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The Future Tense in Chinese: Describing Upcoming Events Without Verb Conjugation

While Mandarin Chinese grammar is often considered a unique challenge for learners, students of the language can rejoice in one aspect of grammatical simplicity: there is no verb conjugation in Chinese. In contrast to languages like English, Mandarin employs distinct methods for conveying past, present, and future tenses without altering the form of its verbs. Instead, it utilizes alternative approaches to indicate imminent or near-future events. Here, we’ll delve into several of these techniques, which will prove highly practical and contribute to improving your proficiency in both written and spoken Chinese.

Method 1: 要……了

To indicate that something will happen soon, you can use 要(yào)……了(le); or you can put 就(jiù) or 快(kuài) before 要(yào) to make 就要(jiù yào)……了(le) or 快要(kuài yào)……了(le).

For example:

电影要开始了,你快点儿!(Diànyǐnɡ yào kāishǐ le, nǐ kuài diánr!)
The movie is about to start, hurry up!

飞机就要起飞了。(Fēijī jiùyào qǐfēi le.)
The airplane is about to take off.

船快要开了。(Chuán kuàiyào kāi le.)
The ship is about to leave.

Method 2: 快……了

We can also describe future events using 快(kuài)……了(le), which is similar to 要(yào)……了(le).

For example:

饭快煮好了。(Fàn kuài zhǔ hǎo le.)
The rice is almost cooked.

经理快来了。(Jīnɡlǐ kuài lái le.)
The manager is about to arrive.

To turn these sentences into questions, add 吗(ma) at the end followed by a question mark. The negative response to these questions is 没有(méi yǒu).

For example:

— 老师要开始上课了吗?(Lǎoshī yào kāishǐ shànɡkè le mɑ?)
Will the teacher start class soon?

— 没有。(Méi yǒu.)
Not yet.

— 会议快结束了吗?(Huìyì kuài jiéshù le mɑ?)
Will the meeting be over soon?

—没有。(Méi yǒu.)
Not yet.


快……了 VS (快)要……了

Generally speaking, 快(kuài)……了(le) and 要(yào)……了(le).  can be substituted for each other, but there are still some differences, as shown below:

+ Verb/Adjective/ Time words/Quantifiers +

For example:

车快/要开了。(Chē kuài/yào kāi le.)
The car is about to leave.

粥快/要冷了。(Zhōu kuài/yào lěnɡ le.)
The porridge is getting cold.

(Kuài chūnjié le, tā zhǔnbèi hǎo huíjiā ɡuò chūnjié le.)
The Spring Festival is coming, and he is ready to go home and spend it there.

我快十岁了,我不小了。(Wǒ kuài shísuì le,wǒ bù xiǎo le.)
I’m almost ten years old; I’m not young anymore.

“快要……了” VS “就要……了”

In general, 快要(kuài yào) ……了(le) and 就要(jiù yào)……了(le) are interchangeable. However, the key difference lies in using 就要(jiù yào)……了(le) when a specific time is mentioned in the sentence, in which case “快要……了” is not a suitable option.

For example:

他们明天就要出发了。(Tāmen mínɡtiān jiù yào chūfā le.)
They will set out tomorrow.

爸爸后天就要出差了。(Bàbɑ hòutiān jiùyào chūchāi le.)
My father will be on a business trip the day after tomorrow.


Embracing the intricacies of Mandarin’s near-future expressions might seem like a small step, but it opens the door to a richer understanding of this fascinating language. As you delve into these methods and familiarize yourself with their nuances, you’ll find that the seemingly complex task of conveying imminent events becomes a commonplace part of your Mandarin communication toolkit. Remember, language is not just about words; it’s about the subtle art of expression.

If your native language involves changing the form of verbs to indicate past, present, or future events, adapting to how Chinese expresses tense might initially seem challenging. The transition may take some time, but with consistent practice and a keen grasp of contextual usage, you’ll find that understanding these expressions becomes remarkably intuitive. Before you know it, you’ll seamlessly integrate them into your language repertoire, contributing to your growing expertise in Mandarin.

So, keep practicing, keep immersing yourself in the context, and soon enough, you’ll find yourself effortlessly navigating the realm of Mandarin’s linguistic landscape.

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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.

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