For example, 'She was a good teacher' ? Any and all translations I get are '她是好老师'. Is there anyway to indicate past tense explicitly?

  • 1
    using adverbs 已经,曾 (i.p. see jukuu's examples for 曾是) – user6065 Nov 29 '16 at 21:23
  • 曾 is special:here is what bkrs says:曾(past tense marker used before verb or clause) 过去 in the past,从前previously formerly once upon a time,以往in the past formerly,以前 before formerly, are similar to locality phrases 方位词组indicating past time – user6065 Nov 30 '16 at 2:18
  • are there any adverbs that indicate 'in the past, and perhaps now' ? I'm not trying to imply that she was a good teacher, so she is now a bad teacher. – Sam Maynard Dec 4 '16 at 6:19
up vote 8 down vote accepted

You have to remember, unlike in English, we do not have past tense for verbs in Chinese grammar. Both "is" and "was" is written as "是" in Chinese.

"是" in "她是好老师" could be "is" or "was". We really don't care which, because it is presumed readers can find out the sentence is in past or present tense by looking into the context.

For example:

  • "她以前是个好老师"(she was a good teacher before)

  • "她曾经是个好老师" (she was a good teacher once)

  • "她三年前是个好老师"(she was a good teacher three years ago)

All three example sentences above clearly indicated the verb "是" is in past tense.

If no time reference is found in the context, then all verbs are in present tense by default.

When you are reading a historical novel, even most individual sentences in it didn't have time reference, you should still know it is in past tense; If you are reading an instructional manual, you know the text is written in present tense entirely.

The answer to "How do you specify past tense for 是 " should be "there's no need"

  • Forgive me for chiming in, but is 她是一个好老师 not correct here? Should I always remove it? – Blaszard Dec 1 '16 at 13:19
  • As a single sentence without additional context, "她是一个好老师" would simply means "She is a good teacher" I already explained Chinese verbs do not inflect between present and past tense. One less thing to remember, should be good news for new learners. – Tang Ho Dec 1 '16 at 13:42
  • I meant, is there any difference between 她是个好老师 and 她是一个好老师? I'm not sure if 一 is required here; this is not related to an original question which is focused on present vs past tense... – Blaszard Dec 1 '16 at 13:48
  • 1
    The counting word "一" is the first thing you can omit in this sentence. Then the classifier 个 can also be omitted-- As long as the meaning of the sentence remain the same. "她是一个好老师" = "她是个好老师" = 她是好老师. It is considered good writing to omit everything that can be omitted in sentences, (avoid wordiness) as long as you get the point across. – Tang Ho Dec 1 '16 at 13:57
  • Oh I got the point. Thank you for the clarification! – Blaszard Dec 1 '16 at 14:10

This is a frequent type of question, perhaps someone can ask a more general question that would allow a more generally useful answer. As a step toward that, I'll try to raise a couple of general points here.

First, past tense is not a vocabulary item in English. It is a type of verbal inflection. Chinese does not have this type of verbal inflection. Answers here that propose using words like 以前 or 曾經 are using vocabulary items to try and "translate" English past tense into Chinese. This is not a general solution; that is, it will not work for all Chinese verbs in all situations. For example,
He died.
is not going to be translated as
So 曾經 is not always an equivalent of past tense.

This is also true here. As someone else noted above, a sentence like
is probably more like to be interpreted as equivalent to English
She used to be a good teacher.
This is probably not what the OP meant when asking how to say "She was a good teacher" in Chinese.

This brings in the second part of the problem in answering this type of question. When people ask things like how to say "She was a good teacher", they usually do so without stopping to think that such English sentence may have more than one meaning or interpretation. In many cases, Chinese equivalents may be radically different for the different English meanings.

For example, we might have the following context:
My sixth grade math teacher was Mrs. Li. She was a great teacher.
In this case, one very natural Chinese translation would be.
It would actually be somewhat odd to translate as
In this case, the demand that English "tense" be directly reflected in the Chinese is a mistake. Chinese simply doesn't use words like 曾經 or 以前 in this way.

In such cases, asking questions like "How do you say 'She was a good teacher'", without also specifying the context, can often lead to confusing or contradictory answers.

  • That's why I had to point out that we don't use tense in Chinese grammar. You are correct that using vocabulary item to indicate past tense is not a solution to the OP's question. The fact is, tense is unnecessary in Chinese grammar. The answer to "How do you specify past tense for 是" should be "there's no need" – Tang Ho Nov 30 '16 at 15:07
  • "My sixth grade math teacher was Mrs. Li, she was a great teacher" is closest to what I am trying to say. I am trying to say 'she was a good teacher when she taught me' without implying anything about the present that using 以前 or the like might. However, is there anyway to do this without '我小學六年級的數學老師是李師老' ? Is it not possible to imply past tense without establishing context or using explicit adverbs like 以前 ? Or perhaps there is an adverb that means 'before and now' ? – Sam Maynard Dec 4 '16 at 6:15
  • As I stated in my answer, if it is a single sentence, you can add time reference like "當時她是个非常好的老師" or "那時候, 她是个非常好的老師." If you already established a time reference in your article, and this is one sentence from this article, you don't need to specify tense anymore, – Tang Ho Dec 4 '16 at 14:55
  • @SamMaynard Putting it simple: if there's a past tense context, just use 是. If there's no past context, you have to contextualise it by using one of the above mentioned options (曾经,以前,过去, etc.) This isn't a 是 special issue, but works with any verb that doesn't indicate an action (有,喜欢,可以,etc.) – Enrico Brasil Dec 7 '16 at 13:20

As others mentioned, The paste tense for "是" is usually "曾经" or "过去". But here might be a little different. "She was a good teacher" implies that she has died now. So it might be more clear to say "她生前是个好老师".

If someone say "她曾经/过去是个好老师", it might be more similar to "She used to be a good teacher", and might imply (but not always imply) that she is not a good teacher now.

'She was a good teacher' 她曾经是位好老师

曾经 puts this firmly in the past.

A lot of the time you can use 了 or 过 to indicate the past. Here is an explanation thereof from another forum. I thought it sums up their usage quite well.


“了” 有表示过去时,现在进行时,将来时的意思。
“过” 只表示过去发生的某些事情。不能表示现在时和将来时。
“了” 和 “过” 的用法是非常相似,希望你能慢慢体会,多多练习。(ง •_•)ง,加油


Chinese is pretty straightforward, we can just say 以前 (in the past) + whatever and we have 'was whatever'.


before; formerly; previously

以前我家生活不太好。 Yǐqián wǒ jiā shēnghuó bù tài hǎo.

In the past, life was hard for my family.

If it helps, the above sentence you can even think of it without "In the past," and just think of it as "life was hard for my family."

A Chinese-English Dictionary

以前他当过理发员。 Yǐqián tā dāng guò lǐfàyuán.

He used to be a barber.

If you want to use 是 you can easily say: 他以前是理发的

So for your sentence She was a good teacher you can simply say: 她以前是个好老师 or 她以前教得很好.

曾 or 曾经 on the other hand only means once or once was.

This form of "was" only really works if said person is not that way anymore - not dead! If the person is dead, it's best to just refer to them in the presets tense, the context will be clear enough for people to know.

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