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Last time we took a look at how to say,
“What are you doing?” in Chinese. If you missed that discussion, take some time to
go back and answer the question in the reply.
(see all "20 Questions to Basic Fluency.")
Today we are looking at the past tense in Chinese and asking, “What did you do yesterday?” Unlike some other aspects of Chinese, using verb tenses is pretty simple. Here is today’s question and answer:
Nǐ zuótiān zuò le shénme?
What did you do yesterday?
Wǒ zuótiān chī le zhōngguó cài.
Yesterday I ate Chinese food.
Notice that the verb 吃 doesn't change, or get conjugated. Adding 了 behind the verb in this context signifies that the action is completed. So 吃了 translates to "ate" in this sentence. The past tense can be flexible in Chinese, but for now, just follow this pattern:
SUBJECT + TIME MARKER + VERB + 了+ OBJECT
For example: I + yesterday + ate + 了+ Chinese food.
In Chinese, the subject and the time marker can sometimes be switched, but the meaning stays the same. Here are some examples of both cases :
Wǒ zuótiān kàn le shū.
Yesterday I read a book. 这周末我去了公园。 Zhè zhōumò wǒ qù le gōngyuán.
I went to the park this weekend. 今天我喝了三杯咖啡。 Jīn tiān wǒ hēle sān bēi kāfēi.
TodayI drank three cups of coffee.
There are some instances where 了 might show up in a different location in the sentence or it may not be used at all. But for now just include a time marker and put the 了right after the verb (and before the object) in your sentence and you can be pretty sure that you are forming the past tense correctly. (It's also worth mentioning that 了 can sometimes refer to the future, so don't assume that 了 is always used to make something past tense.) Here are some past tense time markers that you can use in this pattern:
今天 － Jīntiān - today
昨天 － zuótiān - yesterday
前天 － qiántiān – the day before yesterday
大前天－ Dà qiántiān – three days ago
以前 － yǐqián - before
这周末 － zhè zhōumò – this weekend
这个星期 － zhège xīngqí – this week
上个星期 － shàng gè xīngqí – last week
上上个星期－shàng shàng gè xīngqí – week before last
这个月－ zhège yuè – the month
上个月－ shàng gè yuè – last month
上上个月－ shàng shàng gè yuè – the month before last
今年 － jīnnián – this year
去年 － qùnián – last year
前年 － qiánnián – the year before last year
大前年－ Dà qiánnián – three years ago
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