Grammar Bank – How to Use 在 in Chinese

在 (zài) has several different uses and functions. It can be used as a preposition and sometimes verb. Most of them are related to location.

How to Use 在 – As a Preposition

How to Use 在 – As a Verb

How to Use 在 – Structure Summary

How to Use 在 – FAQ’s

Before we start explaining the different ways to use the word 在, here is a list of all the other particles we covered so far, that you might find interesting:

Ok now…let’s go!

How to use 在

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This video demonstrates using 在 with a focus on people doing things

This video demonstrates using 在 with a focus on prepositions

How to Use 在 – As a Preposition

When indicating the location that a verb takes place in, 在 (zài) followed by a location, comes before the verb.

Subject + 在 + Place + Verb

  • 他在公司工作。
  • tā zài gōngsī gōngzuò.
  • He works in the company.
  • 妈妈在超市买东西。
  • māmā zài chāoshì mǎi dōngxī.
  • Mum is shopping in the supermarket.
  • 弟弟在书店买书。
  • dìdì zài shūdiàn mǎishū.
  • The younger brother buys books in the bookstore.

NOTE – In English, location is usually put at the end of a sentence. In Chinese, location is usually put after the subject but before the verb.

  • 我学习在图书馆。
  • wǒ xuéxí zài túshū guǎn.
  • 我在图书馆学习。
  • wǒ zài túshū guǎn xuéxí.

However, there are some verbs that imply movement or location like 住 (zhù), 放 (fàng), 坐 (zuò), and 站 (zhàn), which can be put before the location.This structure “在 + Location” is called a location complement.

Subject + 住/放/坐/站 + 在 + Location

  • 你住在北京吗?
  • nǐ zhù zài běijīng ma?
  • Do you live in Beijing?
  • 他坐在沙发上。
  • tā zuò zài shāfā shàng.
  • He is sitting on the sofa.
  • 水杯放在桌子上。
  • shuǐbēi fàng zài zhuōzi shàng.
  • The glass of water is placed on the table.
  • 不要站在马路中间。
  • bùyào zhàn zài mǎlù zhōngjiān.
  • Don’t stand in the middle of the road.

The preposition 在 (zài) can combine with other location prepositions to express the meaning “at”, “in”, “on”, “under” a location. 

在 + object +上/下/里/外

在……上  

  • 苹果在桌子上。
  • píngguǒ zài zhuōzi shàng.
  • Apples are on the table.
  • 行李在飞机上。 
  • xínglǐ zài fēijī shàng.
  • The luggage is on the plane.

在……下 

  • 小猫在床下。
  • xiǎo māo zài chuángxià.
  • The kitten is under the bed.
  • 大地在脚下。
  • dàdì zài jiǎoxià.
  • The Earth is under your feet.

在……里  

  • 铅笔在书包里。   
  • qiānbǐ zài shūbāo lǐ.
  • The pencil is in the bag.
  • 钱包在口袋里。
  • qiánbāo zài kǒudài lǐ.
  • The wallet is in the pocket.

When 在(zài) expresses time, there should combine with 的时候.

的时候 can be used to mean “when” or “at that time”. 在 can be omitted.

在 + Time phrase + 的时候

  • (在) 过马路的时候, 一辆车突然开过来。
  • (zài) guò mǎlù de shíhòu, yī liàng chē túrán kāi guòlái.
  • Whilst crossing the road, a car suddenly drove over.
  • (在)工作的时候,我不喜欢有人打扰
  • (zài) gōngzuò de shíhòu, wǒ bù xǐhuān yǒurén dǎrǎo.
  • At work, I don’t like being interrupted.
  • (在)暑假的时候,我去了中国。
  • (zài) shǔjià de shíhòu, wǒ qùle zhōngguó.
  • During the summer vacation, I went to China.

SPECIAL USE OF “在”.

在 +上/下 can also be used to comment on an idea or concept.

在 + Topic + 上

在 + topic + 上 can be translated as “on the topic of” or “in regards to”.

  • 中国人和日本人在生活习惯上很不一样。
  • zhōngguó rén hé rìběn rén zài shēnghuó xíguàn shàng hěn bù yīyàng.
  • Chinese and Japanese people have very different living habits.
  • 这句话在语法上是对的。
  • zhè jù huà zài yǔfǎ shàng shì duì de.
  • This sentence is grammatically correct.

在 + topic + 下

在 + topic + 下 can be translated as “under the topic of” or “due to.”

ChinesePinyinEnglish
在老师的指导下,他成功地完成了那个项目。zài lǎoshī de zhǐdǎo xià, tā chénggōng de wánchéngle nàgè xiàngmù.Under the guidance of the teacher, he successfully completed the project.

在 (zài) is combined with 方面 (fāng miàn) to make the phrase “in the area of…”. This structure expresses the scope of something. 

在 + Topic + 方面

  • 在管理方面,我还需要好好向你学习。
  • zài guǎnlǐ fāngmiàn, wǒ hái xūyào hǎohǎo xiàng nǐ xuéxí.
  • In terms of management, I still need to learn from you.
  • 在音乐方面,他是个天才。
  • zài yīnyuè fāngmiàn, tā shìgè tiāncái.
  • In terms of music, he is a genius.

