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Thai Language Thai Culture: Speaking Thai in Tenses

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Thai Language Thai Culture: Speaking Thai in Tenses…

To avoid talking about the last shot I had just hit into the water on the 3rd hole last week I got to talking with my golfing partner, a former fellow English teacher, about something much more interesting than trying to find my ball, Thai grammar.

I know, you’ve heard the frequent sayings of the not-so-well-informed foreign learner of Thai that “Thai has no grammar”, or “there are no tenses in Thai.” So we got to thinking, how accurate are these statements?

I thought about all the English tenses we have (other languages have even more) like: simple present, present continuous, past, future, future continuous, present perfect, past perfect, and passive voice. Then I had one of those “ah ha” moments. I realized that you could say all of these tenses in Thai too. They just don’t stick an “ed”, an “en”, or an “ing” at the end of their verbs. They do their tenses in their own Thai way.

Verbs:

Those comments about Thai having no tenses probably comes from the fact that in English verbs change depending on their tenses, look, looked, eat, ate, eaten, etc. We have to change the verb depending on who is talking and when. In Thai the verbs themselves never change. It’s the words around them that do the changing.

Special tense words:

In Thai most tenses will require “special tense words” instead of special verb endings. These words sometimes carry their own meaning and sometimes are just there to carry a time stamp. We have listed some of them in the tense examples.

Negatives:

Sometimes the affirmative sentences and the negative sentences are formed slightly differently with special words or a different word order, so we have given examples of both.

Note: We are giving just a few verbs as examples but any Thai verb can be substituted into the patterns. The examples given are just a few of the ways to use these tenses. Thai, being a robust language, has lots of ways to say the same thing.

Let’s look at some examples about how to render these English tenses into Thai.

Simple Present tense…

In English this tense is probably misnamed. It is really the tense we use when talking about something we always do, or usually do, not something we are “doing” at this moment. In Thai it is used in this same way but it can also be used for something we are doing “now”.

Some Thai words we can use with the simple present are:

He plays football (often).
Every day: ทุกวัน /túk-wan/
Often: บ่อยๆ /bòi-bòi/
Usually: โดยปกติ /doi-​bpà-​gà-​dt/

He plays football (often).
เขาเล่นฟุตบอลบ่อยๆ
kăo lên fút-​bon (bòi-bòi)

He doesn’t play football (often).
เขาไม่เล่นฟุตบอล (บ่อย)
kăo mâi lên fút-​bon (bòi)

I (usually) eat rice.
(โดยปกติ) ฉันทานข้าว
(doi-​bpà-gà-dtì) chăn taan kâao

I (usually) don’t eat rice.
(โดยปกติ) ฉันไม่ทานข้าว
(doi-​bpà-gà-dtì) chăn mâi taan kâao

We visit our friends (every day).

พวกเราไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (ทุกวัน)
pûuak-rao bpai yîiam pêuan (túk-wan)

We don’t visit our friends (every day).

พวกเราไม่ไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (ทุกวัน)
pûuak-rao mâi bpai yîiam pêuan (túk-wan)

Present Continuous tense…

This is the English tense we use when talking about what we are doing “now”. In Thai we have two tenses for “now” but this one maybe gives it a little more emphasis; something like “right now”.

For the negative form use the negative of the simple present.

Some Thai words we can use with the present continuous are:

Now: ตอนนี้ /dton-née/
Right now: เดี๋ยวนี้ /dĭeow née/
At this time: เวลานี้ /wee-laa-níi/

Special tense word: กำลัง /gam-lang/

He is playing football (now).
เขากำลังเล่นฟุตบอล (ตอนนี้)
kăo gam-lang lên fút bon (dton-née)

I am eating (right now).
ฉันกำลังทานข้าว (เดี๋ยวนี้)
chăn gam-lang taan kâao (dĭeow née)

We are visiting our friends (at this time).
(เวลานี้) พวกเรากำลังเยี่ยมเพื่อน
(wee-laa-níi) pûuak-rao gam-lang yîiam pêuan

Past tense…

English has lots of ways of expressing actions in the past. The phrase “used to” is also used for past action in English. In Thai you would need to add a word or two of explanation about when something happened.

