When making up a sentence in Chinese we all can make many types of mistakes. But I'm interested in one particular mistake, namely "a mistake that makes native Chinese speakers to wonder about the "tense" of the situation described by the sentence."

Yes, I know there is no tense in Chinese, only aspect. But still . . . One local agreed with me that a sentence like this:

我吃完饭.

sounded "tensless" i.e. he couldn't figure out where to put it (in time) in the future, past, present . . .

This is logical because 吃 is a verb without any implicit bound (you can just keep eating forever). So the sentence:

我吃饭.

experesses a boundless acivity of eating. So I figure out it is 100% not in the past, and 99% not in the future, so only present left. But as soon as 完 added to 吃:

我吃完饭.

Everything becomes a little bit strange. 完 adds a bound on the main verb, namely,

吃 = eat, but 吃完 = eat-up.

So activity is bounded and cannot be attributed to present tense but it can not be attributed to other tenses since no other indication of time is given. (There is no 昨天, 明天, etc.) And there is more to it: no indication of 'existency/actuality' of the situation (adding 了) is given.

So the reader puzzled: "Eating process completed but when?" or "Has this situation taken place at all?"

Please, natives, provide us with more examples of simple (small) sentences which make you wonder about the tense of the event.

  • The most akward thing for me (as a russian native speaker) in this subject is "Why adding 完 to a verb does not indicate time but leaving verb "naked" 吃 means present time?" I would like to develope some intuition about this metter. – coobit Sep 27 '15 at 9:37
  • I don't know anything about Russian, but use English as analogy, 完 indicates perfect aspect; lack of time reference (what you call "naked") indicates present time. 我吃饭 ~= simple present tense; 我吃完饭 ~= present perfect tense. (although both 'sentences' don't make any sense without context.) – NS.X. Sep 28 '15 at 9:12
  • 我吃完饭 should not make any sence as a sigle complete sentence. So analogy with present perfect is totally misleading. IMHO. – coobit Sep 29 '15 at 14:23
up vote 4 down vote accepted

Hopefully the answer from NS.X. has clarified things for you. I believe, however, that not only are sentence fragments ambiguous as to time, complete but isolated sentences are frequently ambiguous between past time and present time as well. This is what the tenselessness of Chinese implies. Take the sentence that came up in the comments we exchanged a few days ago:

牆上掛著一副畫.

This could mean:
"A picture was hanging on the wall" OR
"A picture is hanging on the wall."

Without a context, most people will assume the sentence refers to the present, but there is nothing within the sentence that tells us this. I could not give this sentence in a test and ask the question:
這句話是講:
a) 過去的事情
b) 現在的事情

Or I could ask this, but I would have to count it as right no matter whether the students chose a or b (otherwise both the students and our school would be very angry). It is only a larger context that can remove the ambiguity of this sentence. Yet it is a complete sentence.

  • Good point. What I really wanted to say is "complete sentences in their actual contexts don't have ambiguous time reference". I'll update my answer to clarify. Also "present or past" in your example is not an ambiguous time reference, IMHO, it's a range just like "past" is a range, instead of a single point of time. – NS.X. Sep 30 '15 at 4:56

There are two things to be cleared:

  1. To say a language is tenseless means it does not have a grammatical category of tense (e.g. word morphology, auxiliary verbs and tense particles in English). Chinese sentences do refer to time but by using lexical words such as adverbs and verbs, with a combination of aspect, mood and other language elements.
  2. The examples in your question are not complete sentences. They are sentence fragments, such as clauses and phrases, that may or may not contain time references. When they are used in a complete sentence, in most of the cases, a time reference will exist in one form or another.

我吃完饭 sounds tenseless

That's true, because it is a sentence fragment without any time reference. To make a complete sentence with it there are two options:

  1. Add 了 particle:

我吃完饭了。I am done eating (now).

了 is a complicated matter and doesn't indicate tense by itself. But in this sentence, 完 (complete; done) and 了 (state change marker) together form a verb+完+[object]+了 phrase, which is a clear signal for present perfect tense.

  1. Use this phrase as a adverbial clause:

我吃完饭,就去写作业。I'll do my homework after I'm done eating.

The lack of time reference in either clause (吃完饭, 去写作业) suggests neither has happened yet, so it's a statement of plan, which maps to simple present tense in English.

The ambiguity though, is we couldn't tell if the speaker has already started eating, but the same can be said for the English version.


Now back to the subject of the question, how to make a tenseless sentence? Strictly speaking, given how grammatical tense is defined (see #1 in at the beginning of this answer), all Chinese sentences are tenseless and the language is a tenseless language.

I think what you really want to know is 'what are some common sentences with ambiguous time reference'. After some thought, I couldn't think of any real sentences in their actual contexts like that. I couldn't think of any sentence or even clause that has ambiguous time reference while its English counterpart doesn't, either.

For example, the clauses 我吃完饭 and 我吃饭 sound 'tenseless', the same can be said for 'I finish eating' and 'I eat'. Grammatically they are simple present tense, but as sentences they don't make any sense.

So if you want to create sentences with ambiguous time reference, simply omit any verbs, adverbs or other language elements that refer to time, but they sound either incomplete or unnatural.

these are some keywords for tense for past tense:已经,过,完,曾经,了,(this one is hard->才),刚 for thing will happen in future: 会, 必然,一定,还,要 for now:正在, 正, 着

ex:

我已经吃了,我吃过了,我刚吃完, 我已经吃了,我吃了,我刚吃

我会吃的,我必然要吃,我一定吃,我还没吃呢,

我正吃呢,我正在吃,我吃着呢

....

  • Not a bad list. Thanks. Makes me think different about chinese language. I think I will pay much more attention to these words now. – coobit Sep 27 '15 at 10:09
  • In my language those 已经, 要 ect are not so important for tense differentiation. So most of the time those keywords sounded redundant to me but now I will pay much more attention to them. – coobit Sep 27 '15 at 10:13

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