Expressing When in Chinese with 的时候 (de shíhou): The Complete Guide

Expressing When in Chinese with 的时候 (de shíhou)

“When I become a rich guy, I’ll…”

Yeah, keep dreaming. We are not going to teach you how to become a millionaire here, but at least at the end of this article, you’ll know how to say it in Chinese among other things, with the super useful time expression …的时候 (de shíhou).

Sounds good? Let’s dig in!

Forming the Time Expression …的时候 (de shíhou)

The time expression “…的时候 (de shíhou)” is quite similar to the English “when… (sth happens)”. You can use it to talk about things that happen at or during a particular time. It could be in the past, present, or future. To do so, simply attach 的时候 (de shíhou) to the word or phrase that indicates the time in the sentence.

Pattern

time-indicating words/phrases + 的时候 (de shíhou)

Depending on the context, the structure can be translated as “when (sth happens)”, “at the time (sth happens)” or “during the time (sth happens)”, etc.

Examples:

  • 我们到达的时候,他已经走了。
    Wǒmen dàodá de shíhou, tā yǐjīng zǒu le.
    When we arrived there, he had already left. (at the time we arrived…)
  • 我上大学的时候,美国总统还是奥巴马。
    Wǒ shàng dàxué de shíhou, měiguó zǒngtǒng háishì Àobāmǎ.
    When I was attending university, the U.S. president was still Obama. (during the time I was…)
  • 我在欧洲旅行的时候,认识了我的女朋友。
    Wǒ zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng de shíhou, rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou.
    When I was traveling in Europe, I met my girlfriend. (during the time I was…)
  • 罗纳尔多在皇马的时候,进了451球。
    Luónà’ěrduō zài huángmǎ de shíhou, jìn le 451 qiú.
    When Ronaldo was in (playing for) Real Madrid, he scored 451 goals. (during the time he was…)
When Ronaldo was in (playing for) Real Madrid, he scored 451 goals

When the subject pronoun is self-evident from the context, native speakers often omit it for the sake of concision.

For instance, in commands:

  • 吃饭的时候不要说话。 chīfàn de shíhou búyào shuōhuà.
    → 吃饭的时候不要说话。Chīfàn de shíhou búyào shuōhuà.
    When you’re eating, don’t talk. 
  • 开车的时候别看手机。 kāichē de shíhou bié kàn shǒujī.
    → 开车的时候别看手机。Kāichē de shíhou bié kàn shǒujī.
    When you’re driving, don’t look at the phone.

It doesn’t have to be a verb or verb phrase (e.g. “we arrived”, “you’re eating”) before “…的时候 (de shíhou)”, in Chinese, it can simply be an adjective. And again, the subject is often omitted on purpose to avoid redundancy.

  • 生气的时候不要做决定。
    Shēngqì de shíhou búyào zuò juédìng.
    When (you’re) angry, don’t make decisions. 
  • 难过的时候我会哭。
    Nánguò de shíhou wǒ huì kū.
    When (I’m) sad, I will cry.
  • 年轻的时候他非常帅。
    Niánqīng de shíhou tā fēicháng shuài.
    When (he’s) young, he was very handsome.  

Though strange it may sound in English, you can use a noun directly before “的时候 (de shíhou)” in Chinese as well (as long as the noun can indicate the time). In this case, you will find it easy to translate the structure as “at the time of…” or “during the time of…”

For example:

  • 冬天的时候这里会下雪。
    Dōngtiān de shíhou zhèli huì xiàxuě.
    When (it’s) winter, it will snow here. (at/during the time of winter)
  • 她生日的时候,我会给她一个惊喜。
    Tā shēngrì de shíhou, wǒ huì gěi tā yí gè jīngxǐ.
    When (it’s) her birthday, I will give her a surprise. (at the time of her birthday)
  • 九岁的时候谢尔顿上了高中。
    Jiǔ suì de shíhou Xiè’ěrdùn shàng le gāozhōng.
    When (he was) nine years old, Sheldon went to high school. (at the time of nine years old)
When (he was) nine years old, Sheldon went to high school

Position of ….的时候 (de shíhou) in a Sentence

You might be aware of the basic sentence order in Chinese involving time, essentially, time words or expressions can only appear in one of the two positions in a sentence: either at the very beginning of the sentence (before the subject), or immediately after the subject.

For instance.

明天我去北京。
Míngtiān wǒ qù běijīng.
Literally: Tomorrow, I will go to Beijing. (time before the subject)

明天去北京。
Wǒ míngtiān qù běijīng.
Literally: I, tomorrow, will go to Beijing. (time after the subject)

In this example, the time word “tomorrow” can either appear before the subject “I” or after it.

Now, the time expression “…的时候” works exactly the same way as the time word in the sentence. You either use it before the subject or immediately after it (if the subject is not omitted).

在欧洲旅行的时候,认识了我的女朋友。
Wǒ zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng de shíhou, rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou.
Literally: I, when traveling in Europe, met my girlfriend. (time after the subject)

Changing the position of time expression

在欧洲旅行的时候,我认识了我的女朋友。
Zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng de shíhou, wǒ rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou.
Literally: When traveling in Europe, I met my girlfriend. (time before the subject)

难过的时候我会哭。
Nánguò de shíhou wǒ huì kū.
Literally: When (I’m) sad, I will cry. (time before the subject)

Changing the position of time expression

难过的时候会哭。
Wǒ nánguò de shíhou huì kū.
Literally: I, when (I’m) sad, will cry. (time after the subject)

九岁的时候谢尔顿上了高中。
Jiǔ suì de shíhou Xiè’ěrdùn shàng le gāozhōng.
Literally: When (he was) nine years old, Sheldon went to high school. (time before the subject)

Changing the position of time expression

谢尔顿九岁的时候上了高中。
Xiè’ěrdùn jiǔ suì de shíhou shàng le gāozhōng.
Literally: Sheldon, when (he was) nine years old, went to high school. (time after the subject)

Alert! Never use ….的时候 (de shíhou) at the end of the sentence!