There are lots and lots of words for the past. Some we use here are:

Already: แล้ว /láew/
This morning: เมื่อเช้านี้ /mêua cháao-née/
Used to: เคย /koie/
Yet: ยัง /yang/

Special tense words:

ได้ /dâai/
แล้ว /láew/
ยัง /yang/
เคย /koie/

He played football.
เขาเล่นฟุตบอล
kăo lên fút-​bon

He didn’t play football.
เขาไม่ได้เล่นฟุตบอล
kăo mâi dâai lên fút bon

I (already) ate.
ฉันได้ทานข้าว (แล้ว)
chăn dâai taan kâao (láew)

I didn’t eat (yet).
ฉัน (ยัง) ไม่ได้ทานข้าว
chăn (yang) mâi dâai taan kâao

We visited our friend (this morning).
พวกเราไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (เมื่อเช้านี้)
pûuak-rao bai yîiam pêuan (mêua cháao-née)

We didn’t visit our friend (this morning).
(เมื่อเช้านี้) พวกเราไม่ได้ไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน
(mêua cháao-née) pûuak-rao mâi dâai bai yîiam pêuan

She used to study English.
เขาเคยเรียนภาษาอังกฤษ
kăo koie rian paa-săa ang-grìt

She never studied English.
เขาไม่เคยเรียนภาษาอังกฤษ
kăo mâi koie rian paa-săa ang-grìt

Future…

For the future we will usually add a word or two to narrow the time down more accurately. Again, there are lots of words for the future. Ones we use here are:

When the sun shines
เมื่อแดดออก
mêua dàet-​òk

Tomorrow morning
พรุ่งนี้เช้า
prûng-née cháao

Next week
สัปดาห์หน้า
sàp-daa-nâa

Special tense word: จะ /jà/

He will play football (when the sun shines).

เขาจะเล่นฟุตบอล (เมื่อแดดออก)
kăo jà lên fút bon (mêua dàet òk)

He won’t play football (when the sun shines).
เขาจะไม่เล่นฟุตบอล (เมื่อแดดออก)
kăo jà mâi lên fút bon (mêua dàet òk)

I will eat (tomorrow morning).
ฉันจะทานข้าว (พรุ่งนี้เช้า)
chăn jà taan kâao (prûng-née cháao)

I won’t eat (tomorrow morning).
ฉันจะไม่ทานข้าว (พรุ่งนี้เช้า)
chăn jà mâi taan kâao (prûng-née cháao)

We will visit our friend (next week).

พวกเราจะไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (สัปดาห์หน้า)
pûuak-rao jà bai yîiam pêuan (sàp-daa-nâa)

We won’t visit our friend (next week).
พวกเราจะไม่ไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (สัปดาห์หน้า)
pûuak-rao jà mâi bai yîiam pêuan (sàp-daa-nâa)

Future continuous…

In English we make ample use of the words “going” and “going to” or we just add an “ing” to the verb. Thai is almost that simple and usually indicates something we are just about to do.

For the negative use the regular future tense negative.

Special tense word: กำลังจะ /gam-lang jà/

He is going to (just about to) play football.
เขากำลังจะเล่นฟุตบอล
kăo gam-lang jà lên fút-​bon

I am going to (just about to) eat.
ฉันกำลังจะทานข้าว
chăn gam-lang jà taan kâao

We are going to (just about to) visit our friends.
พวกเรากำลังจะไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน
pûuak-rao gam-lang jà bai yîiam pêuan

Present Perfect tense:

The English present perfect tense is used for some action in the past that could already have been completed or may still be going on. It would sometimes require additional words as explanation of when something occurred. Thai would almost always need words in the sentence that would explain it more fully.

Some time words we used here are:

Many times
บ่อยครั้ง
bòi kráng

Already today
วันนี้… แล้ว
wan-née … láew

Throughout the week
ตลอดสัปดาห์
dtàlòt sàp-daa

For … years
… ปีแล้ว
… bpii láew

This week
อาทิตย์นี้
aa-tít-níi

Special tense words:

ได้ /dâai/
เคย /koie/
แล้ว /láew/
ยัง /yang/

He has played football (many times).
เขาเล่นฟุตบอล (บ่อยครั้ง)
kăo lên fút bon (bòr-yá-kráng)

He has never played football.
เขาไม่เคยเล่นฟุตบอล
kăo mâi koie lên fút-​bol

I have eaten (already) today.
วันนี้ฉันทานข้าว (แล้ว)
wan-née chăn taan kâao (láew)

I haven’t eaten (yet) today.
วันนี้ฉัน (ยัง) ไม่ได้ทานข้าว
wan-née chăn (yang) mâi dâai taan kâao

We have visited our friends (throughout the week).
พวกเราไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน (ตลอดสัปดาห์)
pûuak-rao bai yîiam pêuan (dtàlòt sàp-daa)

(This week) we haven’t visited our friends.
(อาทิตย์นี้) พวกเราไม่ได้ไปเยี่ยมเพื่อน
(aa-tít-níi) pûuak-rao mâi dâai bai yîiam pêuan

She has studied English (for five years).
เขา (เคย) เรียนภาษาอังกฤษ (ห้าปีแล้ว)
kăo (koie) rian paa-săa ang-grìt (hâa bpee láew)

She has never studied English.
เขาไม่เคยเรียนภาษาอังกฤษ
kăo mâi koie rian paa-săa ang-grìt

Past Perfect tense…

The past perfect is one of those tenses that English could probably do without (and is almost impossible to teach to Thai students) since we have other ways of saying the same thing. It is usually used when one thing happened in the past before another. In Thai we will need to explain a bit.

