I am trying to figure out what the most proper way for one to say something simple like if someone asked, "How do you know that?" and then I say, "I read it in a book". Now what I'm wondering about is how you translate that "I read a book" clause into Mandarin.

See, the "read" here is a past tense, and apparently, in Mandarin, there is no "tense" marking. Time, it seems, is indicated by putting a time adverbial before the verb. Yet here there is no specific time, rather it's at some indeterminate past time, the only thing known is that it happened. My best guess from various reading material was to try something like,

我以前看一本书 (wo yiqian kan yi ben shu),

but that seems to my ear to lay really heavy emphasis on the "past"-ness of this action, when that is not the primary point here, the point is the fact of having read the book.

So what I really feel I want to do is to use , as in

我看了一本书 (wo kan le yi ben shu)

But then I hear that 了 "is not a tense marker", "has nothing to do with time and nothing to do with tense" and stuff like that, and that what it really indicates is "completion". Yet the English sentence has tense. So is the above the correct way or not? I also think that the first sentence I mentioned should be 我以前看了一本书 (wo yiqian kan le yi ben shu) as well, but there the 了 seems less troubling to me because we have the time specified and in the sentence 我看了一本书 given out in this context it seems to my ear that 了 is acting like a tense marker, setting up a contradiction. Without 了 I get

我看一本书 (wo kan yi ben shu)

which sounds to me more like "I read [pronounced REED] a book", but then again I've heard that tense/time can be inferred from context.

If the form 我看了一本书 is correct then what role is 了 playing here and why does it sound to me like past tense with a not-a-tense-marker indicating tense?

If none of these are correct, what, straight up is the correct translation? I've found it really hard to find something that just straight up answers that.

(Also, I'm not 100% sure if the counter 一本 indicating the singularity of the book is needed or correct in all these either but that's a separate question! This question is about time/tense not measure and I'm just using that as an example of something where I think the time is not indicated elsewhere in the conversation by any grammar feature.)

7 Answers 7


If the form 我看了一本书 is correct then what role is 了 playing here and why does it sound to me like past tense with a not-a-tense-marker indicating tense?

'了' in "我看了一本书" is a [aspect marker] indicating completed action.

  • 我看一本书 = I read a book

  • In 我看了一本书, the action '看' is completed, which imply 看 is not in present tense but in past tense.

Also, depend on the context, [verb + 了] could indicate :

  1. [present perfect tense] 我刚看了一本书 = I have just read a book
  2. [past perfect tense] 我昨天看了一本书 = I had read a book yesterday
  3. [future perfect tense] 我明天会看了这本书 = I will have read this book tomorrow.

'过' in "我看过一本书" is a [particle] marking experiential aspect

  • 我看一本书 = I read a book
  • 我看过一本书 = I had read a book (I experienced reading a book, that indicates 看 is in past perfect tense)

*I think I answered a similar question How do you specify past tense for 是?

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.


Mike3 comment:

OK... now I'm not entirely clear on the difference in meaning between "我看了一本书" and "我看过一本书". Is it just that one emphasizes something else (completion vs. experience) or what? Which would be the correct one to use in the scenario I mentioned in the question and why?

In your scenario:

Q: "How Do you know?"

A: "I read a book"

you can use "我看了一本书" or "我看过一本书" for "I read a book" in this scenario.

  • "我看了一本书" stated the fact that you finished reading a book in the past. (了 emphasizes the completeness of your action)
  • "我看过一本书" stated the fact that you had in the past read a book (过 emphasizes the action was in the past).

Both sentences stated the source of your knowledge is from reading a book. '看过' is more preferable if you want to emphasize the action happened in the past.

As I mentioned, depend on the context, '看了' can be in any perfect tense.

  • OK... now I'm not entirely clear on the difference in meaning between "我看了一本书" and "我看过一本书". Is it just that one emphasizes something else (completion vs. experience) or what? Which would be the correct one to use in the scenario I mentioned in the question and why? Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 19:45
  • Read my edited answer
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jan 9, 2017 at 21:01

There's several explanations already, but IMO they are just expanding on your question and not really fixing it, the straight up answer and the most fluent way is this.

Q: 你怎么知道的?(How do you know that?)

A: 我从一本书上看的。(I read from a book.)

"从" translates to "from", "一本" is needed because you are specifying you read from A book and you know which book it is, otherwise you can just say "我从书上看的" without specifying you read it from one particular book.

In a real scenario, this is the most simplified conversation.

Q:你怎么知道?(How do you know that?)

A: 书上看的。(Read it from book/s)

without specifying "我(I)" or "从(from)" or "一本(one)" because you already know its "me", you already know its "from" a book because i said "书上看的" and you can't recall which book it is so "one" is not needed. It may seem like a lot has to be processed before understanding the sentence, but it feels natural to a native speaker and nothing needs to be processed, the power of language is really a fascinating thing.


There is no "classical sence" of time in Chinese. Some scholars say that chinese is a "modal language" and not the "tense language", which means that "time" is indicated by:

  1. By words like: "today, tommorow, 5 o'clock ect."
  2. By labeling the situation as real or unreal. World is divided between realis and irrealis modes. When something is/was/became a fact of reality (i.e. it actually happend or will 100% happen or will became real for sure) then chinese language uses 了 to indicate that mode. If, on the other hand, the chinese speaker talks about his habits, dreams, desires and any other irrealis things, then 了 can't and should not be used.

Example: "You don't use 了 with 没, because 了 marks the reality or actuality of the situation, but 没 says that "it did't happen", which altogether leads to a contradiction!

P.S. more can be understood from these articles:




the last article is the best of it's kind.

