- 1 Introduction
- 2 Vocabulary
- 3 “Tenses” in Cantonese
- 4 Examples with the present tense
- 5 The present continuous tense in Cantonese
- 5.1 Words that indicate continuous or progressive states
- 5.2 Examples with the present continuous tense
- 5.2.1 Usage #1: Present action that’s unfinished
- 5.2.2 Usage #2: Temporary situations
- 5.2.3 Usage #3: Long term situations
- 5.2.4 Usage #4: Describe an excessive occurrence “always + verb-ing”
- 5.2.5 Usage #5: The near future
- 5.2.6 Usage #6: To express a trend
- 5.2.7 Usage #7: Unsure mental states
- 5.2.8 Usage #9: Describe someone’s character
- 5.2.9 Usage #10: To express “I’m wondering…”
- 5.2.10 Usage #11: Others
- 6 The other “continuous” marker 住
In today’s lesson, we’re going to focus on something that’s fairly simple to explain, but yet vital to grasping the language well: the present tense in Cantonese.
(Last Updated: 16th December, 2017)
S/W/B = Spoken / Written / Both
|to get up||起身||hei2 san1||S|
|to ride the bike||踩單車||caai2 daan1 ce1||S|
|to go to school||返學||faan1 hok6||S|
|Beethoven||貝多芬||bui3 do1 fan1||B|
|composer||作曲家||zok3 kuk1 gaa1||B|
|collagen||骨膠原||gwat1 gaau1 jyun4||B|
|to be composed of||組成||zou2 sing4||B|
|to surround||圍繞||wai4 jiu2||B|
|salesperson||sell 士||sell si2||S|
|to go for a walk||行街||haang4 gaai1||S|
|to handle||處理||cyu5 lei5||B|
|business affairs||公事||gung1 si6||B|
|a married couple||夫婦||fu1 fu5||B|
|to adopt||收養||sau1 joeng5||B|
|to experience||經歷||ging1 lik6||B|
|to go through||經過||ging1 gwo3||B|
|to process||辦理||baan6 lei5||B|
|to apply to||申請||san1 cing2||B|
|to adopt||領養||ling5 joeng5||B|
|to build a website||整網站||zing2 mong5 zaam6||S|
|Ethiopia||埃塞俄比亞||ai1 coi3 o4 bei2 aa3||B|
|to build a school||起學校||hei2 hok6 haau6||S|
|to meet with||見面||gin3 min6||B|
|to consider||考慮||hau2 leoi6||B|
|Spain||西班牙||sai1 baan1 ngaa4||B|
|to emigrate, to immigrate||移民||ji4 man4||B|
|Canada||加拿大||gaa1 naa4 daai6||B|
|to play on the swings||蕩千秋||dong6 cin1 cau1||S|
|to change one’s mind||改變主意||goi2 bin3 zyu2 ji3||B|
|to keep an eye on||睇住||tai2 zyu6||S|
|to continue||繼續||gai3 zuk6||B|
|to cut (with scissors)||剪||zin2||B|
|to look down on||睇小||tai2 siu2||S|
“Tenses” in Cantonese
To be precise, I should have titled this how to express the “present tense” in Cantonese. As we’ve briefly discussed before, there are no “tenses” in Cantonese. In English, for example, with the present tense, if we were to take the word “to eat”, you might have something like
He / she / it eats
Or maybe more prominently in French and Spanish, if you’ve studied those before
él / ella / Ud. come
ellos / ellas / Uds. comen
il / elle / on mange
ils / elles mangent
In Cantonese, you might be disappointed (or happy, depending on which side of the equation you’re on) to find out that we pretty much have this
我食 ngo5 sik6
你食 nei5 sik6
佢食 keoi5 sik6
我哋食 ngo5 dei6 sik6
你哋食 nei5 dei6 sik6
佢哋食 ngo5 dei6 sik6
It’s not terribly exciting. But the word itself doesn’t change. Instead, we add things before or after the verb in order to indicate certain things.
But this is where Cantonese is a bit different from other languages.
Instead of only being capable of expressing the present, past, future, conditional, there are many versatile things that are possible in Cantonese. For example, there’s a particular word you can add after a verb to indicate something you do habitually, whereas you might have to express this with “I’m used to…” or something similar in English.
Let’s dive straight into today’s lesson: the present.
The present tense in Cantonese
I’m afraid I’ll have to disappoint you (or make you happy, depending on your bend) once more here.
While I say that tenses in European languages, among other things work in Cantonese by attaching words before or after a verb, there is an exception – the present tense. In other words, to express the present, you can just use the original form of the verb.
I go → 我去 ngo5 heoi3
You have → 你有 nei5 jau5
They buy → 佢哋買 keoi5 dei6 maai5
She thinks → 佢諗 keoi5 lam2
But when discussing a tense, it’s not enough to simply talk about “conjugation”. It’s also important to check whether different ways we use a verb tense in English is consistent with Cantonese.