The time words used here are:

Before he ran, before running
ก่อนวิ่ง
gòn wîng

Then we met
แล้วเราเจอกัน
láew rao jəə-gan

He became ill
เขาเริ่มไม่สบาย
kăo rêrm mâi sà-baai

Before she could speak well
ก่อนที่เขาพูดเก่ง
gòn têe kăo pôot gèng

Special tense words:

เคย /koie/
แล้ว /láew/
ก่อน /gòn/
หลังจาก /lăng jàak/

He had kicked the ball (before he ran, before running).
เขาเตะลูกบอล (ก่อนวิ่ง, ก่อนเขาวิ่ง)
kăo dtè lôok bon (gòn wîng, gòn kăo wîng)

I had eaten (and then we met)
ฉันทานข้าว (แล้วเราเจอกัน)
chăn taan kâao (láew rao jəə-gan)

We had already visited our friend (when he became ill).

หลังจากพวกเราเยี่ยมเพื่อนแล้ว (เขาเริ่มไม่สบาย)
lăng jàak pûak rao yîam pêuan láew (kăo rêrm mâi sà-baai)

She had studied English for 5 years (before she could speak well).
เขา (เคย) เรียนภาษาอังกฤษห้าปี (ก่อนเขาพูดเก่ง)
kăo (koie) rian paa-săa ang-grìt hâa bpee (gòn kăo pôot gèng)

Passive Voice…

This is always a fun tense to use. Children (and some adults) use it to direct attention away from themselves and something “they did” and make it something that “was done” (by someone). “I hit the golf ball into the water” becomes “the golf ball was hit into the water (by me).” “I stole the money” becomes “the money was stolen (by me)”, etc. Thai has some neat ways to produce this pattern but as in English not every verb is a candidate for the passive voice (“English was studied by me”, is not a really great sentence, is it?)

The one word most often used in English with the passive voice is “by” to indicate who was doing the action. Thai also uses it.

By: โดย /doi/

Special tense words:

ถูก /tùuk/
โดน /dohn/

The ball was kicked.
ลูกบอลถูกเตะ
lôok bon tùuk dtè

The ball wasn’t kicked.
ลูกบอลไม่ถูกเตะ
lôok bon mâi tùuk dtè

He was struck (by the ball).
เขาโดนกระแทก (โดยลูกบอล)
kăo dohn grà-tâek (doi lôok bon)

He wasn’t struck (by the ball).
เขาไม่โดนกระแทก (โดยลูกบอล)
kăo mâi dohn grà-tâek (doi lôok bon)

Tenses simplified…

For us just getting used to speaking Thai in different tenses there is a less sophisticate but a pretty easy way to say just about all we need to say. Just use the verb and add some time words after it if you need to be more specific. Every tense starts out the same way.

I eat (every day)
ผมทานข้าว (ทุกวัน)
pŏm taan kâao (túk wan)

I don’t eat (every day)
ผมไม่ทานข้าว (ทุกวัน)
pŏm mâi taan kâao (túk-wan)

I ate (yesterday)
ผมทานข้าว (เมื่อวานนี้)
pŏm taan kâao (mêua waan née)

I didn’t eat (yesterday)
ผมไม่ทานข้าว (เมื่อวานนี้)
pŏm mâi taan kâao (mêua-waan-née)

I will eat (tomorrow).
ผมทานข้าว (พรุ่งนี้)
pŏm taan kâao (prûng-níi)

I won’t eat (tomorrow).
ผมไม่ทานข้าว (พรุ่งนี้)
pŏm mâi taan kâao (prûng-níi)

I’ve already eaten.
ผมทานข้าว (แล้ว)
pŏm taan kâao (láew)

I haven’t eaten (yet).
ผม (ยัง) ไม่ทานข้าว
pŏm (yang) mâi taan kâao (láew)

So the next time someone says to you that Thai has no tenses, you might beg to differ.

This was written by Hugh Leong.
นี่เขียนโดยฮีวลีออง
nêe kĭan doi Hugh Leong

And hopefully you’ve read it.
และหวังว่าคุณได้อ่านแล้ว
láe wăng wâa kun dâai àan láew

Addendum (more ways to express tenses in Thai)…

After posting the above I have been listening to what people say and I came up with some more ideas.

