Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter Mouton January 14, 2021

Chinese does have independent tense elements

Zai and guo as tense markers

Zhiyi Zhang and Li Shikun
From the journal Chinese Semiotic Studies


Previous research on Chinese tense indicates that Chinese has either null tense or no tense. However, the present study suggests that the conclusions of previous studies regarding Chinese tense are either against the syntactic truth or illogical. The present study provides new evidence to support that Chinese has two independent tense elements, zai and guo, which clearly indicate present and past tense, contrary to the traditional assumption that they are aspectual markers. From the perspective of grammaticalization, both zai and guo witnessed grammaticalization from the spatial concept to the temporal concept. The semantic evidence shows that zai and guo are semantically different from the aspectual markers zhe and le and convey the meaning of time location. The fact that both zai and guo are allowed in negation but not permitted in non-finite structure provides syntactic evidence that they are tense markers. However, the present study also suggests there can be two different zai and guo; zai and guo used separately and independently and zai and guo used with zhe and le. In the latter case, zai is a time adverbial and guo is an aspectual marker. The existence of independent tense markers in Chinese also shows that Chinese may have at least four different mechanisms to anchor tense.

Corresponding author: Zhiyi Zhang, Nanjing Normal University, Nanjing, China, e-mail:


Adger, David. 2004. Core syntax: A minimalist approach. New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Auwera, Johan van der. 2011. Expression and interpretation of negation (review). Language 87(4). 845–865.Search in Google Scholar

Bittner, Maria. 2012. Temporality: Universals and variation (Explorations in Semantics). Chichester, England: Wiley-Blackwell.Search in Google Scholar

Chao, Yuen Ren. 1968. A grammar of spoken Chinese. Berkeley: University of California Press.Search in Google Scholar

Chomsky, Noam. 1993. A minimalist program for linguistic theory. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.Search in Google Scholar

Corbett, Greville. 1979. The agreement hierarchy. Journal of Linguistics 15. 203–225. in Google Scholar

De Wit, Astrid. 2017. The present perfective paradox across languages. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Giorgi, Alessandra & Fabio Pianesi. 1997. Tense and aspect: From semantics to morphosyntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Hu, Jianhua, Haihua Pan & Lu Xu. 2001. Is there a finite vs. nonfinite distinction in Chinese? Linguistics 39. 1117–1148. in Google Scholar

Huang, C.-T. James, Yan-Hui Audrey Li & Yafei Li. 2009. The syntax of Chinese. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Kong, Lingda. 1986. On dynamic particles guo1 and guo2. Journal of Anhui Normal University 4. 16–22.Search in Google Scholar

Law, Peter & Jeremy Ndayiragije. 2017. Syntactic tense from a comparative syntax perspective. Linguistic Inquiry 48(4). 679–696. in Google Scholar

Lin, Jo-Wang. 2006. Time in a language without tense: The case of Chinese. Journal of Semantics 23. 1–53. in Google Scholar

Lin, Jian W. 2010. A tenseless analysis of Mandarin Chinese revisited: A response to Sybesma 2007. Linguistic Inquiry 41(2). 305–329. in Google Scholar

Lin, Jonah T.-H. 2011. Finiteness of clauses and raising of arguments in Mandarin Chinese. Syntax 14. 48–73.Search in Google Scholar

Lin, Tim J. 2015. Tense in Mandarin Chinese sentences. Syntax 18(3). 320–342. in Google Scholar

Lv, Shu Xiang. 1956. The essential of Chinese grammar. Beijing: Shangwu Publishing House.Search in Google Scholar

Nikolaeva, Irina. 2007. Finiteness: Theoretical and empirical foundations. New York: Oxford University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Palmer, Frank R. 2001. Mood and modality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Salkie, Raphael, Pierre Busuttil & Johan van der Auwera (eds.). 2009. Modality in English (Topics in English Linguistics). Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter.Search in Google Scholar

Simpson, Andrew & Zoe Wu. 2002. From D to T – Determiner incorporation and the creation of tense. Journal of East Asian Linguistics 11. 169–209 in Google Scholar

Smith, Carlota S. 1997. The parameter of aspect. Boston: Kluwer.Search in Google Scholar

Smith, Carlota S. & Mary Erbaugh. 2005. Temporal interpretation in Mandarin Chinese. Linguistics 43. 713–756. in Google Scholar

Sun, Hongyuan. 2006. Temporal construals of bare predicates in Mandarin Chinese. Utrecht: LOT: Doctoral thesis Leiden University.Search in Google Scholar

Swart, Henriëtte. 2006. Expression and interpretation of negation. Studies in Natural Language & Linguistic Theory 77. 123–134.Search in Google Scholar

Sybesma, Rint. 2007. Whether we tense-agree overtly or not. Linguistic Inquiry 38(3). 580–587. in Google Scholar

Tenny, Carol. 1994. Aspectual roles and the syntax-semantics interface. Dordrecht: Kluwer.Search in Google Scholar

Tsai, Wei-Tien Dylan. 2008. Tense anchoring in Chinese. Lingua 118(5). 675–686. in Google Scholar

Verkuyl, Henk J. 1993. Theory of aspectuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Search in Google Scholar

Wang, Cai. 1999. Delimitation: Evidence from Chinese. PhD thesis. Lawrence: University of Kansas.Search in Google Scholar

Wang, Shiqun. 2011. The grammaticalized course of dynamic particle guo. Journal of Nanjing Audit University 4.85–90.Search in Google Scholar

Xiao, Richard & Tony McEnery. 2004. Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: A corpus-based study. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.Search in Google Scholar

Xu, Shen. 2015. The origin of Chinese characters. Beijing: China Bookstore Press.Search in Google Scholar

Yu, Lixiang. 2014. A tentative analysis of the grammaticalization of time adverbial za. Modern Chinese 11. 57–59.Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2021-01-14
Published in Print: 2021-02-23

© 2020 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston