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I was listening to this 听力练习 on this beautiful day, staring at the little mountain outside my window. 莉莉:英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?

I, swift as an eagle, think ‘Yingzi, aren't you working for a company?’

英子:是的。

I, swift as an eagle, think 'Yes'

英子:5年前,我在公司做秘书,工作强度大,时间长,薪水又不高,挺辛苦的。有了孩子以后,我就辞职了。

I, swift as an eagle, think ‘Wait a minute, Lilly just asked if she worked for a company, and Yingzi said '是的’。 These women are crazy! Yingzi resigned after she had a baby!

Go back, listen again.

莉莉:英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?, 英子:是的。not 英子:没有啊。 莉莉:英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?here means ‘Yingzi, weren't you working for a company?’

I have looked for and found instances of '是了‘ and '是过’ but I think that the meaning was not to indicate that the given event was somewhere in the past.

他们过去是好朋友, 但现在已不再是了. 整个儿说起来, 我们的日子是过得挺痛快的.

Generally speaking, is it not possible to indicate 'was' or 'were' on '是‘ or '在‘??

  • I think the problem is more with the train of thought than with the actual language. Your understanding is absolutely correct - it doesn't make any sense to say 'yes' and then say 'but I quit'. 英子 must have some logic problems. – Mo. Dec 5 '14 at 8:51
  • Could we have a sneak peak into the conversation that immediately preceded 莉莉's question? Context is important in Chinese, the the sentence(s) immediately before the question could give you some clue, why this supposedly strange linguistic situation occurs. – imrek Dec 5 '14 at 10:58
  • Sorry, but that was the start of the 听力练习, otherwise I would have posted it, knowing that context is important – Pedroski Dec 5 '14 at 11:47
  • +1 "I, swift as an eagle, ..." x3. I think it's funny. Is that some expression from some language? – The Red Pea Dec 30 '15 at 21:03
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Think about it like this. Let's say we recap this conversation in English, but omit any tenses:

  • L: Yingzi, be not you working for a company?

  • Y: Yes, I be. 5 years ago, I be a sectary blah blah. Then I quit.

You would have no problem inferring the tense of these sentences, right?

Chinese language is just like that. It doesn't depend on using different forms of verbs to indicate tense. You just have to infer that information from the context. And put enough information in your sentences for others to grasp your idea.

You may have seen something like 爱过, 爱了 in Chinese but they are not equivalents of "loved" in English. They are just 爱(love) with additional information 过 or 了 to indicate the action of love happened in the past or have been completed. There's no such a thing as past tense (or any tense) of a verb in Chinese.

This ambiguity makes Chinese language more versatile (and more difficult to learn).

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Well, again, some context would be useful here. However, I'd venture a guess and say that Yingzhi has not lied, and that in responding with an affirmative she was affirming that she was a current holder of a job, and that her description of the harsh working conditions was of her previous job.

In other words:

莉莉:英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?, 英子:是的。not 英子:没有啊。 莉莉:英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?here means ‘Yingzi, weren't you working for a company?’

Your interpretation here was not correct, and that Lilly's question meant ‘Yingzi, AREN't you working for a company?’

Again, I could be wrong.

ATQ: Chinese depends very much on the context of things, the "上文下理" of a conversation.

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  • I agree with your interpretation, but "aren't you working?" and "are you working?" mean the same in English (+/- the implicit expectation of an affirmative answer in the first case). So I would rather translate it more accurately (though not more idiomatically) like "Yingzi, you are NOT working for a company, RIGHT?" – Leo supports Monica Cellio Dec 12 '14 at 21:07
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I can imaging how this conversation came into being:

Lily: Angela, aren't you working at a company?

Angela: No. I was a secretary there 5 years ago. Tough job. I quit after I gave birth to my baby.

The translator, being a properly educated Chinese, thought "Isn't this the case where I should give a logical answer to this question? My junior school teacher taught me that." Then, swift as an eagle, she translated "No" to "是的".

In fact it doesn't make sense. There are some weird reflections planted to the Chinese ESL learners' brains and they misfire every now and then. It all starts when they encounter this:

You don't smoke, do you?

It is directly translated to:

你不抽烟,你抽吗?

A Chinese would think this is Funny. What they will say is:

你不抽烟吧?

If you really don't, you answer with "不啊!". The same as in English, "No, I don't." So far so good.

Then someone decided that there is a better translation:

你不抽烟,对不对?

Translating back to English is:

You don't smoke, correct or not?

If you really don't, you answer "That's correct!" Similarly, a Chinese will answer "对!" Still good so far.

The confusion arises when one uses 是不是 instead of 对不对. In fact they are synonyms in Chinese, so the conversation becomes:

你不抽烟,是不是?—— You don't smoke, correct or not?

是的,我不抽。—— Correct, I don't.

But then again, English speakers usually don't speak like that, what they normally do is:

你不抽烟,是不是?—— You don't smoke, do you?

是的,我不抽。—— No, I don't.

That's why the Chinese think "是的" is equal to "No". Now the circle is complete.

The problem is that many Chinese ESL learners didn't go through this kind of reasoning. All they remember is "When you see an answer to a rhetorical questions in English, you translates Yes to and No to ". It becomes some sort of automatic response. And now it comes to haunt Chinese learners.

Back to the original dialog. When Lily is asked "你不是在一家公司工作吗", it's the same as in "你不抽烟吗", the negative answer should be 不是.