Another way to speak Thai in tenses is to use the time words “in the present’, “in the past”, and “in the future”. With these time words we will need to use the Thai helping word “in” ใน /nài/.

Here are some examples:

Present
ปัจจุบัน
bpàt-jù-ban

Presently (right now, in the present, at this time) he plays football.
ในปัจจุบันเขาเล่นฟุตบอล
nai bpàt-jù-ban kăo lên fút-bon

Past
อดีต
à-dèet

In the past (formerly) he played (used to play) football.
ในอดีตเขา (เคย) เล่นฟุตบอล
nai à-dèet kăo (koie) lên fút-bon

Future
อนาคต
à-naa-kót

(In the future) He will play football.

ในอนาคตเขา (จะ) เล่นฟุตบอล
nai à-naa-kót kăo (jà) lên fút-bon

I’d like to thank Ajarn Mia (Learn2SpeakThai) who checked the Thai for accuracy and Khun Pairoj who recorded the audio.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

9 Comments

  1. My name may be on the By Line but this posting was really a team effort. Cat of course is our fearless editor. Khun Pairoj was the silky voice you hear in the recordings (BTW, Pairoj (ไพเราะ) in Thai very appropriately means “melodious”). And Ajarn Mia was our very constructive proof reader who made the Thai much more natural than I could have done alone. Thanks to all

  2. Excellent review for someone my level. Thanks. I do wonder about the use of ได้ for past tense. For example, are both เขาไม่ได้เล่นฟุตบอลเมื่อเช้านี้ and เขาไม่เล่นฟุตบอลเมื่อเช้านี้ correct or is only the first one grammatically correct? In other words, is there some rule regarding when you need ได้ to craft a proper past-tense sentence?

  3. Jeff,

    I don’t use grammar rules so I don’t really know any. In the above post you will see that both ไม่ได้เล่น and ไม่เล่น can be used for the past tense as long as the listener knows the context. And the context is helped along by the use of time words like เมื่อเช้านี้. I use what feels comfortable and it usually turns out okay.

  4. Thanks. I try to be clear by specifying a time when I want to say something in the past tense, but I have rarely used ได้ and now I am wondering if I should be using it a lot more. I notice you didn’t mention มา when discussing the past tense (e.g., ไปไหนมา). Any reason for that? When you can (should) and can’t (shouldn’t) use that word in past-tense statements still confuses me. I guess you use it often with discussion involving movement (coming and going) but it seems I have seen it used in other contexts as well, but not sure really.

  5. Nice post. I read with great interest patiently waiting for some discussion of the use of มา as it is colloquially used for the past tense as in ทำอะไรมา “what did you do?” or ไปไหนมา as in “where did you go?”. Is this an accidental omission, or is it not actually formal grammar?

  6. Addendum (More ways to express tenses in Thai)

    After posting the above I have been listening to what people say and I came up with some more ideas.

    Another way to speak Thai in tenses is to use the time words “in the present’, “in the past”, and “in the future”.

    With these time words we will need to use the Thai helping word “in” ใน nai.

    Here are some examples.

    Present – ปัจจุบัน /bpàt-jù-ban/

    Presently (Right now, In the present, At this time) he plays football.
    ในปัจจุบันเขาเล่นฟุตบอล
    nai bpàt-jù-ban kǎo lên fút-bon

    Past – อดีต /à~dèet/

    In the past (formerly) he played (used to play) football.
    ในอดีตเขา (เคย) เล่นฟุตบอล
    nai à~dèet kǎo (koie) lên fút-bon

    Future – อนาคต /à~naa-kót/

    (In the future) He will play football.
    ในอนาคตเขา (จะ) เล่นฟุตบอล
    nai à~naa-kót kǎo (jà) lên fút-bon

  7. I’ve now added the addendum with sound to the post.

  8. Thank you! This helps a lot. I do have one question though. This sentence เขาเล่นฟุตบอล / kăo lên fút-​bon is translated as “He plays football” at the beginning of the article then a little later as “He played football”. How do I know if the Thai sentence is simple present tense or past tense?

  9. Hi Kis, Good question. Since the tense in Thai is not carried by the verb you get situations like you describe. The way to determine whether this is He plays, or He played, or even He is playing or He was playing, is 1. through context, and 2. through the words surrounding the verb.

    I also like the “What is the question?” approach. Example: What does he do every day? เขาเล่นฟุตบอล; What is he doing now? เขาเล่นฟุตบอล; What did he do yesterday เขาเล่นฟุตบอล. Translate the answers above and you’ll see what I mean.

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