Figuring out Chinese: 在 vs 着

Can anyone explain to me the difference between 在 and 着? I looked online to no avail. Here are the differences that I came up with. However, I have no idea if they’re correct and I’m sure I’m missing a whole bunch of other usages.

  1. 在 can be used to indicate location, 着 can’t.
    Ex: 我住在美国。
  2. 在 is used for a continuous action.
    Ex: 他在打电话。
  3. 着 is used for a one-time action that changes a state and remains in that state.
    Ex: 她手里拿着一本书。

The best I can figure out is that 着 is not actually an action but a description of a state resulting from the action, which explains why it comes after the verb. For instance, 下着雨 describes the condition as being rainy. This explains why translates it as “rainily” which I don’t think is even a word. On the other hand, 在下雨 is the continuous action of rain falling. That’s why you can have what at first seems to be a crazy duplication such as 雨还在下着. It makes sense when you consider that it’s a continuous action of the “rainily” condition.

Yeah, no wonder I hate Chinese grammar. Next, I’ll try to figure out the difference between 一点 and 一些. Ow, my poor head!

20 thoughts on “Figuring out Chinese: 在 vs 着

  1. 在 can be used to indicate existence, location, time and circumstances. It can also be attached to “所” to add stress. e.g 在所不惜,在所不辞,在所难免,在所不为

    Besides expressing the continual state, 着 can also be used to put stress on a command when added behind a verb.
    i.e 听着。 vs 听。
    the former is stronger and feels more authoritative. Like “listen up!” vs “listen.”?

    It can also be attached to certain verbs to indicate direction. i.e 沿着,朝着,顺着,照着

    There are also other pronunciations of 着 which result in different meaning.

    It can also be attached behind a verb to indicate a complete action. i.e 睡着了,猜着了
    The word can also be used alone(w/o attaching to other words) in sentences to mean burn or giving out light. 天黑了,路灯都着了。


  2. Don’t over-analyze it, I say… I never did!

    I just took 着 as equivalent to “ing” and never put any further thought into it.

    So 雨还在下着 comes out something like “The rain is still in a continuous state of pouring down.” So there’s really no overlap at all in 在 and 着 when you translate it this way.

    Here’s a sentence I found on Google to show 着 can also go with calling: 请问现在的手机能够在打着电话的同时接到别人打来的电话吗? while the responder uses 在 and says 这款手机可以在打电话的同时接到别人的电话,不过得挂掉刚打电话的人的电话才可以接听另外的人打来的电话。

  3. Gee…What’s the point to compare them in the first place anyway? >..<

    1 我在中国。她不在这里。 I’m IN China. She IS not here.
    2 我在读书。 I AM readING.
    3 他还在坚持早晨跑步。He KEEPS running in the morning.

    1 给,拿着! Here, CATCH!
    2 有的人就是喜欢开着电视睡觉,这点你应该能够理解。Someone just like sleeping while the TV IS ON, you can understand that.

    着除了zhe0以外,还有zhao2(着急 worry), zhuo2(着手,deal with)的发音。NOW TRY THIS:

    我看着( zhe)试卷,心里异常着(zhao2 )急,不知从何着( zhuo)手.

    LookING at the exam paper, i’m in deep WORRY, knowing nowhere to START.

    WOww, Chinese is HARD, huh?

  4. Heh. As a long-time Chinese student just starting Japanese and getting the same headaches you seem to be getting from Chinese, it’s very refreshing to see you grappling with Chinese grammar in the same way I’m coping with Japanese.

    In answer to your question, I agree with justin; don’t overanalyze it. I know there must be officially grammar differences between 著 and 在, but I’ve stuck to just listening to lots of Chinese and getting a feel for when to use one or the other. Or both together, as in 老大哥在看著你﹗(Big Brother is watching you!)

  5. Why analyze the difference?

    Because there’s a distinction here for a continuous action in Chinese that doesn’t exist in the languages I’m familiar with. I need to figure out what the difference is so that I know which one to use and when. It may seem completely different to some of you simply because you’re better than me and already at where I need to be. I still can’t tell the difference.

    I noticed the zhao reading of 着 but ignored it for now to avoid complicating the issue.

    Wow, I never had this much trouble figuring out ~ている in Japanese! I don’t care what anybody says, Chinese is way harder than Japanese!

  6. And I’d have to say that Japanese is way harder than Chinese. 😛 I’m currently studying both languages as well, and felt that my Chinese is progressing at a much better pace than my Japanese.

  7. This one’s really difficult.

    Generally speaking, i don’t think “着” and “在” is usually used together. “雨还在下着” and “在打着电话” are 2 phrases where “着” can be omitted with virtually no changes to it’s meaning.

    Basing it purely on intuition, it seems to me that “着” is used to link a continuous verb to a relevant noun providing valuable information in most cases. Some examples would be “看着你”, “挥着旗帜” and “拿着皮包”.