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  • You think '不是'in '英子,你不是在一家公司工作吗?' is really '是不是‘?? '是不是 = are you or aren't you‘'不是 = aren't you’ An English speaker will never say 'Yes, I'm not' or 'Yes, I don't' even though it is impeccable logic. That's what the Chinese have: impeccable logic. (Except maybe my girlfriend, but don't tell her I said that!) – Pedroski Dec 6 '14 at 4:00
  • No. In the original question 你不是...? is equal to Aren't you...?. "是不是" is equal to "correct or incorrect" rather than "Are you or aren't you". – Wang Dingwei Dec 6 '14 at 4:22
  • This is the correct answer. Same as my answer: Yingzi misspoke. – user1032613 Dec 8 '14 at 15:01
  • +1, I've always wondered if Chinese did a positive confirmation of a negative statement, like Japanese did. Since it's less common to hear it, I always assumed Chinese sidestepped the issue by simply responding with 我不抽 ... also ... is it common to hear 你不抽烟,是不是? rather than 你抽不抽烟? or something like 你会抽烟吗? – Ming Jan 14 '15 at 6:17
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    @Ming Question tags are of limited use in English and it's even more so in Chinese. So no, you don't hear "你不抽烟,是不是?" as often as the other two. Actually you may never hear it. The Chinese usually ask 你不抽烟吧 and get an answer of 抽 or 不抽. – Wang Dingwei Jan 14 '15 at 7:47
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As a native Chinese speaker, without any additional context, I assure you Yingzi misspoke. Lily clearly meant, "Aren't you working for a company?", with a hint of "I remember you told me you were / I'm sure you are". If Yingzi has quit, she should answer "I was, but not any more."

I suggest you to not bother too much about this, treat it as an error of the listening exercise, and move on.

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  • Thanks. Sorry, that is the beginning of the exercise, there is nothing before it to go on. Later she tells her friend how she has started a 网店。 她得说‘不了’?? – Pedroski Dec 5 '14 at 22:56
  • Ask a Chinese a question in the negtive, 'Aren't you coming to the party?' they will answer logically correct: 'Yes' (I'm not coming to the party) whereas a Westerner will answer, logically incorrect 'No, I'm not coming to the party.' Perhaps this is related to 英子的回答。 – Pedroski Dec 5 '14 at 23:30
  • Suppose Yingzi does not work for a company anymore: 你不是在一家公司工作吗?不是/不在/不对 should be the appropriate response. 你是不是不在一家公司工作?是/对/不在 should be the appropriate response. In this case, Yingzi misspoke. – user1032613 Dec 8 '14 at 14:59
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Generally speaking, it is impossible to express the difference you intend just by changing verb form. 是, adjectives, and many other verbs are stative and they do not shift the reference time. We must either use particles like 了 or 过, or temporal adverbs like 以前 to set the reference time to the past.

Dynamic verbs are usually accompanied by particles and auxiliaries like 了, 会, etc, which normally put the time reference to the past or the future. Stative description usually complements dynamic one. I think this is generally true in many languages, so lacking tense is not particularly disturbing.

The only tricky case might be the counterfactual use of the past tense and when the verb is stative, as in your question. When you say I was working, you imply I am not working. In this case, adding contrastive adverbs like 以前, 从前, 本来, etc. can usually convey the same idea. If the adverbs do not work, you can always make the point clear explicitly by saying “,但现在不...了”. It is often common to add 现在 when asking questions like “你现在在哪工作”, “你现在住在哪” etc. even though 现在 is not absolutely necessary.

Some explanation of the dialogue: The question asks 不是... implying the speaker might have heard or learnt that somewhere. Because the speaker is trying to recall something from his memory, the listener replies 是的, which merely confirms the information source but does not assert about its availability in the present. She then explains that the situation has changed since then (when the observation was made) that it is not the case now. In this case, 不是的 is equally correct.

This usage might be more or less similar to English tense shifting. For example, she said she was working ... may well mean she is working ... as well as she is not working ...

Questions beginning with 不是 or 是不是 are often biased towards the positive answer. The speaker just want to the listener to confirm the information. If the information itself is imprecise, but not exactly false, the listener may well reply “是的” first and add an additional clarification. If the question is more neutral, e.g. “你在公司工作吗”, the purpose of asking this question is probably just to know the listener's current state. Although Chinese tense is always unmarked and the past tense interpretation is always an option, answering “在,但现在不在了” is not felicitous, unless in his opinion being working and having been working do not really matter much, or he intends to be amusing, like in “Could you help me?” “I could, but I don't want to.”

As far as I know, if the same question were asked in Japanese, both the past and present would be acceptable for a question about the present state, but the answer is usually either in the present or the past depending on the present fact because Japanese past tense generally assumes the opposite case in the present, too. But tense system does not exist in Chinese, so we do have the same assumption.

The last comment about 过: there is an odd contrast between 过 and 了. 了 often implies an immediate result of the verb is available, while 过 generally does not. So 门开了 sounds like the door is currently open, while 门开过 sounds like the door is not open, or at the very least the open state of the door is not the immediate result of the opening action the speaker refers to. The same difference apply to 水开了 and 水开过, 有人来了 and 有人来过. But the contrast is not consistent, for example, 吃过 and 吃了 mean pretty much the same thing. Although 了 and 过 can be used with stative verbs, they cannot be used with 是 and 在, which may be due to their special grammatical functions.

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