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Are There Tenses in Cantonese?

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Depending on how long you’ve been learning Cantonese, you may already have an idea of how simple Cantonese grammar is. You may have even heard that Cantonese is “tenseless.”

A Sand Glass

But if that’s the case, how does one express the past, present, or future? In this article, CantoneseClass101.com will cover everything you need to know about expressing the different tenses in Cantonese—it’s easier than you think!

Log in to Download Your Free Cheat Sheet - Beginner Vocabulary in Cantonese Table of Contents
  1. Cantonese “Tenses”
  2. How to Express the Past
  3. How to Express the Present
  4. How to Express the Future
  5. How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

1. Cantonese “Tenses”

A Signpost with Signs for Now, Tomorrow, and Yesterday

Cantonese is considered a tenseless language. In contrast to European languages like English or French, it has neither conjugation nor the concept of tenses. We don’t modify verbs to express the timing of an action; instead, we use additional words to serve this function when necessary. That said, we can usually tell from the context whether an event happened in the past, present, or future. 

2. How to Express the Past

Below, you’ll find different words you can use to express the past tense in Cantonese along with examples.

Ancient Civilization

 1 – Word(s) to be placed before the verb

  • 有 (jau5) – did
    • Example sentence: 我有返學。
    • Romanization: ngo5 jau5 faan1 hok6.
    • Meaning: I did go to school.

Note: We use the word “有” the same way we use the word “did” in Englishwe add it in front of the verb to add emphasis to it.

2 – Word(s) to be placed after the verb

  • 咗 (zo2) – have done
    • Example sentence: 我同朋友一齊喺戲院睇咗場戲。
    • Romanization: ngo5 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 zo2 coeng4 hei3.
    • Meaning: I have watched a movie at the cinema with my friends.
  • 過 (gwo3) – tried
    • Example sentence: 試過但係失敗咗。
    • Romanization: si3 gwo3 daan6 hai6 sat1 baai6 zo2.
    • Meaning: (I) tried but failed.
  • 完 (jyun4) – did
    • Example sentence: 我做完功課喇。
    • Romanization: ngo5 zou6 jyun4 gung1 fo3 laa3.
    • Meaning: I finished my homework.
  • 晒 (saai3) – completed
    • Example sentence: 我做晒啲嘢喇。
    • Romanization: ngo5 zou6 saai3 di1 je5 laa3.
    • Meaning: I completed all my work.

Note: “完” and “晒” are quite similarand in the examples above, they are interchangeable. You could say “我做晒功課喇” or  “我做完啲嘢喇.” The subtle difference between the two is that we tend to use “完” to emphasize the completion/end of something, whereas we use “晒” to imply the effort involved in finishing the work.

3 – Word(s) to be placed at the beginning of the sentence or right after the subject

Each of the following words can be placed either at the beginning of a sentence or after the subject. For example, for the first word below (啱啱), you could say “我啱啱同朋友一齊喺戲院睇戲” or “啱啱我同朋友一齊喺戲院睇戲.” They are the same.

  • 啱啱 (aam1 aam1) – just now
    • Example sentence: 我啱啱同朋友一齊喺戲院睇戲。
    • Romanization: ngo5 aam1 aam1 tung4 pang4 jau5 jat1 cai4 hai2 hei3 jyun2 tai2 hei3.
    • Meaning: My friend and I went to the cinema for movies just now.
  • 頭先 (tau4 sin1) – just now
    • Example sentence: 頭先唔小心撞到你,唔好意思。
    • Romanization: tau4 sin1 m4 siu2 sam1 zong6 dou2 nei5, m4 hou2 ji3 si3.
    • Meaning: Sorry for hitting you just now.

Note: “啱啱” and “頭先” are the same and can be used interchangeably.

  • 前排 (cin4 paai2) – a while back
    • Example sentence: 前排我識咗個好有趣嘅人。
    • Romanization: cin4 paai2 ngo5 sik1 zo2 go3 hou2 jau5 ceoi3 ge3 jan4.
    • Meaning: I met an interesting person a while back.
  • 以前 (ji5 cin4) – before
    • Example sentence: 我以前見過你。
    • Romanization: ngo5 ji5 cin4 gin3 gwo3 nei5. 
    • Meaning: I saw you (before).
  • 之前 (zi1 cin4) – before
    • Example sentence: 我之前喺度做野。
    • Romanization: ngo5 zi1 cin4 hai2 dou6 zou6 je5. 
    • Meaning: I used to work here (before).

Note: “以前” and “之前” are similar and they both mean “before.” The subtle difference between the two is that “以前” usually refers to things that happened years ago, while “之前” tends to be about things that happened a few weeks/months ago.

