过 (guò) in Chinese grammar: past experiences, past actions
The particle 过 (guò) is used to talk about past experiences or past actions in Chinese grammar. It is placed immediately after the verb to indicate that that verb was done or experienced in the past. In English, the equivalent would simply be “have”, e.g. in “I have done that”, “I have eaten”, “He has seen it” and so on.
Basic use of 过 for past experiences
The most basic structure for 过 is to just place it immediately after the verb without an object:
[subject] [verb] 过
Have a look at some example sentences for how to use 过 in this way:
Wǒ yǐjīng kànguò.
I've already seen it.
Wǒ tīng shuōguò.
I've heard about that.
I've tried that.
In each case, the speaker is expressing that they’ve already done an action at least once before in the past. Using 过 doesn’t give an exact time to the action - it could have been a long time ago or just a few moments ago. Unless the time is specified, we can only know from context (or not at all).
Note that whilst the Chinese sentences above don’t have objects as such, their English translations do. This is because Chinese can often omit the object if it’s clear in the context, whereas English usually cannot.
Using 过 with an object
You can also use 过 in sentences with an object. The structure only gets slightly more complicated - you just put the object right after 过.
[subject] [verb] 过 [object]
Have a look at some example sentences for 过 with an object:
Wǒ qùguò Jiā'nádà.
I've been to Canada.
Wǒ yǐjīng kànguò nà bù diànyǐng.
I've already seen that film.
Nǐ jiànguò tā ma?
Have you seen him before?
Tā yǐjīng chīguò zhè zhòng cài.
He's had this kind of dish before.
You could think of the verb and 过 as combining into one unit: the action plus the aspect (aspect refers to whether or not the action was completed). Then the object just comes after this unit.
Using 过 in a topic-prominent sentence
过 often appears in topic-prominent sentences. Don’t worry if you don’t know what that means. It just means a sentence where the topic, the main point of the sentence, comes first. These are very common in Chinese. The structure for a topic-prominent sentence with 过 is:
[topic] [subject] [verb] 过
This might seem a bit weird but when you see it in action it should seem a lot more straightforward:
Zhè bù diànyǐng nǐ kànguò ma?
Have you seen this film before?
Zhège wǒ méi tīng shuōguò.
I haven't heard about that.
Xiāngcài wǒ chīguò.
I've eaten Hunan food before.
These sentences draw particular attention to the topic (the thing that comes first), and may indicate a contrast depending on the context. For example, the last sentence might come right after the speaker says they haven’t eaten some other kind of food.
Because 过 is about past actions, you have to use 没
to negate it. The structure for this is:
[subject] 没 [verb] 过 [object]
As is often the case in Chinese grammar, the object is optional and the subject is even more optional. 没 can also be swapped for 没有 for emphasis. Have a look at some example sentences:
I haven't seen it.
Wǒ méiyǒu hēguò nǐ de jiǔ!
I haven't drunk your wine!
Tā méi qùguò Měiguó.
He hasn't been to America.
That last sentence might be quite a nice one to practice your tones with!
过 with 从来没有
Because 过 is used to talk about things that have been experienced in done in the past, you can combine it with 从来没有 to say that something has never happened. The structure for this is:
[subject] 从来没有 [verb] 过 [object]
Have a look at some examples:
Wǒ cónglái méiyǒu chīguò zhème duō fàn!
I've never eaten so much before!
Wǒ cónglái méiyǒu zhème shēngqìguò.
I've never been angry like this before.
Tā cónglái méiyǒu jiànguò rúcǐ dà de gǒu.
He'd never seen such a big dog before.
Saying the full 从来没有 is quite emphatic. You can often reduce it to 从来没 if you don’t want such a long sentence.
The difference between 过 and 了
The two particles 过 and 了 (le) might seem quite similar: both can be used to talk about completed actions. The difference is:
了 can be used to talk about completed actions in the past, present or future.
了 can also be used to talk about changes of state (“it is now the case that”).
The particle 过 is always about completed past events.
Compare the following sentences:
Tā qùguò Rìběn.