How to Use 在 – As a Verb

The verb 在 (zài) is used to express existence in a place, which states ‘to be located at’.

Here “在” (zài) is the only verb needed, you don’t need to put another verb in this structure.

StatementQuestionNegation
Subject + 在 + placeSubject + 在 + 哪儿?Subject + 不/没 + 在 + place
妈妈在家。
māmā zàijiā.
Mum is at home.
哥哥在哪儿?
gēgē zài nǎ’er?
Where is brother?
妈妈不在家。
māmā bù zàijiā.
Mum is not at home.
爸爸在公司。
bàba zài gōngsī.
Dad is at work.
Subject + 在 + place + 吗?= 妈妈没在家。
māmā méi zàijiā.
Mum is not at home.
我在学校。
wǒ zài xuéxiào.
I’m at school.
爸爸在公司吗?
bàba zài gōngsī ma?
Is Dad at work?

在 (zài) and 正在 (zhèngzài) can be used as auxiliary verbs to express that an action is in progress or an activity is happening now.

Subject +(正)在 + Verb + Object

  • 我(正)在学习汉语。
  • wǒ (zhèng) zài xuéxí hànyǔ.
  • I am learning Chinese.
  • 哥哥(正)在打电话。
  • gēgē (zhèng) zài dǎ diànhuà.
  • The older brother is on the phone.
  • 爸爸(正)在吃饭。
  • bàba (zhèng) zài chīfàn.
  • Dad is eating.

在 (zài) can sometimes be used to express making decisions, which means “up to you”.

Verb + 不 + Verb + 在 + Pronoun

  • 去不去在你。
  • qù bù qù zài nǐ.
  • It’s up to you to go or not.
  • 写不写在你。
  • xiě bù xiě zài nǐ.
  • It’s up to you to write or not.
  • 吃不吃在你。
  • chī bù chī zài nǐ.
  • It’s up to you to eat or not.

How to Use 在 – Structure Summary

在 as a preposition:

StructureChineseEnglish
Subject + 在 + place + Verb 他在公司工作。tā zài gōngsī gōngzuò.He works at the company.
Subject + 住/放/坐/站 + 在 + Location你住在北京吗?nǐ zhù zài běijīng ma?Do you live in Beijing?
在……上苹果在桌子上。píngguǒ zài zhuōzi shàng.Apples are on the table.
在……下 大地在脚下。dàdì zài jiǎoxià.The Earth is under your feet.
在……里 铅笔在书包里。 qiānbǐ zài shūbāo lǐ.The pencil is in the bag.
在 + time phrase + 的时候(在)工作的时候,我不喜欢有人打扰。 (zài) gōngzuò de shíhòu, wǒ bù xǐhuān yǒurén dǎrǎoAt work, I don’t like being interrupted
在 + topic + 上这句话在语法上是对的。zhè jù huà zài yǔfǎ shàng shì duì deThis sentence is grammatically correct.
在 + topic + 下在老师的指导下,他成功地完成了那个项目。zài lǎoshī de zhǐdǎo xià, tā chénggōng de wánchéngle nàgè xiàngmù.Under the guidance of the teacher, he successfully completed the project.
在 + topic + 方面在音乐方面,他是个天才。zài yīnyuè fāngmiàn, tā shìgè tiāncái.In terms of music, he is a genius.

在 a verb:

StructureChineseEnglish
(Statement) Subject + 在 + place     妈妈在家。māmā zàijiā.Mum is at home.
(Question) Subject + 在 + 哪儿?    哥哥在哪儿?gēgē zài nǎ’er?Where is the older brother?
Subject + 在 + place + 吗?爸爸在公司吗?bàba zài gōngsī ma?Is Dad at work?
(Negation) Subject + 不/没 + 在 + place   妈妈不在家。māmā bù zàijiā.Mum is not home.
Subject +(正)在 + Verb + Object 我(正)在学习汉语。wǒ (zhèng) zài xuéxí hànyǔ.I am learning Chinese.
Verb + 不 + Verb + 在 + pronoun去不去在你。qù bù qù zài nǐ.It’s up to you to go or not.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

What is 在?

在 (zài) has several different uses and functions. It can be used as preposition and sometimes verb. Most of them have to do with location.

It is actually the 8th most common Chinese character, so you’ll see it pretty often.

How to use 在?

在 (zài) can be used as preposition and sometimes verb.

Here are some common structures:

Subject + 在 + place + Verb

Subject + 住/放/坐/站 + 在 + Location

Subject + 在 + place + 吗?

(Negation) Subject + 不/没 + 在 + place  

What are some examples with 在?

Here are some examples with 在:

妈妈在超市买东西。māmā zài chāoshì mǎi dōngxī. | Mum is shopping in the supermarket.

他坐在沙发上。tā zuò zài shāfā shàng. | He is sitting on the sofa.

妈妈在家。māmā zàijiā. | Mum is at home.

妈妈不在家。māmā bù zàijiā. | Mum is not at home.

Is it necessary to learn how to use 在?

It is indeed!

There are some basic sentence structures you absolutely need to learn, otherwise you’ll have trouble expressing yourself and make sentences correctly.

The same goes for many other particles of the Chinese language, such as the use of and for example.

Any other grammar I should know about?

There are a few indeed.

Here is a list to get you started:

How to use

How to use

How to use

How to use

How to use

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