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Chinese Grammar: Talking about time with 以前, 以后 and 的时候

For Lupishu, there’s a BEFORE and an AFTER - before Nincha found him, and after he became part of the Nincha family. But how do you say that in Chinese? Now that you and Lupishu have learned how to tell the time and talk about dates precisely, it’s time to learn how to talk about time in general, without having to specify when precisely.

To talk about the past and the future, you’ll be needing two words: 以前 (yǐqián), to talk about the past, and 以后 (yǐhòu), to talk about the future. As you'll see, both words are quite simple to use. Add to these two words the word 时候, a little practice and you’ll be talking about events in time like a pro in no time.

Talk about the past and the future in general

Both 以前 (yǐqián) and 以后 (yǐhòu) work the same way. They are used to talk about something that has happened at an unspecified time in the past, or that will be happening at an unspecified time in the future. Let’s start with 以前 (yǐqián) to talk about the past.

以前, before

You can use 以前 to talk about something that happened at an unspecified time in the past. It is similar to “before”, or “in the past” in English. 以前 is a flexible time word so that you can place it either before or after the subject. Both are correct.




以前 北京。 Before, I lived in Beijing.
以前 北京。I lived in Beijing before.

以前 中文。Before, he learned Chinese.
以前 中文。He’s learned Chinese before.

以前 汉语。Before, she spoke Chinese.
以前 汉语。She spoke Chinese before.

以后 to talk about the future in general

以后 is used to describe things that will happen at an unspecified time in the future, and, like 以前, can be used to talk about both very close upcoming events and events far away in the future. 以后 here can be translated as “in the future”, or “later”.


[以后, S+ V + O]

Just like 以前, 以后 can be placed indifferently before or after the subject when you’re talking about time in general. It is common to add a comma after 以后 if it’s placed at the beginning of the sentence.


以后 中文。Later, he’ll learn Chinese.
以后 中文。He’ ll learn Chinese later.

以后 北京 上学。In the future, I’ll go study in Beijing.
以后 北京 上学。I’ll go study in Beijing in the future.

以后很多 中国。In the future, many people will go to China.
很多 以后 中国。Many people will go to China in the future.

Before a specific action/event/time

When you want to talk about something that happened in the past or the future at a more specific moment, such as a specific event, you can also use 以前 and 以后. You can put an event, a specific time or an action before 以前 or 以后.


[action/event/time+ 以前/以后, S+V+O]

This pattern is close to “before/after something, something happened” in English. Do note that, when talking about a specific event, action or time, 以前 and 以后 must always be placed after the event/time in question. 以前 and 以后 cannot be placed before the event/action/time.


回家以前 苹果
I ate an apple before I went home.

Before I went to sleep, I brushed my teeth.

I was at home before 10 o’clock.

吃饭以后我们 电影
We’re going to go see a movie after we eat.

中国 以后 学会 汉字
He learned how to write Chinese characters after he went to China.

以后 北京
I’ll go to Beijing in 2 days.

下午 以后 医院
I’ m going to the hospital after 2 p.m.

Talk about when with 时候

时候 is very useful to talk about when it’s the moment to do something or when something happened, as it literally means “when”.

If we break 时候 down, it’s composed of , which you’re now super familiar with and means “of”, and 时候 which means (a moment in) time. So, in other words, it means “of time”, i.e. when. To use 时候 in a sentence, first say what action/ event you’re talking about, and add 时候 afterward.


Phrase 1 + 时候, phrase 2.


回家 时候 睡觉
He was sleeping by the time I got back home.

Use 时候 to talk about the present, past and future

时候 is very flexible, and you can use it to talk about a moment taking place in the past, present, and future. Nifty, no? Let’s see how that works through a few examples.



时候 运动 游泳
When I was a kid, my favorite sport was swimming.


超市 时候可以 卫生纸
When you go to the supermarket, can you also buy toilet paper?


生日 时候妈妈
Wait for when it’s your birthday and mama will buy it for you.

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