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Aspect

Also known as: 动作状态 (dòngzuò zhuàngtài)  and 语态 (yǔtài).

Chinese does not use the concept of formal tenses. Instead, it employs what is called "grammatical aspect." Rather than conjugating its verbs, Chinese uses particles to indicate how a verb works within a particular timeframe, or how the verb relates to the flow of time. The particles most often used to indicate aspect in Chinese are 了 (le), 过 (guo), and 着 (zhe).

A New Mindset

Because Chinese does not have tenses, the question, "how do you form the past tense in Chinese?" is nonsensical. The real question is, "how do you refer to events in the past in Chinese?" You do this through aspect in Chinese, not tense[1].

Aspectual Particles

Aspect is expressed in Chinese through several key particles (click through for more information on each):

  1. 了: The Perfective Aspectual Particle
  2. 过: The Experiential Aspectual Particle
  3. 着: The Durative Aspectual Particle

Sources and further reading

  1. See Sinosplice.com: "Aspect, Not Tense"
  • 外国人实用汉语语法(中英文对照) (pp. 403 - 444)
  • Huang, Lillian Meei-jin, Davis Philip W., 黄美金, and 戴非力. "An Aspectual System in Mandarin Chinese / 汉语的表态系统." Journal of Chinese Linguistics 17.1 (1989): 128-66. Web.