She's been to Japan (and she's no longer there).
Tā qù Rìběn le.
She's gone to Japan (and she's still there - completed action 了). She's gone to Japan (she's on her way there - change of state 了).
Tā láiguò wǒmen jiā.
He's been to our house (in the past - he's left now).
Tā lái wǒmen jiā le.
He's come to our house (and he's still here - completed action 了). He's coming to our house (change of state 了).
If you’re not used to 了 grammar then the above sentences might be quite confusing. English has distinct ways of expressing the two possibilities for each of the 了 sentences. When you say the Chinese sentences, though, it’s not definite which one you mean.
Using 过 and 了 together
Things can get trickier still, though! You can use 过 and 了 in the same sentence. When this happens, you’re always dealing with a ‘change of state 了’, also known as ‘sentence 了’. Change of state 了 is like saying “it is now the case that”. Things have changed, or there is new information.
When this combines with 过, you get something like “it is now the case that something has been done”. This is nearly always used to talk about frequent, every day actions. Sentences that combine 过 and 了 are also about specific objects, i.e. ones that the speaker and listener know about already.
Have a look at some examples:
Wǒ yǐjīng zuòguòle.
I‘ve already done it.
Nǐ xǐguò zǎole ma?
Have you had a shower?
Nǐ chīguò yàole ma?
Have you taken your medicine?
Note how all of these sentences are sort of ‘status updates’. The thing has been done. Also note how they’re all about specific objects, or at least common actions that both speakers are used to and aware of already.
Whilst 过 + 了 is nearly always about frequent actions, we did manage to think of a couple of situations where it would be used for one off or special events. Have a look:
Wǒmen qùguò Měiguó la!
We've now been to America! (Said to your companion on the flight home from America.)
Wǒ zhōngyú kǎoguò shìle.
I've finally finished my exams now.
These situations are definitely not the norm, though. The first one is expressing a meaning like “We can now say that we’ve been to America” or “It’s now the case that we’ve been to America.” As you can see it’s quite unusual and contrived. Usually a sentence with 过 and 了 is about everyday actions.
Asking questions with 过
A few of the example sentences above were questions, but you might like to see a few more ways you can ask questions with 过. Have a look at these example sentences and pay attention to the way various questions can be formed:
Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu qùguò Zhōngguó?
Have you ever been to China?
Nǐ chīguò fànle ma?
Have you eaten?
Nǐ hēguò báijiǔ méiyǒu?
Have you had baijiu before?
Nǐ shì bùshì yǐjīng kànguò zhè bù diànyǐng?
Have you seen this film before?
Nǐ tīng shuōguò ba?
You've heard about it, right?
Nǐ zěnme méi shuōguò ne?
How come you didn't say?
As you can see, 过 can combine with all the usual ways of forming questions in Chinese grammar.
过 is for repeatable events
One final thing to note about 过 is that it’s only supposed to be used for repeatable events. It’s for actions that are completed and in the past, but have been done at least once or could in theory be done again in the future. This is why 过 is described as being about experiences - the action or event has been experienced.
The sort of actions that you can’t really use 过 with are one-off or once-in-a-lifetime events that by their nature can’t be done twice, such as dying or being born. You might also include graduating from university and getting married as one off events that can’t be used with 过, unless you plan on doing them again in future (e.g. getting a PhD, or after getting divorced).
Because of that, if you do use 过 with one of these actions, the implication is that the action is done with now, and possibly that you might do it again in future. For example:
Wǒ jiéguò hūn.
I got married once. I've been married before.
So be careful not to say embarrassing things with 过 by making it sound like something is done with or a thing of the past!
Because we’re in the mood for contrived scenarios today, we’ve come up with one where you could theoretically say “死过”. Imagine that person A is talking about the afterlife with great conviction and as if they knew everything about it. Person B is sceptical of their experience in this matter, and says:
Nǐ sǐguò ma?
Oh, so you've died before?
As you can see, though, these situations are really weird. The general rule is that 过 is for repeatable events only.