Adverbial modifier
  (4) 我现在开车上班,不坐地铁了。

(Wǒ xiànzài kāichē shàngbān, bú zuò dìitiǐle.)

Now I drive to work and don’t take the subway.

Adverbial modifier
  (1)   现在是10点半。

(Xiànzài shìshídiǎn bàn.)

It is half past ten now.

  (2)   我们要珍惜现在。

(Wǒmen yào zhēnxīxiànzài.)

We should cherish the present time.

  (3)   现在的天气很好。

The weather now is very nice.

(Xiànzài de tiānqìhěn hǎo.)



Look at the sentences above and follow the same method we used when we studied the first set of words. You can see which ones are the adverbs of time, and which ones are the nouns of time. Obviously, “正在” is an adverb of time, and “现在” is a noun of time. “正在” expresses that an action is going on or in progress, which is similar to the use of -ing in English. We can see this from sentences (1)a and (3). While the meaning of “现在”is “now”, you will know how to use it from the sentences (1)b,(2),(4)-(6).

It’s the time to check the results of your learning!

曾经 VS 当时

  1. 鲁迅(Lǔxùn)____ 学过医。
  2. ____,他的画卖得很好。

正在 VS 现在

  1. 他 ___ 非常想回家。
  2. 孩子们 ___ 睡觉。

Zhang Yu

After graduating from University majoring in Teaching Chinese As A Second Language in 2011, Zhang Yu worked as a book editor about Chinese traditional culture and juvenile reading for 3 years. In 2015, she became a graduate student of Beijing Foreign Studies University, and continued to study international Chinese education. Now she is a Chinese teacher in Confucius institute in Palacký University, Olomouc in Czech Republic.

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