The aspect markers of the verb (use of particles 过, 正, 在 and 着)

The meaning of the verb

In the Chinese language, the verb can be followed or preceded by several specific particles that specify its meaning. These specific particles, the majority of the time, are pronounced in the neutral tone.

In this article we’ll see the particles that indicate the aspect of the verb.

The completed aspect of the verb by means of the particle 过

To indicate the completed aspect of the verb, or to represent the action as an experience had at least once in life or to indicate an action as a completed event, one would use the particle 过 (guò), which is inserted to the right of the verb to which it refers:

Wǒ qù guo Běijīng.
I’ve been to Beijing.

Wǒ méi qù guo Shànghǎi.
I’ve never been to Shanghai.

Wǒ chī guo Zhōngguó cài.
I ate Chinese food.

Wǒ méi chī guo Tàiguó cài.
I’ve never eaten Thai food.

Wǒ kàn guo Hālì Bōtè.
I read Harry Potter.

Wǒ méi kàn guo Quánlì de yóuxì.
I’ve never seen “The throne of Swords”.

Note that the negating adverb 没 (méi) can also be followed by the verb 有 (yǒu), which means “to have / to have been” without this affecting the meaning of the phrase. Here’s an example:

Bùxìng, tā méiyǒu xiěguo yī běn xiǎoshuō.
Unfortunately he has never written me a novel.

Note that the particle 过 is used when speaking of actions in which the subject doesn’t regularly do or actions that happened in the distant past. Here are two examples:

Wǒ kàn guo nà ge diànyǐng.
I saw that film (in the past).

Wǒ shuō guo tā bù shì hǎo rén.
I said that he wasn’t a good person.

Rule: when there are two verbs in a simple phrase, 过 must follow the second verb. In this case, the second verb indicates the reason for the first verb. The first verb, for this reason can be 来 (lái), which means “to come”, 去 (qù), which means “to go”, or 用 (yòng), which means “to use”.

Here’s an example:

Wǒ méi yòng kuàizi chī guo fàn.
I’ve never eaten using chopsticks.

As you can see in the preceding phrase, when you want to indicate the completed aspect of a verb that supports an object – in this case 吃饭 (chīfàn), which means “to eat”, the particle 过 is inserted between the verb and the object. For example:

开汽车 (kāi qìchē), which means “to drive the car”, becomes 开过汽车 (kāiguo qìchē), or “I drove the car”.

教汉语 (jiāo Hànyǔ), which means “to teach Chinese”, becomes 教过汉语 (jiāoguo Hànyǔ), or “I taught Chinese”.

吃日本菜 (chī Rìběn cài), which means “to eat Japanese food”, becomes 吃过日本菜 (chīguo Rìběn cài), or “I ate Japanese food”.

It’s worth studying the structures tied to the particle 过 since it is frequently used in Chinese:

“Not yet…” -> 还没(有) (hái méi (yǒu)) + Verb + 过 + (呢 (ne))

Wǒ hái méi qù guo Běijīng ne.
I still haven’t gone to Beijing.

Wǒ hái méi chī guo Zhōngguó cài.
I still haven’t eaten Chinese food.

For the written form, it is recommended to use the more formal 尚未 (shàngwèi), which always means “not yet”, derived from the classical:

Tú lǎoshī de xuésheng shàngwèi qùguo Zhōngguó.
Professor Tu’s students have not yet gone to China.

“I have never…” -> 从来没(有) (cóng lái méi (yǒu)) + Verb + 过

Wǒ cóng lái méi yǒu chī guo zhèlǐ de cài.
I have never eaten food from these parts.

Curiosity: A phrase with the particle 过 can have the modal particle 了 (le) at the end to emphasize the sense of something that has already been done. It is very common to find a phrase that contains both particles listed above. Here’s an example:

Wǒ kàn guo le “ā fán dá”.
I have already seen “Avatar”.

To make a more formal and elegant phrase with 过 , you can insert the word 曾经 (céngjīng), “once/ always”. The negative form is 不曾 (bùcéng) / 未曾 (wèicéng) + Verb + 过.

Here are two examples:

J.K. Luó Lín céngjīng chū guò Hālì Bōtè xìliè de zuòpǐn.
J.K. Rowling published the works of the Harry Potter series.

Wǒ wèi céng xiě guò yī běn xiǎoshuō.
I have never written a novel.

Actions in the course of development using the particles 正 and 在

To indicate an action in the course of development or at its conclusion at the time being referred to, you use the adverbs that are always positioned to the left of the verb.

The adverbs to indicate an action in progress are: 正 (zhèng), which means “in the middle of”, 在 (zài), which means “about to do”, 正在 (zhèng zài), which means “right in the middle of”.

The action in progress can take place in the past, present or future. Here are some examples:

Nǐ zài zuò shénme? Wǒ zhèng xuéxí, nǐ ne? Wǒ zhèng zài chī fàn.
What are you doing? I’m studying, and you? I am eating.

To emphasize an unfinished situation you often use the modal particle 呢 (ne) inserted at the end of the phrase.

Wǒmen zuò tiān zhè ge shíhou zài chū fā ne.
Yesterday at this time we were leaving.

Míngtiān zhè ge shíhou wǒ zhèngzài shàng kè ne.
Tomorrow at this time we’ll have the lesson.

