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Can you use 在 when a time phrase appears in the usual place in front of a verb? If so, how does it change the meaning? When would I choose to use it?

  • 他去年去了中国度假。
  • 去年去了中国度假。

or is 在 only used with specific verbs that take time expressions after the verb:

  • 他的中国度假发生在去年。
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Yes, you can

他去年去了中国度假。= He went to China for a holiday last year.

去年去了中国度假。= He went to China for a holiday in last year.

The first sentence stated a fact '他去了中国度假', and '去年' is the time expression that add additional information on what time it took place

The second sentence '在' emphasize the time period '去年'; "去了中国度假" took place "in last year" along with other things.

The follow example may illustrate this emphasis better

"他去年死了" = "He died last year" ('he died' is the fact; 'last year' is a relative phrase that add additional information to it, "when did he die? Last year")

"他去年死了" = "He died in last year" ('in last year' is an important fact, not two year ago, not three years ago)

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see dictionary examples, e.g. at bkrs, also cf."现代汉语虚词词典"在:介词 一、表示行为动作发生的时间。1。介词短语作状语。{在+时点词语}+动词/动词短语。介词短语可以修饰主谓短语。前无副词,"在"可省:飞机~当天下午起飞|该书连续~1994,1995年获得全国图书征订大会销量冠军|你一定~六点叫醒我|就~昨天上午,我还见到过他|~妈妈生日那天,来了许多她的学生|这一看法早~六十年代初就有人指出过了|~六千五百万年前的白垩纪(geol. Cretaceous period),恐龙突然灭绝|这家公司是~去年五月一日开张的|猫头鹰喜欢~晚上出来活动|远~宋朝,就有了踢球这个运动,当时叫蹴踘|~她接到录取通知书的第二天,就来看我|[王一亭]约~1919年参加同盟会(近)|共产党还~一九三六年八月就提出了"民主共和国"这个问题(毛泽东)|~十九世纪中叶,。。。马克思兴奋地写过文章,预言过亚洲的革命风暴(秦牧)((1919-1992), educator and prolific writer)

"在+。。。的时候/时/之前/之后",介绍事情发生的特定时间:~讨论的时候,他不大爱说话|你不能~这重要时刻一走了之(yīzǒu liǎozhī)|还~四月延安党的活动分子会议时,又~五月党的全国代表会议时,特别是~八月中央政治局会议时,我们就提出了这样的问题(毛泽东)|~芦沟桥事变以后,党内的主要危险倾向,已经不是"左"倾关门主义,而转变到右倾机会主义(毛泽东)|[王韬]~太平天国和第二次鸦片战争发生后,屡向清政府献"御戎"、"平贼"等策(近)|这就是说,~没有取得穿皮鞋[指升了干部]的自由之前,"个人问题"只能是明智地放到一边去(徐怀中)|[插入体词、谓词或其他短语]

"在+。。。同时"表示事情跟另一事同时进行或发生:~加强麦收管理的同时,要做好大型农机的检修工作|~为广大农民演出的同时,还要学习他们的思想感情|~人们享用这些现代文明的同时,也受到种种危害(刊)["在。。。的同时"中间插入动词短语或主谓短语]

"在+。。。里/中/内/上/期间",表示在某段时间发生什么事情:~一个漆黑的夜里,他悄悄回到家中|~几分钟里要背这么多,真不容易|~一年的时间内要学习五门课程|~五个月中不曾下床一步|~那些艰难的日子里,中共的日子不好过,农工民主党同样是步骤艰难(康凯)|~十岁上,跟他爸爸去了国外|早~他中学其间,就听邻里们对母亲玩笑说:。。。(程乃珊)|如能~半年到一年内建立二十五万到三十万具有新的政治精神的军队,则抗日战场上能开始看到转机(毛泽东)["在。。。里"中间插入表示时段的词语或数量词]

2。介词短语作补语。 动词+{在+时点词语}:碰头时间约~第二天上午|把这个会搁~下周吧|你知道会议定~哪一天|你的节目插~八点半到九点之间|她要把这个人物摆~关键时刻出场|文章写~1980年,自然不可能预料到以后的事|招待会订~7号晚6点|他生~一个雷雨之夜|你的节目排~小王之后[以上为单音节动词]||北京猴人大约生活~五十万年以前|我看你的消费观念还停留~五十年代|文章发表~五四前夜,产生了大影响、学会建立~1960年|心血管病多发生~冬天|学位论文答辩安排~六月中旬|第三届年会确定~1988年夏天举行[以上为双音节动词]||我们生活~一个开辟人类新历史的光辉时代(秦牧)

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As I Chinese, I would tell you I only use 在 when I am doing something. I am not saying other expressions are wrong. They just don't sound as comfortable as other proper expressions or 在 can be omitted. So

他去年去了中国度假。

definitely sounds better to me.

FYI, another popular usage of 在 is 在吗, which is used in the cases when someone wants to start an online chat with another one, meaning that "Are you online?". But this usage has been considered somewhat outdated in terms of chatting and is more often used when one wants to seek help from another.

I am not gonna tell you what “在吗,kkp” means...

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