  • 幾個禮拜之前 (gei2 go3 lai5 baai3 zi1 cin4) – a few weeks ago
    • Example sentence: 幾個禮拜之前我同一位網上紅人食晚飯。
    • Romanization: gei2 go3 lai5 baai3 zi1 cin4 ngo5 tung4 jat1 wai2 mong5 soeng6 hung4 jan4 sik6 maan5 faan6.
    • Meaning: I had dinner with an Internet celebrity a few weeks ago.
  • 上個月 (soeng6 go3 jyut6) – last month
    • Example sentence: 我上個月考咗英文能力檢定試。
    • Romanization: ngo5 soeng6 go3 jyut6 haau2 zo2 jing1 man4 nang4 lik6 gim2 ding6 si3.
    • Meaning: I took an English proficiency test last month.
  • 舊年 (gau6 nin2) – last year
    • Example sentence: 我舊年去咗加拿大。
    • Romanization: ngo5 gau6 nin2 heoi3 zo2 gaa1 naa4 daai6.
    • Meaning: I went to Canada last year.

3. How to Express the Present

And now it’s time to learn how to express the present in Cantonese. There are four words in total that are used to represent “present,” so read on to find out what they are and how to use them!

A Man Pointing to His Wristwatch

1 – Word(s) to be placed before the verb

  • 喺度 (hai2 dou6) – be / doing
    • Example sentence: 喺度諗緊咩呀?
    • Romanization: hai2 dou6 nam2 gan2 me1 aa3?
    • Meaning: What are you thinking about?

2 – Word(s) to be placed after the verb

  • 緊 (gan2) – in progress
    • Example sentence: 我等緊你。
    • Romanization: ngo5 dang2 gan2 nei5.
    • Meaning: I am waiting (for you).
  • 住 (zyu6) – doing
    • Example sentence: 佢攞住個咪唱歌
    • Romanization: keoi5 lo2 zyu6 go3 mai1 coeng3 go1.
    • Meaning: He is singing while holding a mic.

3 – Word(s) to be placed at the beginning of the sentence or right after the subject

  • 而家 (ji4 gaa1) – now
    • Example sentence: 你而家去邊?
    • Romanization: nei5 ji4 gaa1 heoi3 bin1?
    • Meaning: Where are you going now?

4. How to Express the Future

Last but not least, let’s learn how to express the future in Cantonese.

A Group of Children

1 – Word(s) to be placed before the verb

  • 會 (wui5) – will
    • Example sentence: 今個禮拜六我哋會結婚。
    • Romanization: gam1 go3 lai5 baai3 luk6 ngo5 dei6 wui5 git3 fan1.
    • Meaning: We will get married this Saturday.

2 – Word(s) to be placed at the beginning of the sentence or right after the subject

  • 到時 (dou3 si4) – then
    • Example sentence: 到時再講。
    • Romanization: dou3 si4 zoi3 gong2.
    • Meaning: (We) will talk then.
  • 陣間 (zan6 gaan1) – later
    • Example sentence: 陣間去邊食飯好?
    • Romanization: zan6 gaan1 heoi3 bin1 sik6 faan6 hou2?
    • Meaning: Where shall we go for lunch?
  • 跟住 (gan1 zyu6) – and then
    • Example sentence: 司機,唔該先去旺角,跟住去油麻地。
    • Romanization: si1 gei1, m4 goi1 sin1 heoi3 wong6 gok3, gan1 zyu6 heoi3 jau4 maa4 dei2.
    • Meaning: Mr. Driver, please first go to Mongkok and then to Yau Ma Tei.
  • 之後 (zi1 hau6) – after
    • Example sentence: 聽日之後就要走。
    • Romanization: ting1 jat6 zi1 hau6 zau6 jiu3 zau2.
    • Meaning: (I) will have to leave after tomorrow.
  • 聽日 (ting1 jat6) – tomorrow
    • Example sentence: 聽日又到星期一要返工。
    • Romanization: ting1 jat6 jau6 dou3 sing1 kei4 jat1 jiu3 faan1 gung1.
    • Meaning: Tomorrow is Monday and we gotta go to work again.
  • 後日 (hau6 jat6) – the day after tomorrow
    • Example sentence: 我後日會同朋友出去玩。
    • Romanization: ngo5 hau6 jat6 wui5 tung4 pang4 jau5 ceot1 heoi3 waan2.
    • Meaning: I will be hanging out with friends the day after tomorrow.
  • 下個禮拜 (haa6 go3 lai5 baai3) – next week
    • Example sentence: 下個禮拜就端午節喇。
    • Romanization: haa6 go3 lai5 baai3 zau6 dyun1 ng5 zit3 laa3.
    • Meaning: It’s Mid-Autumn Festival next week.
  • 下個月 (haa6 go3 jyut6) – next month
    • Example sentence: 我下個月會去英國。
    • Romanization: ngo5 haa6 go3 jyut6 wui5 heoi3 jing1 gwok3.
    • Meaning: I will be going to the UK next month.
  • 出年 (ceot1 nin2) – next year
    • Example sentence: 出年我就十八歲喇。
    • Romanization: ceot1 nin2 ngo5 zau6 sap6 baat3 seoi3 laa3.
    • Meaning: I will be eighteen next year.

5. How CantoneseClass101.com Can Help You Learn More Cantonese

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Before you go, let us know in the comments how you feel about expressing tenses in Cantonese now. More confident, or do you still have some questions? We’ll do our best to help.

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