Aspect, not Tense

19 Nov 2009

You often hear people saying that Chinese has simple grammar, and the most often cited reason is that “Chinese has no tenses.” It’s true that Chinese verbs do not have tenses, but Chinese grammar does have a formal system for marking aspect. What is aspect? Most English speakers don’t even know.

I’ll quote from the Wikipedia entry on aspect:

> In linguistics, the grammatical aspect (sometimes called viewpoint aspect) of a verb defines the temporal flow (or lack thereof) in the described event or state. In English, for example, the present tense sentences “I swim” and “I am swimming” differ in aspect (the first sentence is in what is called the habitual aspect, and the second is in what is called the progressive, or continuous, aspect). The related concept of tense or the temporal situation indicated by an utterance, is typically distinguished from aspect.

So if the temporal situation (tense) of a verb is typically distinguished from aspect, shouldn’t we English-speakers be more familiar with it?

It turns out the situation is a bit muddled in English. From the same article:

> Aspect is a somewhat difficult concept to grasp for the speakers of most modern Germanic languages, because they tend to conflate the concept of aspect with the concept of tense. Although English largely separates tense and aspect formally, its aspects (neutral, progressive, perfect and progressive perfect) do not correspond very closely to the distinction of perfective vs. imperfective that is common in most other languages. Furthermore, the separation of tense and aspect in English is not maintained rigidly. One instance of this is the alternation, in some forms of English, between sentences such as “Have you eaten yet?” and “Did you eat yet?”. Another is in the past perfect (“I had eaten”), which sometimes represents the combination of past tense and perfect aspect (“I was full because I had already eaten”), but sometimes simply represents a past action which is anterior to another past action (“A little while after I had eaten, my friend arrived”). (The latter situation is often represented in other languages by a simple perfective tense. Formal Spanish and French use a past anterior tense in cases such as this.)

OK, it’s starting to become clearer why English-speakers aren’t familiar with aspect. But what’s this business about “English largely separates tense and aspect formally”?

> According to one prevalent account, the English tense system has only two basic tenses, present and past. No primitive future tense exists in English; the futurity of an event is expressed through the use of the auxiliary verbs “will” and “shall”, by use of a present form, as in “tomorrow we go to Newark”, or by some other means. Present and past, in contrast, can be expressed using direct modifications of the verb, which may be modified further by the progressive aspect (also called the continuous aspect), the perfect aspect, or both. These two aspects are also referred to as BE + ING[6] and HAVE +EN,[7] respectively.

Wikipedia also brings up how Mandarin Chinese fits in with regard to aspect:

> Aspect, as discussed here, is a formal property of a language. Some languages distinguish different aspects through overt inflections or words that serve as aspect markers, while others have no overt marking of aspect. […] Mandarin Chinese has the aspect markers -le, -zhe, and -guo to mark the perfective, durative, and experiential aspects,[3] and also marks aspect with adverbs….

If you study modern Chinese grammar, you’ll learn that Mandarin has three aspectual particles (时态助词): , , and . It would be nice if that were all there was to it, but the Chinese situation, similar to the English one, is a bit muddled. That’s about as clear as it gets.

In the case of , the word has a split personality and sometimes acts as an aspectual particle, sometimes as a modal particle (语气词), and sometimes both. There is endless fun to be had studying (I know; I took several syntax classes in grad school).

, on the other hand, is sometimes relieved of its aspectual duties by the adverbs or (or 正在). But then there are some that say that would prefer to draw fine distinctions between these usages as well.

It’s funny to think that Chinese grammar is still in its “Wild West” stage. Linguists are still debating all kinds of fundamental issues of grammar, both within China and without. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that. For learners who want to “know the rules,” this can be more than a little frustrating. The good news is that, like all languages, it rewards the persistent. The Kool-aid tastes downright weird at first, but if you just keep drinking it, it starts to taste right.

(If, however, you’re really interested in this whole aspect thing, I recommend you check out Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, which is about as close as you can get to “classic” in this turbulent field. It has over 50 pages devoted to aspect, with plenty of examples, but be warned: no Chinese characters!)


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. I think we’ll find that with Professor Shou-hsin Teng’s new classification system, his new textbook “jinri taiwan”, and his grammar analysis soon to be publishes, that we’re on the cusp on leaving the Wild West. He’s doing for Chinese what Eleanor Jorden did for Japanese in the 1960 in providing a seminal, structural-linguist’s analysis. He’s a professor at Shida in Taipei.

