Published: April 21, 2024

Name: Griffen Reese  
Advisor: Prof. Andy Cowell
Class: LING 4420: Morphology and Syntax
Semester: Fall 2023
LURA 2024


Given the global influence of the English language and its extensive international use, many native speakers may have a preconceived notion about the structure of languages. Especially when considering languages more commonly known in the United States, like Spanish and French, it may be easy to develop baseline assumptions about how all languages work. However, if we consider a wider perspective, we can draw many fascinating conclusions about the versatility of language.

Pǔtōnghuà, which translates to ‘common tongue’, is the official language of the People’s Republic of China. It is a member of the Sinitic language group, commonly used to refer to all languages spoken in China. Pǔtōnghuà is specifically based on a variation of a Mandarin dialect spoken primarily in Beijing. One of the biggest differences between Pǔtōnghuà and English is the lack of tense markings. This means that Pǔtōnghuà has no specific grammatical way of indicating the past or future, like English. In English, we can simply take a verb like ‘jump’, and change it to ‘jumped’ or ‘will jump’. Pǔtōnghuà has no respective ‘-ed ’ or ‘will-’, so is it even possible for speakers to convey this kind of information, and if so, how would they do it?

Different languages may have different structures, but ultimately serve the same purpose as a tool of communication. Being able to talk about the time at which events occurred is important to us as humans and impacts our understanding of the world around us. It’s not true for speakers of any language that the past is some unknown concept. But without some specific markings to say whether an action has happened in the past, how can speakers give more specificity and description to the action?

Instead of tense, Pǔtōnghuà relies heavily on the use of another grammatical category: aspect. Aspect refers to the way an event plays out over time, or how it is related to the flow of time. This is different from tense, which simply refers to when something happens. This is done through the use of various grammatical markers called particles, which are combined with other words or phrases to create meaning. It helps to think of these as general ideas about an event, rather than comparing them to actual English words.

The following examples illustrate how the use of aspect in Pǔtōnghuà may lead to ambiguity in English.

猫正在睡觉 猫在睡觉
Māo zhèngzài shuìjiào Māo zài shuìjiào
'The cat is sleeping' 'The cat is sleeping'
In this case, 正在 (zhèngzài) is used to indicate the that the cat is in the process of sleeping and is currently engaged in the act. In this case, 在 (zài) is used to indicate the ‘sleeping’ state that the cat is in, and places less focus on the act itself.

In English, both examples mean essentially the same thing, but Pǔtōnghuà has specific tools for describing what the particular focus of this sentence should be.
The particle 了 (le) is the most common and versatile.

One of its uses is to describe tasks that people have already finished. More specifically, it signifies a change in state or the completion of an act. However, it is important to note that this isn’t an expression of tense, since it can be used to describe both past and present events.

Consider the following examples:

昨天 我偷了三辆车 我到了城里卖掉我偷的车

Zuótiān wǒ tōu le sān liàng chē tōu de chē

Wǒ dào le chéng lǐ mài diào wǒ
'I stole three cars yesterday'  'I've come to the city to sell the cars I stole'
In this case, 'stole' describes a completed act which also happened to take place in the past. This understanding is implied by the use of the temporal word 'yesterday', giving us a specific time as a reference point for the event. In this case, 'I've come' also describes a completed act, but is still in the present, since it's still relevant to what is happening. This sentence implies that you are now in the city, and are now going to sell the stolen cars.

Depending on the situation, 了 (le) can also be used to describe the duration or continuation of an action. In this case, it conveys that an action has lasted for a certain amount of time or that it has been continued into the present.

Zhè zhōu wǒ jiābānle yītiān
'I worked overtime one day this week'

了(le) is not just limited to past or present, but can also be applied to future changes. It implies that an action or state will be different from what they are now.

Wǒmíngtiān huì qù lǚxíng le
'I will go on a trip tomorrow'

With so many potential uses, the meaning of 了 (le) is highly dependent on the surrounding context. Languages may be fundamentally different in the methods they use to portray certain pieces of information. The existence of past, present and future tense is something many English speakers may see as self-evident, however; this is clearly not the case. Not only does Pǔtōnghuà illustrate this as one of its fundamental differences in the use of aspect over tense, but it also shows how the same information can be communicated through other means.


Title Image Credit


  1. Duration expressions in Chinese 2024. LC Chinese School. (2023, April 6).
  2. Navigating aspect particles: Mastering “了” (le) for time expression in Chinese. LC Chinese School. (2024, February 15).
  3. That’s Mandarin. (2023, January 27). “Chinese” vs. “Mandarin”: What’s the difference? (beginners Q&A)