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I am a beginner in Chinese (Mandarin), and I am following a phone app to learn.

However I cannot understand what is the difference between 正在 and 在 ? For example:

你正在干什么?

and

你在干什么?

The app says that they are interchangeable... is it always the case?

  • see any Chinese grammar, also "实用汉语近义虚词词典"has 正在(副)/在(副) [相同 ]都是副词,在单句或复句中作状语,表示行为状态的进行,持续。经常互换:(1)别吵了!我正在听录音呢。(在✓)(2)安娜正在休息,你等一下再来吧,(在✓)(3)他们正在上课,你不要大声叫喊。(在✓)(4)1班正在考试呢。(在✓)(5)你说吧,我在听。(正在✓)(6)你说吧,我在听着呢。(正在✓)(7)现在,张朋在宿舍睡觉。(正在✓)(8)现在,阿里在写汉字呢。 [不同] (正在✓) 1。 "在"的前面可以有"一直、总、还、都、又"等副词,强调行为的持续或重复:"正在"没有这些用法:(1)他一直在等待机会。(持续,正在✗)(2)他总在每次考试前才知道看书复习。(重复,正在✗)(3)林晴还在为昨天的事感到难过。(持续,正在✗)(4)整整一年,我都在准备研究生考试。(持续,正在✗)(5)你又在想家了吧?(重复,正在✗) 2。 "正在"可以用在复句的前一分句,表示在一个行为进行的过程中,别一个行为突然出现:"在"没有这个用法:(1)我正在吃饭,突然有人敲门。(在✗)(2)我正在图书馆看书,忽然听见窗外有人叫我。(在✗)(3)雨下得很大,我正在发愁,这时候玛丽给我送伞来了。(在✗)(4)我正在等车,小王突然急急忙忙跑来了。(在✗) – user6065 Feb 15 '18 at 23:19
  • @user6065 Whoa, that's a lot of Chinese for a beginner like me. If I understand correctly, the first part shows examples where they are perfectly interchangeable, and the second part where they aren't? If you put it together with some details/translation, I think that'd make a decent answer. – clem steredenn Feb 16 '18 at 5:12
  • anyhow it seems "beginners" can spend their time more profitably than worrying about niceties like any difference between 正在 and 在 – user6065 Feb 16 '18 at 14:02
  • I did not do the course, and when learning about one, I learned directly the other as well. I wanted to know when should I use the one or the other. Not really a question of "niceties". But yes, the authors could have mentioned only one at that stage. – clem steredenn Feb 17 '18 at 14:42
  • re "niceties" see grammars e.g, 外国人实用汉语语法(A practical Chinese grammar for foreigners,744p。) says: (Ch.6 动作的状态 Aspects of an action,I 动作的进行 progressive aspect) (一)副词"正"、"在"、"正在"和语气助词"呢"可以单独使用;或同时在一个句子里,形成"正在。。。呢"格式(二)"正在。。。呢"中间的成分可以是动词,动宾词组或动词性偏正词组。etc。 Note esp. that no distinction is made between 正、在 and 正在。 – user6065 Feb 17 '18 at 16:32
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For what you are asking 在 and 正在 are basically interchangeable.

You will rarely hear 正在 in colloquial, normal, conversation - it is quite formal and elaborate. For instance looking up 你正在干什么? gives a result from Google Books reading:

此时你正在干什么?

No one would really talk like this unless you're playing a role in an old-timey kind of show or something like that.

you could contest is an abbreviation of 正在 in your given scenario and is the most down-to-earth way to express something currently being underway.

  • I wouldn't say rarely hear 正在 in normal colloquial conversations. For example, 我现在正在和朋友喝茶。 – dan Feb 16 '18 at 11:00
  • seems confirmed by comment #1 – user6065 Feb 16 '18 at 12:33
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From what I learned, 在 means you're doing something, while 正在 means you're doing something right now. For instance:

我在学习中文。 I'm studying Chinese language (this year, this month, not necessarily in this moment).

我正在学习中文。 I'm studying Chinese language right now (the book is open in front of me, please don't disturb).

Not sure if this difference exists all the time, though.

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