Using 在 in Chinese helps you determine where you are in both Time & Space, but there are a few different ways to use it.
- As an action
- A description of where an action is taking place in space
- A description of when an action is taking place in time
Apart from these three usages, using 在 in Chinese also sometimes creates a word order exception. This article will cover all of these uses with example sentences at the end.
在 AS A VERB
If you want to say that something is at a certain location, you can use 在 as a verb. This is different from English, where people would saying “He is in China”. “Is” is the verb and “in” is the proposition, but Chinese is simpler. You can simply say “在” to serve both the verb and preposition function together. This is only for when the entire purpose of the sentence is to say where the subject is. “我在中国 wǒ zài zhōngguó” is simply expressing that I am in China, with no further explanation of what I am doing there. So, in this case “在” is the verb.
在 AS A DESCRIPTION OF A VERB’S LOCATION
This is a situation where the word order is different than English. If you want to say “I work in China”, you first say the “In China” part, and then tack on the verb “work”, “我在中国工作 wǒ zài zhōngguó gōngzuò”. Apart from some special verbs related to movement and location, the general sentence order in Chinese is “Subject + Time + 在 + Location + Verb + Object”.
PLACEMENT OF “在”
Generally speaking, the verb of a sentence comes after the location (e.g. 我在家jiā吃了饭 ‘I ate at home’), however when the verb implies movement or location, the verb is sometimes placed before the location (在). In the above video, the verb used is “住 zhù -- to live” and is used in the sentence “你住在哪里？nǐ zhù zài náli -- Where do you live?” . Clearly 住 implies movement or location, so it is placed before 在. Again, merely take note of this and through your immersion your language module pattern recognize the situations where it is used this way.
USING 在 FOR PRESENT TENSE
We tend to think of “at” or “located” as referring to space, but in Chinese this concept of where you are “at” also refers to both space & time. This is a key point, because when you use 在 in a sentence with an action after it, it is effective expressing where you are “located” in time. When it comes to time, you can’t be located in the past or the future, so effectively “在 + action” indicates present tense.
Apart from 在, you can also use 正在 zhèngzài to get across that something is happening right now, you can use “Subject + 正在 + Verb + Object”. “我正在看书 wǒ zhèngzài kànshū-- I’m reading right now” is a simple example of this structure.
- 他在喝可乐 tā zài hē kělè -- He is drinking cola
- 我在工作 wǒ zài gōngzuò -- I am working
- 妈妈在骂爸爸 māma zài mà bàba -- Mom is scolding dad.
- 我在帮妈妈 wǒ zài bāng māma -- I’m helping mom
- 你在干嘛？nǐ zài gàn má? -- What are you doing?
- 你在做什么？nǐ zài zuò shénme? -- What are you doing? (alternate)