A cursory reading of Raymond Murphy’s excellent text on “English Grammar in Use” shows that the present tense in English is used in four main ways:
- Things that happen repeatedly (e.g. I get up at seven everyday.)
- Facts, universal truths (e.g. Beethoven is a composer. Our bones are made up of collagen.)
- Generalizations, simple statements (e.g. I know how to speak Cantonese. I learn Cantonese at Cantolounge.)
- Permanent situations (e.g. I live in Hong Kong. Robert works as a salesman.)
Fortunately for us, it seems that Cantonese shares these usages, so we can check that assumption off our list.
Let’s see a couple of examples of the present in action.
Examples with the present tense
Usage #1: Repetitive actions
ngo5 mui5 jat6 cat1 dim2 hei2 san1
I wake up at seven everyday.
keoi5 mui5 jat6 caai2 daan1 ce1 faan2 hok6
She goes to school by bike everyday.
Usage #2: Facts
bui3 do1 fan1 hai6 jat1 go3 zok3 kuk1 gaa1
Beethoven is a composer.
ngo5 dei6 ge3 gwat1 tau4 jau4 gwat1 gaau1 jyun4 zou2 sing4
Our bones are made up of collagen.
dei6 kau4 wai4 jiu2 taai3 joeng4 zyun3
The Earth revolves around the sun.
Usage #3: Simple statements
ngo5 sik1 gong2 gwong2 dung1 waa6
I can speak Cantonese.
我喺 Cantolounge 學廣東話。
ngo5 hai2 Cantolounge hok6 gwong2 dung1 waa2
I learn Cantonese at Cantolounge.
ngo5 sik6 lai6 zi1
I eat lychee.
Usage #4: Permanent situations
ngo5 zung1 ji3 jam2 fan1 daat6
I like to drink Fanta.
ngo5 zyu6 hai2 hoeng1 gong2
I live in Hong Kong.
Robert 係做 sell 士嘅。
Robert hai6 zou6 sell si2 ge3
Robert is a salesman.
The present continuous tense in Cantonese
Next, I want to talk a little bit about the present continuous tense.
Unlike the present tense, where it’s generally used to describe “fixed” truths and facts, the present continuous tense is a bit more versatile, which makes translations a bit harder for us. But not to worry – we’ll go through each case in turn.
- The action is taking place when the person is speaking, and it isn’t complete (e.g. The car is honking the car in front. I’m doing a degree in software.)
- Temporary situations (e.g. I’m living with a friend in Switzerland. He’s handling business on a trip overseas. The Carrey’s are currently going through the adoption process.)
- Longer term situations (e.g. I’m currently building a website. He’s building a school in Ethiopia.)
- When saying something’s happening a bit too much (e.g. She’s always complaining about the neighbours. He’s always talking to himself.)
- To express something’s that’s about to happen in the near future (e.g. I’m meeting Mr. Jones tomorrow evening in London. My friend is buying a new iPhone tomorrow.)
- To express a trend (e.g. China is getting more and more powerful. She’s becoming more and more snobbish.)
- When describing mental states that we’re unsure about or may change our minds on (They’re considering going to Spain in March.)
- When narrating an informal story (e.g. He’s wearing a striped shirt. The children are playing on the swings.)
- Used with words like always, constantly, continually to describe someone’s character (e.g. He’s always helping those in need. She’s constantly changing her mind.)
- To express “I’m wondering…” (e.g. I’m wondering if you know Sam.)
- Among other uses (e.g. I’m loving my new house.)
Words that indicate continuous or progressive states
Before we have a look at examples, I want to introduce you to the three main protagonists of this portion of the lesson today:
I’d like to take a moment to do a comparison between 緊 and 喺度.
緊 is probably the form most students learn. To use 緊, all you have to do is to add it to a verb, for example:
做 → 做緊 zou6 gan2
學 → 學緊 hok6 gan2
煮 → 煮緊 zyu2 gan2
Explanations often say that “you can pretty much substitute in 緊 whenever you want to say something-ing”. Through the below examples, we’ll see if that holds true in all cases.
However, students learning Cantonese sometimes hear 喺度 used as well alongside 緊, as with this example:
我帶 Lucky 行街。
ngo5 hai2 dou6 daai3 gan2 Lucky hang4 gaai1
This could be confusing to some: after all, doesn’t 喺度 mean “to be here”? Why would Cantonese speakers say “I am here taking Lucky for a walk”? What does the “here” do?
It turns out that 喺度, when used with 緊, doesn’t mean “to be here”. Instead, it only emphasizes on the ongoing action, but only slightly.