In English, it’s probably more natural to say “I met my girlfriend when I was traveling in Europe.” However, if you are saving the time expression for the end of the sentence in Chinese, you can’t be more wrong. It should only be used before the subject or directly after it.

  • × 我认识了我的女朋友,在欧洲旅行的时候
    Wǒ rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou, zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng de shíhou.
    Never use the time expression at the end of the sentence!
  • × 我会哭,难过的时候
    Wǒ huì kū, nánguò de shíhou.
    Never use the time expression at the end of the sentence!
  • × 谢尔顿上了高中,九岁的时候
    Xiè’ěrdùn shàng le gāozhōng, jiǔ suì de shíhou.
    I repeat: never use the time expression at the end of the sentence!

You might occasionally find the structure …的时候 at the end of a sentence in some lyrics or poems for the effect of rhyming, this, however, is not grammatically correct and should never be adopted in regular conversational Chinese.  

Short Form of 的时候 (de shíhou): 时 (shí)

的时候 (de shíhou) can be shortened to simply 时 (shí) without changing its meaning.

我们到达,他已经走了。Wǒmen dàodá de shíhou, tā yǐjīng zǒu le.
→ 我们到达,他已经走了。Wǒmen dàodá shí, tā yǐjīng zǒu le.
When we arrived, he had already left.

Since the expression 时 (shí) consists of only one syllable, it sounds slightly more formal than 的时候 (de shíhou). Nevertheless, you can use 时 (shí) in spoken Chinese whenever you want to keep sentences short and concise. (just replace 的时候 (de shíhou) with 时 (shí), that’s it!)

  • 我上大学,美国总统还是奥巴马。
    Wǒ shàng dàxué shí, měiguó zǒngtǒng háishì Àobāmǎ.
    When I was attending university, the U.S. president was still Obama.
  • 我在欧洲旅行,认识了我的女朋友。
    Wǒ zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng shí, rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou.
    When I was traveling in Europe, I met my girlfriend.
  • 罗纳尔多在皇马,进了451球。
    Luónà’ěrduō zài huángmǎ shí, jìn le 451 qiú.
    When Ronaldo was in (playing for) Real Madrid, he scored 451 goals.
  • 吃饭不要说话。
    Chīfàn shí búyào shuōhuà.
    When (you’re) eating, don’t talk. 
  • 开车别看手机。
    Kāichē shí bié kàn shǒujī!
    When (you’re) driving, don’t look at the phone! 
  • 生气不要做决定。
    Shēngqì shí búyào zuò juédìng.
    When (you’re) angry, don’t make decisions. 
  • 难过我会哭。
    Nánguò shí wǒ huì kū.
    When (I’m) sad, I will cry.
  • 年轻他非常帅。
    Niánqīng shí tā fēicháng shuài.
    When (he’s) young, he was very handsome.  
  • 冬天这里会下雪。
    Dōngtiān shí zhèli huì xiàxuě.
    When (it’s) winter, it will snow here.
  • 她生日,我会给她一个惊喜。
    Tā shēngrì shí, wǒ huì gěi tā yí gè jīngxǐ.
    When (it’s) her birthday, I will give her a surprise.
  • 九岁谢尔顿上了高中。
    Jiǔ suì shí Xiè’ěrdùn shàng le gāozhōng.
    When (he’s) nine years old, Sheldon went to high school.

And of course, the sentence order rule still applies, therefore you can also say,

  • 在欧洲旅行,我认识了我的女朋友。
    Zài ōuzhōu lǚxíng shí, wǒ rènshi le wǒ de nǚpéngyou.
    Literally: When traveling in Europe, I met my girlfriend. (time before the subject)
  • 我难过会哭。
    Wǒ nánguò shí huì kū.
    Literally: I, when (I’m) sad, will cry. (time after the subject)
  • 谢尔顿九岁上了高中。
    Xiè’ěrdùn jiǔ suì shí shàng le gāozhōng.
    Literally: Sheldon, when (he’s) nine years old, went to high school. (time after the subject)

Getting back to the very beginning of this article, can you figure out how to say “When I become a rich guy…” now?

when i become a rich man

Answer:

  • 我成为有钱人的时候… Wǒ chéngwéi yǒuqián rén de shíhou…
    Or  
  • 我成为有钱人时… Wǒ chéngwéi yǒuqián rén shí…

Quick Recap: …的时候 (de shíhou)

  • …的时候 (de shíhou) is the rough equivalence to the English “when… (sth happens)”.
  • Basic pattern: time-indicating words/phrases + 的时候 (de shíhou)
  • Use the time expression before or after the subject only.
  • To sound concise, simply use its short form: …时 (shí).

Remember, grammar is the glue that holds the pieces of language together, so don’t forget to check other grammar articles on ImproveMandarin.Com’s Grammar Channel! 谢谢 (xièxie) for reading this!