P.S.S. Yeah, and one more : 了 is NOT an [aspect marker] indicating completed action (according to modal view). 了 has nothing to do with completion except for positive correlation between "being a fact of real life" and "being completed action".

  • Well, I'm not a pro scholar. I just know some part of their theory. But my pop-up dictionary translates "沒了" as "not to be or cease to exist", which is logical in some sense: if you treat 了 as an indicator of "existance" i.e. marker of reality. And by the way, there are verbal and sentential 了. Verbal 了 is a relative realis marker and sentential 了 is an absolute realis marker (according to Linda H. Liu [3 link]). So 沒 might negate relative realis and 了 belong to absolute realis... Well, this is a guess.
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 10, 2017 at 9:23
  • So then I guess the reply "我看了一本书" would indeed be used -- with the "了" meaning the reading of the single book is actualized in reality, and the fact that this occurred in the past, if indeed relevant at all, is inferred from context (since there is no other time it could have occurred if it is true now you have the knowledge and the reason you have the knowledge is factually because of the reading of a book -- causality says the reading of book must then come before the present situation.). Is this right? Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 6:21
  • Well, according to the "theory": "了" is a marker of relative actuality (something like "Once I read..." you see it's not finished) and "一本书" is a marker of "absolute actuality" (something like "a book"). So in total we have: "Once I read + a book" Since you read "A (one) book" i.e. definite amount (which means there was an end to your reading sometime after) the situation is rendered to be absolute actual. Better read the 3rd link, it's much more clearer in the article.
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 8:29
  • You can render the sentence to absolute actual either by "一本书"(measure words signifing the observable end for the action 看) or by "sentence finale 了".
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 8:34

Well,I think you were just thinking too much. Chinese is a language that doesn't put too much emphasis on the tense. So you are right, most of time, you just infer directly from the context than you can know immediately from what the other peoson is talking about. Ok, back to your original question, how to translate ' I read a book ' into Mandarin (or Taiwanese), if someone asks ' how do you know that?'you just simply answer him/her " oh , 因爲我看( 讀)過這方面的書'(I have read books about it) . It's just that simple. (2) Secondly, you also mentioned about the use of "了' ,too. Yes,you may think it as a "past tense ' notifier,but I don't think it is a past tense from a native speaker point of view. It just acts like a auxiliary word in the end of a sentence,has no special meaning. If you want to say, I have done it( 我做過了),or I have seen it (我看過了) then you add '了' at the end of the sentence.


It seems you just confuse yourself by taking sentences out of context, which is wrong in all language. I.e.

"How do you know that?" 你怎么知道?

"I read a book" 我读过一本书。

Just take note that, if you took the first sentence away, the second sentence "I read a book" become implicit. You cannot derive exact and explicit meaning from 'I read a book'. Unless you explicit say this :

I read a book before, the facts in there say so. 我读过一本书, 里头是这么说的。

Compare the following conversation, you will notice the context issue :

"What have you done last Sunday?" , "I read a book".

"I read a book", "What is the title of the book?"

"Where did you get this idea from?", "I read a book"

(Update) Native language speaker getting used to abbreviate/shorten meaning without realise. So it is important to expand the abbreviate/shorten sentences to make them explicit when you learn foreign language.

By the way, the correct verb for read in Mandarin, is . Using can be somewhat confusing.

  • The context was mentioned, I just did not know how to do the question out in Chinese as I was more hunting around for an example and could not find one readily at mind where the whole context could have been made up in Chinese even though I had encountered such before. Just "wasn't on the top of my head", so to say. Commented Jan 16, 2017 at 22:56
  • @mike3 My suggestion is : check your native language and see whether other will get the explicit meaning. If not, expand them to make it clear, then check foreign language counterpart.
    – mootmoot
    Commented Jan 17, 2017 at 9:02
  • “By the way, the correct verb for read in Mandarin, is 读. Using 看 can be somewhat confusing.” — There’s nothing wrong with 看; if anything, it’s 读 which can be confusing. 看书 always means just ‘read (a book)’, whereas 读书 (but of course not contexts like 读过一本书) can also mean ‘study’ or ‘go to school’. Commented Jul 21, 2017 at 14:49

Q: How do you know that? A: I read a book. But a Chinese person will answer: 我从书上看到的。 (I saw it from a book (or books).)

If someone says “我看书.”, it means 'I do read books! (I am not illiterate)'.

“我看一本书。” means 'I read one book', but nobody says that. People only say 一本 if they want to emphasise the number. For example, “我只看一本书。” means 'I only read one book.'

Similarly, nobody says “我以前看一本书。”, but “我以前只看一本书。” means 'In the past, I only read one book.'

“我看了一本书。” feels strange because it contains “了” without also mentioning the time.

“我刚刚看了一本书。” means 'I have just read a book.'

“我昨天看了一本书。” means 'I read a book yesterday.'

“……然后,我看了一本书。” means '..., and then I read a book.' The time is implied by the context.

“我看了一本书,然后去吃饭了。” means 'I read a book, and then I had my meal.' The time is also implied.

Another character “过” can be used to express that a person had the experience of doing something.

“你看过书吗?” means 'Have you ever read any books?'

“我看过书。” means 'Yes. I have.'

“我看过100本书。” means 'I read 100 books [in the past].' or 'I have read 100 books by now.'

“我以前看过100本书。” also means 'I read 100 books in the past.' In this case, 'the past' is explicit.

“我上大学的时候看过100本书。” means 'I read 100 books [during the time] when I was in university [, but may not have finished them all].' “我上大学的时候看完了100本书。” means 'I [not only read, but also] finished reading 100 books when I was in university.'


tense: ing -- 着 ed -- 了 watching -- 看着 eatting -- 吃着

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.