It’s also important to note that while we hear many native speakers using 喺度 and 緊 together, it’s perfectly fine to use them independently. In other words, these two are equivalent:
我帶 Lucky 行街。
ngo5 hai2 dou6 daai3 Lucky hang4 gaai1
我帶 Lucky 行街。
ngo5 daai3 gan2 Lucky hang4 gaai1
On the other hand, I will hold off on explaining 住 for now, because it’s slightly different and needs to be treated separately.
Let’s look at the examples below and inspect each case individually.
Examples with the present continuous tense
Usage #1: Present action that’s unfinished
This is probably the most frequent usage of the tense. For this particular usage, we usually use 緊.
The car is honking the car in front.
gaa3 ce1 but1 gan2 cin4 min6 gaa3 ce1
I’m doing a degree in software.
ngo5 ji4 gaa1 duk6 gan2 jyun5 gin2
Usage #2: Temporary situations
Temporary situations generally pair well with 緊 too.
I’m living with a friend in Switzerland.
ngo5 ji4 gaa1 tung4 pang4 jau5 hai2 seoi6 si6 zyu6 gan2
He’s handling business on a trip overseas.
keoi5 hai2 hoi2 ngoi6 cyu5 lei5 gan2 gung1 si6
The Carrey’s are currently going through the adoption process.
Carrey loeng5 fu1 fu5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 dou6 sau1 joeng5 gan2 jat1 go3 siu2 pang4 jau5
*On a separate note, you’ll notice the translations for this sentence is quite different. The reason is because we can’t translate “going through” literally. “Going through” here means to “undergo”, but words like 經歷 or 經過 are not correct. Other possible translations, if you’re interested, can include 辦理緊收養手續, 申請緊領養兒童, among others.
Usage #3: Long term situations
Lucky for us, again, 緊 also goes well with long term situations.
I’m currently building a website.
ngo5 ji4 gaa1 hai2 dou6 zing2 gan2 go3 mong5 zaam6
He’s building a school in Ethiopia.
keoi5 hai2 aai1 coi3 o4 bei2 aa3 hei2 gan2 gaan1 hok6 haau6
Usage #4: Describe an excessive occurrence “always + verb-ing”
This is where we have to be careful. For starters, we cannot use 緊 here. 緊 is used to indicate ongoing actions, things that happen over a period of time. This usage doesn’t fit 緊. We can only use 喺度 for this. Remember to put 喺度 before the verb, not after.
Also, you’re free to choose whether you want to use 喺度 or just drop it, as we can see with the examples below.
She’s always complaining about the neighbours.
keoi5 sing4 jat6 dou1 complain di1 leon4 geoi1
He’s always talking to himself.
keoi5 sing4 jat6 dou1 hai2 dou6 tung4 zi6 gei2 gong2 je5
Usage #5: The near future
This is yet another case where a tense doesn’t translate the same way in Cantonese. We often talk about not transliterating between languages, instead, translating meaning, and this is a really good example of that.
緊 describes ongoing actions. This usage of the present continuous indicates the future, and obviously doesn’t fit into that description. Instead, we either have to use a marker that indicates the future, or we can default back to using no markers to indicate the present in Cantonese.
I realize we haven’t covered this yet, but one possible way of expressing the future is with the marker 會.
I’m meeting Mr. Jones tomorrow evening in London.
我聽晚會喺倫敦同 Mr. Jones 見面。/ 我聽晚喺倫敦同 Mr. Jones 見面。
ngo5 ting1 maan5 wui5 hai2 leon4 deon1 tung4 Mr. Jones gin3 min6 / ngo5 ting1 maan5 hai2 leon4 deon1 tung4 Mr . Jones gin3 min6
My friend is buying a new iPhone tomorrow.
我個朋友聽日會買個新嘅 iPhone。/ 我個朋友聽日買個新嘅 iPhone。
ngo5 go3 pang4 jau5 ting1 jat6 wui5 maai5 go3 san1 ge3 iPhone / ngo5 go3 pang4 jau5 ting1 jat6 maai5 go3 san1 ge3 iPhone
But note that the tone is slightly different if you include the 會 marker or not.
If you include it, it simply means “it will happen”, not so different than the English future.
But if you decide to drop it, it then becomes a fact. You’re stating “I meet Mr. Jones tomorrow evening in London”, which sounds correct but a bit robotic.
Usage #6: To express a trend
Yet another example where 緊 or 喺度 can’t be used. Instead, the way to translate “more and more” or “less and less” is through the expression “越嚟越”, followed by the adjective.
China is getting more and more powerful.
zung1 gwok3 jyut6 lei4 jyut6 koeng4 daai6
She’s becoming more and more snobbish.
keoi5 jyut6 lai4 jyut6 sai3 lei6
Usage #7: Unsure mental states
Here, we can see that there’s a certain sense of ongoing-ness, so this time round, we’re going back to 緊.