  2. Tom,

    Sounds interesting! I did a quick search for 今日台湾 and didn’t find anything good. Do you have a link? (Is it this?)

  3. hsknotes,

    Thanks for the link!

  4. How can you possibly write that book without using any characters? That’s downright shocking.

  5. @Kellen – Maybe it was considered too complicated/labor-intensive to use characters at the time (1989)? Not sure what the motivation was, but it doesn’t really seem like that big a deal.

  6. While I get that one can do without them, it just seems that since the context is the language itself and the depth being what it is, skipping characters seems quite an odd choice to me.

  7. The grammar is fully glossed, so you don’t need the characters (I’m not sure what you mean by “ the language itself and the depth being what it is”, I love characters myself, but you don’t need them for that kind of linguistic analysis like Li and Thompson do it).

    I think typesetting Chinese characters was a huge technical problem in the 80s (we had a Japanese typewriter in the 80s, a monster). Newer grammars such as Yip and Rimmington of course include characters as well.

  8. I remember having a very tough time writing my undergrad thesis on Chinese characters. Word processors at the time (MS Word) simply did not support Unicode or any kind of cross-language support. (It didn’t help that I needed to put simplified, traditional, and Japanese characters all in one document.) What I ended up having to do was make a tiny image of every single character I wanted to reference, and then insert each one manually into the appropriate spot in the document. Not fun!

    So it’s not hard for me to see why Li & Thompson skipped out on characters. Seems like it’s time for a new edition with Chinese characters, though.

  9. Although I must admit that I have taken classes on Chinese grammar, I almost never rely on the notes I take to study Chinese. Instead I usually opt for the lazier “语言感” to sort through my learning. Not always right, but much more rewarding!!!

    Great post, thanks!

  10. @Chris: If Yip and Rimmington use characters, that’s a recent change. The copy I bought in 2004/5 didn’t have them (well, there was a character index, but it was very vague).

  11. @Matt: I have the first edition, published in 2004. (Just so it’s clear we’re talking about the same book, I’m talking about “Chinese – A comprehensive grammar” by Routledge)

  12. David Moser Says: November 21, 2009 at 12:12 pm

    Great post, John! This is a very useful, succinct explanation of a commonly misunderstood “aspect” of Chinese (forgive the word choice here). And especially the brief explanation of “le” is good. Every semester I try to explain this to my new students and usually do a lousy job. I’m going to just copy this and pass it out to them from now on, if you don’t mind. Great tool!

  13. While you can say with conviction that “Chinese has aspect, not tense,” you can’t say a whole lot more than that.

    This statement is not true. I have discussed this issue with Chinese teachers here in Canada. They all say that Chinese has a different “system” for expressing both aspect and tense. I’m not a linguist, but intuitively, the concept of consistency across languages in terms of basic constructions of past, present and future, makes sense.

  14. Paul,

    I’m using the definition of tense in the Wikipedia article, which ties it to verb forms:

    Grammatical tense is a temporal linguistic quality expressing the time at, during, or over which a state or action denoted by a verb occurs.

    Using this definition (and I think it reflects the most widely held view of tense), it is true. If your teachers are revising the definition of tense, then yes, they could make all kinds of claims.

  15. David Moser,

    Of course I don’t mind! You have to give most of the credit for the explanations to Wikipedia, although I did rearrange it a bit.

  16. To offer a bit more on Tom’s comments, re: Shou-shin Teng. Teng is not only a first-class linguist, but also a long time teacher of Chinese. His goal in the past decade or so has been to build a pedagogical grammar of Chinese, that is, a grammar that will help students and teachers, rather than push forward structural theories (though it may do that as well). Teng retired last year, but the fruits of he and his colleagues’ labors will be made available in the near future. “Jinri Taiwan” in its newest revision will have grammar presentation that flows from that work. (I’m not sure if that revision is available yet.) I recently returned from this year’s CLTA conference where Teng led a panel and mentioned that the results of his group’s research will “soon” be made available, particularly studies of 1000 words/grammar issues that they have studied. Expect it to be pretty heady stuff.

  17. After reading this (referred here by the Aspect page on the Chinese Grammar wiki) I really wanted a simple summary of how to think about 了,着 and 过 in one place.

    I found the Aspect section of the wikipedia page on Chinese grammar useful for helping explain aspect as it relates to 了,着 and 过.

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