I edit a manuscript for non-chinese-speakers. The writer was an expert in Chinese language and literature. I want to learn, but I am not a native speaker. So, I have difficulty in interpreting how does the word 'field' relate to tense (as in present tense, past tense, etc.) in the following sentence:

In the Chinese language "we can find out the tense of a verb or event from the inner and outer fields, or - in the case of contemporary spoken/written Chinese - from the particulate that denotes the degree of completeness [as in perfect or participle version] of the tense."

What would be your take on it? Could he have meant 'character field' or something else? And if it is about a field relating to how characters are written individually or in a sequence, what 'inner' and 'outer' fields mean do you think? Thanks heaps.

  • This is a very helpful book and I hope it can fulfil its purpose with your help even more.
    – ob's-stak
    Commented Sep 18, 2019 at 18:46
  • Tense is a confused and muddled Western concept. Chinese is not confused or muddled. Don't try to apply the precepts of Western Grammar to Chinese.
    – Pedroski
    Commented Sep 19, 2019 at 0:00
  • Hi Pedroski. Thanks for the comment, but I am trying the opposite. The writer was a noted scholar and fluent speaker and translator, not some greenhorn. The challenge here is to make concepts accessible to a non-chinese speaker who has little to go by for comparison. That said, you have not quite answered my question: how best to refer to those 'fields' to cover the meaning of the paragraph. Sadly, the writer has passed away. He hasn't left notes on this. So, because I'm not a good enough chinese speaker or reader, I am reaching out to experts. Was this a added info helpful to help in this?
    – ob's-stak
    Commented Sep 21, 2019 at 5:03

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure if this is the case here, but in some theories of linguistics, 'field' is a technical term that refers to the way a text represents reality (or our experience of reality). I don't know what 'inner' and 'outer' fields would be, unless they could be referring to 'within the clause' and 'outside the clause'. If this is the case, the general idea is 'context', i.e. you can work out the tense from the context (e.g. 明天,昨天)

Who is the original author of the text? Knowing their background could be helpful in understanding what framework they were using.

Okay, based on further info it looks like this answer is completely off-base.

  • The full term used, actually, is 'field of writing' (or writing field). He writes that in Chinese, verbs do not denote time of action or event. The inner/outer field of writing or the particulates are what helpful for that. Note that he makes a distinction between 'context' and the inner/outer 'field' of writing, which could also mean 'zone' by the way. He says that "for determining the time of an action or event, in classical Chinese, mostly the context can be useful." The original author translated classical text for the public. He was a noted Chinologist, not a professional linguist.
    – ob's-stak
    Commented Oct 6, 2019 at 20:39
  • The example pair of Zuótiān (昨天) yesterday, versus Míngtiān (明天) tomorrow appear to be well covering the context aspect vis-a-vis zone. But it is not quite an answer to the inner-outer field.
    – ob's-stak
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 10:58

Based on my understanding, the author was trying to explain the conception of agglutinative language that tense information is expressed by auxiliary word before (inner field) and after (outer field) it. For example: "我吃" - "I eat", "我吃/了(Outer Field)" - "I ate", "我/已经(Inner Field)/吃/了(Outer Field)" - "I have eaten".

  • Hats off, you are onto something! The writer wasn't just explaining linguistic concepts. He was explaining the pecularities of isolative aspects in the Chinese language to speakers of an agglutinative language, the Hungarian. Your example triplet: Wǒ chī (我吃) I eat; Wǒ chīle (我吃/了) I ate; Wǒ yǐjīng chīle (我/已经/吃了) I/aready/ have eaten seems to be spot on illustrating the point you are trying to make for supporting the field idea. Moreover, you also show how a particulate such as -le (了) takes part in the composition. Thank you!
    – ob's-stak
    Commented Nov 9, 2019 at 11:14

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