They’re considering going to Spain in March.
keoi5 dei6 haau2 leoi6 gan2 saam1 jyut6 heoi3 sai1 baan1 ngaa4
I’m thinking of emigrating to Canada in the future.
ngo5 lam2 gan2 zoeng3 loi4 ji4 man4 heoi3 gaa1 naa4 daai6
Usage #9: Describe someone’s character
There are two main ways of translating this, neither of which involves 緊. You can say 成日都 or add 喺度 to get 成日都喺度.
He’s always helping those in need.
keoi5 sing4 jat6 dou1 bong1 jat1 di1 jau5 seoi1 jiu3 ge3 jan4
She’s constantly changing her mind.
keoi5 sing4 jat6 dou1 hai2 dou6 goi2 bin3 zyu2 ji3
Usage #10: To express “I’m wondering…”
“Wondering” involves some kind of ongoing element, so unsurprisingly, we can use 緊 here.
But a better way to translate this involves another structure “唔知…”.
I’m wondering if you know Sam.
唔知你識唔識啊 Sam 呢。
m4 zi1 nei5 sik1 m4 sik1 aa3 Sam ne1
I’m wondering if Cantonese is easy to learn or not.
ngo5 hai2 dou6 lam2 gan2 gwong2 dung1 waa2 jung4 m4 jung4 ji6 hok6
Usage #11: Others
I don’t pretend this is an exhaustive list. So there are cases that might not fall under them.
While I’d like to tell you that you should try to reason with yourself whether something “makes sense” or not in Cantonese, that line of thinking usually doesn’t work with languages. The only things we can do is to check with a native speaker.
I’m loving my new house.
We might be tempted to translate this as
ngo5 ngoi3 gan2 ngo5 gaan1 san1 nguk1
But I can tell you that I’ve never heard 愛 and 緊 used before. Ever.
So don’t be afraid to ask someone if you’re stuck.
The other “continuous” marker 住
This other marker 住, also indicates a “continuous” motion. In comparison with 緊, we can think of 住 as something that describes something where the state doesn’t change. But unlike 緊, where its usage can be straightforward, it’s not so easy to know what works with 住 or not. Here, I’ll do my best to describe some common uses of it.
Usage #1: “For now”
One of the most common uses to grasp is when you want to say things like “watch the fire for now (for me)”, “continue to cut the paper for now”. These are typically used to give commands. You’ll find that 先 is often added at the end of the sentence in these commands to emphasize that you only need to do it “for now”.
These two would translate into
Watch the fire for now (for me).
bong1 ngo5 tai2 zyu6 go3 fo2 sin1
Continue to cut the paper for now.
gai3 zuk6 zin2 zyu6 zoeng1 zi2 sin1
Eat first, I’m almost done cooking.
nei5 sik6 zyu6 sin1，ngo5 caa1 m4 do1 zyu2 jyun4
Usage #2: Words that change meaning
Some words naturally go with 住 (they can’t exist without it, but some can as well), and they can take on different meanings (or not).
ngo5 lam2 zyu6 gam1 nin2 heoi3 sai1 baan1 ngaa4
I’m thinking of going to Spain this year.
ngo5 zam2 zyu6 sat1 min4
I’m having recurring bouts of insomnia.
keoi5 zik6 zyu6 zi6 gei2 jau5 cin2 sing4 jat6 dou1 tai2 siu2 jan4
He’s always looking down on people due to him being rich.
Usage #3: Chaining two verbs
This is a little bit similar to saying things like “he’s running (while) holding a flag”, “she’s giving a speech holding a mic”, “he’s shopping wearing his pyjamas”. But this doesn’t work with just any verb – the action cannot change state when using 住. For example, you can’t use 住 with something like “I’m writing (while) talking on the phone”, because talking on the phone involves some change – you’re actively changing. Compare that to holding a flag, holding up a mic, or wearing pyjamas – these are “ongoing”, but they don’t really change when you compare the start to a later state.
keoi5 zaa1 zyu6 zi1 gwok3 kei4 paau2 bou6
He’s running (while) holding a flag.
keoi5 lo2 zyu6 go3 mai1 jin2 gong2
She’s giving a speech holding a mic.
keoi5 zeok3 zyu6 seoi6 ji1 hang4 gaai1
He’s shopping wearing his pyjamas.
And that’s about it for this lesson.
I hope you learnt something new today. These posts are a bit long in the beginning because they cover a lot of ground, and because English and Cantonese typically don’t share much in common, so it’s important to lay the groundwork well. As we progress to more advanced lessons, I think we can get through them a lot quicker.
Please write some sample sentences below in the comments box to practice what you’ve learnt, or feel free to leave a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts.
Thanks and I’ll see you in the next lesson!