How to ask, "What did you do yesterday?" in Chinese (the past tense) - 20 Questions to Basic Fluency #7

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:
Q: 你昨天做了什么?
Nǐ zuótiān zuò le shénme?
What did you do yesterday?


A: 我昨天中国菜。

Wǒ 
zuótiān chī
 le zhōngguó cài.

Yesterday I ate Chinese food.

Notice that the verb 吃  doesn't change, or get conjugated.  Adding
  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 +
+ OBJECT

For example:  I +
yesterday + ate +
+ 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 :

 

我昨天看了书。

Wǒ 
zuótiān kàn
 le 
shū.

Yesterday I read a book.
这周末我去公园。
Zhè zhōumò wǒ qù le
gōngyuán.

I went to the park this weekend.
 今天我喝三杯咖啡。
Jīn tiān wǒ hēle sān bēi kāfēi.


TodayI drank three cups of coffee.

 

There are some instances where
 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
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

 

Check out
 Question #4  and Question #6 for lists of verbs with objects that will work well in this pattern.  Please feel free to practice the pattern or leave comments in the reply below.


(photo credit 
blmurch)

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Comment by Ethan Nelson on February 21, 2013 at 4:16am

你们好,

我昨天学习了汉字, 今天我会学习拼音和更多汉字。

去年我在工作, 今年我在大学学习中文。

Comment by Lillian Hoffer on January 14, 2012 at 10:43am

These posts are super helpful! Thanks so much!


Teacher
Comment by Shu on January 11, 2012 at 9:44am

Hi Matt,

Great job.

can sometimes refer to the future, so don't assume that is always used to make something past tense. Yes, what you said is correct. If you predict that something might be happening under certain condition, then you can use le in future tense.

For example, ru2 guo3 ta1 hao3 hao3 du2 shu1, gong1 ke4 jiu4 hui4 hao3 le5. 如果他好好读书, 功课就会好了。If he could study well, his schoolwork will become better.

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