Tense and Tensibility

Anyone who has tried to learn a foreign language in school can tell that in a typical language course, much of the time is actually spent on learning how to use verbs. In the case of English, learning how to use the different tenses is a particularly important task, and a unique challenge to speakers of Chinese, which is a practically tenseless language.

The English word tense comes from tempus, the Latin word for ‘time’. Time is crucial to verbs because any real action or state expressed by a verb must exist and happen in time. In this case, the verb is said to be finite, in the sense that it is bound in time. As a result, in English and almost all other European languages, there is a rule saying that there must be one and only one finite verb in any complete simple sentence. A verb which does not refer to a real action carried out, but instead denotes that action in general (in other words, the idea of that action), must not be tensed, and must be in one of the several infinite forms, namely the (to-)infinitive form, the gerund, the present and past participles.

Chinese, on the other hand, does not distinguish between different tense forms. In fact, the form of a Chinese verb is always invariant no matter the action takes place in the past, the present or the future. Therefore, a verb carries no information on when the action takes place. Instead, the exact temporal relation is spelled out by time adverbials, as exemplified below, or simply left to the interpretation of the listener or reader.

1. 昨天 唱歌
  ta zuotian changge
  he yesterday sing
  “He sang yesterday.”
2. 每天 唱歌
  ta meitian changge
  he every day sing
  “He sings every day.”
3. 明天 唱歌
  ta mingtian changge
  he tomorrow sing
  “He will sing tomorrow.”

It is this peculiarity of Chinese verbs that leads to various sentence structures that are vastly different from those of English, and hence various related common mistakes in using English verbs by Chinese speakers. For example, beginning learners may use the base form of verbs in all occasions, as they do not possess the concept of tense at all. More advanced learners may be aware of the need of tenses, but are unable to use the right tense in the right situation at times. The causes of some other errors, on the other hand, are more complex.

Since tense is not marked in Chinese, there is no distinction between a finite and an infinite form of a verb. Consequently, there is no rule that requires a sentence to contain one and only one (finite) verb. Indeed, in Chinese there is a common sentence structure called serial verb construction, in which two verbs are concatenated together to form a complex verb. For instance, the verb 學會 (xuehui) consists of the verbs xue ‘learn’ and hui ‘can, be able to’, and means to have learned something and be able to do it now. Often times, Chinese speakers attempt to use a similar structure in English and produce (ungrammatical) phrases like “hit die” (kill) and “go die” (go to hell, literally “go to die”).

There is another structure in Chinese called the pivotal construction. A sentence with this structure has the following format:

(A) Verb1 B Verb2 (C)

In the sentence, B serves both as the object of Verb1 and the subject of Verb2. This is illustrated in 4a and 5a. This structure often confuses Chinese learners and misleads them to produce ungrammatical English sentences like 4b and 5b.

4a. 醫學
  wo quan ta xue yixue
  I advice he study medicine
  “I advice him to study medicine.”
4b. * I advice him study medicine.
5a.   一個 男孩 穿 粉紅色 衣服
    you yige nanhai chuan fenhongse yifu
  there is a boy wear pink clothes
  “There is a boy who wears pink clothes.”
5b. * There is a boy wears pink clothes.

To avoid these errors, there is only one golden rule: Remember that English is not Chinese (or any other language), and in English, there must be one and only one finite verb in any complete simple sentence. Verbs other than the main verb have to be in an infinite form.