It is also plausible to use only the modal particle 呢, at the end of the phrase without the use of one of the aforementioned adverbs.

Tāmen shuō huà ne.
They are speaking.

Tāmen chī fàn ne.
They are eating.

Xiàyǔ ne.
It is raining.

To respond “yes/no” to a question pertaining to an action in progress, you can use 对 (duì), which means “correct”, 不对 (bù duì), which means “incorrect”, 没有 (méi yǒu), which means “no”, and 不是 (bù shì), which always means “no”.

Here’s an example:

Nǐ zài shàng wǎng ma? Méi yǒu, wǒ zài zuò gōngkè.
Are you on the internet? No, I am doing my homework.

To form a phrase in the negative form, depending if it is an action happening in the present, future or past, you use one of the following structures:

Present / future -> 不是在 (bù shì zài) + Verb

Past -> 没(有)在 (méi (yǒu) zài) + Verb

Wǒ bù shì zài chīfàn.
I am not eating.

Wǒ zuótiān zhè ge shíhou wǒ méi zài shuìjiào.
Yesterday at this time I was not sleeping.

Attention: the progressive form can also be used with adjectives that indicate a psychological state or temporary feeling, such as 的时候 (de shíhou), or one of the time-related expressions of the Chinese language that can be translated as “while/when”.

Tā zhèng zài nán guò de shíhou, tā de gǒu huí jiā le
Just when he was sad, his dog came back home.

The continuing of an action of state of action using the particle 着

To indicate the persistence of the action of a verb you need to add the particle 着 (zhe) right after the verb it is referring to. Here are some examples:

Tāmen zhèng tīng zhe yīnyuè.
They are listening to music.

Tāmen zài kàn zhe diànshì.
They are watching television.

Note that when you express the continuation of a generic action (to watch, listen to, eat) it is preferable to omit the particle 着, and exclusively use the adverbs 正 , 在, 正o 在.

The particle 着 is however obligatory in the presence of verbs that express actions that are temporary or momentary. After verbs such as 坐 (zuò) “to sit oneself”, 穿 (chuān) “to put on”, 站 (zhàn) “to stand up”, 开 (kāi) “to open”, 戴 (dài) “to put” (glasses, hair), 贴 (tiē) “to glue/attach”, 摆 (bǎi) “to place”, 等 (děng) “to wait”, 点 (diǎn) “to turn on” (the light), the particle 着 indicates the persistence of the state derived from the action of the verb.

Here are a few examples:

Wǒ chuān zhe T xù.
I put on the T-shirt.

Xué sheng zuò zhe, lǎoshī zhàn zhe.
The students are seated; the professor is standing.

Dà mén kāi zhe.
The gate is open.

Zhuōzi shang bǎi zhe huā.
The flowers are placed on the table.

Lǎoshī dài zhe yǎnjīng.
The professor brings the eyeglasses.

Tāmen děng zhe wǒ.
They are waiting for me.

Dēng diǎn zhe.
The lamp is turned on.

Dēng liàng zhe.
The light is turned on.

Important: when in a phrase the verb that requires the particle 着 is found in a subordinate phrase, it expresses a contemporary relationship with the verb of the principle phrase. In the majority of cases, this contemporary relationship is expressed using the gerund tense.

Here are a few examples:

Lǎoshī zhàn zhe shàng kè.
The professors gives the lesson standing up.

Xuésheng zuò zhe tīng kè.
The students listen to the lecture sitting down.

Xiǎo háizi kū zhe shuōhuà.
The child speaks while crying.

Tāmen chàng zhe huānyíng lǎoshī.
They welcomed the professor by singing.

It is worth mentioning the following construction which is often used in modern Chinese:
Verb 1 + 着 + Verb 1 + 着 + Verb 2

This construction indicates the interruption of an action or a state that persists, followed by the start of a new action or the change of a state of being. This is one of the constructions that we foreigners have a hard time mastering, so practice a lot!

Here are a few examples:

Zhè běn shū hěn yǒu yìsi, wǒ kàn zhe kàn zhe xiào le.
This book is interesting, while I read it I start laughing.

Tā zǒu zhe zǒu zhe pǎo le.
While he walked he began running.

Tā kàn diànshì, kàn zhe kàn zhe shuìjiào le.
While he watched television he fell asleep.

Tā hē jiǔ, hē zhe hē zhe hēzuì le.
While he drank he got drunk.

Note that the particle 了 is the most appropriate one to indicate change.

Another commonly used construction which indicates that the speaker is busy doing something is the following:

忙着 (mángzhe) + Verb

忙 (máng) is a predicative adjective, which means “to be busy, to be occupied”

Here are a few examples:

Nǐ máng zhe zuò shénme?
What are you busy doing?

Wǒ máng zhe kànshū.
I am busy reading.

Nǐ máng zhe xuéxí ma?
Are you busy studying?

Méi yǒu, wǒ máng zhe wán’er.
No, I am busy playing.

Curiosity: being busy doing something in China is considered something noble, honorable, so much so that the greeting that has always been popular in China represented as 吃了饭没有?(chi le fan mei you?), which means “Have you eaten?” is gradually disappearing, being replaced by the more common 最近忙吗? (zuijin mang ma?), which means: “Are you busy lately?”

Photo Credits: Creative Commons License Chinese characters by 8 Kome

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