    This is applicable only in the specified sentence pattern that you brought up. In reality, “着” can be used in a lot of places for all sort of situations as the other postings have pointed out.

  8. I might be wrong, but my feeling about these two is that 在 indicates that the action is happening now, while 着 indicates that action is sustained.

    For example, you can say:
    看我 Look at me
    看着我 Look at me (and then don’t look away)

    But you can’t say:
    在看我 *Be looking at me

  9. @clem
    I felt the same at the beginning. In my experience, Japanese is harder at first but I think you’ll see the balance tip as you get deeper into both languages.

    Good to know. I guess that’s another one of countless examples where things can be dropped or not without it appears any significant change in meaning. Sigh…

    That’s exactly how I looked at it!

  10. Well, I don’t have any idea how to simplify this, but 在 and 着 are very different. 着 has little to no semantic content by itself, and when attached to words, it gives a sort of intransitive / passive effect.

    在 – Assuming you don’t want to mean the location marker, it can be a transitive, action state.

    To take the examples that have been used earlier:

    看我 Look at me
    看着我 Look at me (and then don’t look away)

    ^ I don’t think 着 in this case meant to say ‘look at me and don’t look away’, but to stress the act of looking at the speaker.

    Let’s change the subject to another person.
    你看他。(look at him)
    干吗?(why? what’s wrong?)
    他一直在看着那个女生!超恐怖的! (he keeps staring at that girl! So creepy!)

    看着- gaze, stare, looking (reference to continued state of gazing passively)
    在看- action verb of looking
    一直在看着- prolonged state of looking and staring

    I don’t know if that helps anything at all, but to us even, we don’t really distinguish what means what, we learn it as it is, and through exposure to speech, books and shows. You can try variety shows

  11. Am new here, just to add some input here

    在 is in a state of being while 着 is more like in a state of action. 着 allows you to set up for another concurrent action with the action at hand while 在 is more like fully focused at the current task.

    Literal Translation:

    在吃 – is eating.
    他在吃饭,不能听电话。- He is eating right now, he cannot answer the phone.

    吃着 – while eating.
    他边吃着饭,边听电话。- He is eating while answering the phone

    In this situation, you can see that 在 and 着 are non interchangeable. In the above examples, it’ll be totally fine to eliminate 着 from the statement but taking away 在 will make the statement sound weird

    I can see why it’s hard for non-native speakers, I too find it hard to explain the differences in a clear and concise way even though I know they have rather different meanings.


    I’m not sure what you said it’s incorrect to say 在看我. e.g. 他在看我 means that ‘he is looking at me’.

  12. To me, 看 is a description of a state while 在 is a continuous action. So 一直在看着 means the person is continuing an action. That action is a descriptive state of looking. The 着 therefore emphasis that the person is in a state of staring without pause while 在 indicates that he is still doing it.

    That also means 在 acts like a verb while 着 acts more like an adjective.

    It’s hard to explain and I don’t know if I’m right but it seems to work for the examples I’ve seen so far.

  13. I think 看 is more like a verb i.e. see/look

    Adding 在 to 看 as in 在看 just modifies see/look to seeing/looking.


  14. Like Istel said, I can’t believe how hard it is to come up with a good explanation of the character 着. I can see why this troubles non-native speakers.

    Most of the time, if you see 在, 着 becomes redundant. Here are some exceptions,

    他在看着我. – he is staring at me.
    I generally don’t hear people say ‘他在看我’.

    她(在)拿着一本书 (she is holding a book)
    You can’t say 她在拿一本书 to express the above meaning.

    墙上面挂着一副画. (On the wall hangs a picture)
    It is completely wrong to say 墙上面在挂一副画.

    Okay, I can still think of a lot exceptions, which mean this is freaking screwed up!

    The thing about Chinese is that it isn’t written in alphabets like Japanese/English. In Japanese, each 五段動詞 changes its form base on its suffix. I bet Chinese works the same, except, you can’t see the suffix. You can only learn from experience.

    Alright, I’ve contributed absolutely nothing to the topic. 🙂

  15. I’ve benefited loads from your Japanese guide… so I hope this helps!

    在 is often equivalent to the “be-verbs” in English, i.e. is, am, are…
    e.g. 在下雨= It is raining.
    我在这= I am here.
    他们在哪?= Where are they?
    你在做什么?= What are you doing?


    着=(verb)+ ing
    e.g. 下着雨= Raining.
    看着天= Looking at the sky.
    拿着一本书= Holding onto a book.

    Hence, put together…
    雨还在下着= Rain is still falling. Alternatively,
    还在下着雨= It is still raining.


  16. Hi, i am new here and i am a chinese.

    the usage of “在” is very similar to “at” in English.

    Comparing English to Chinese Grammar:
    In English, “at” is often followed by a place(noun), but in Chinese “在” can be followed by place(noun) and motion(verb) both.

    1. at + place (at the place)
    他在学校。 He’s at school (he is at a place, and the place in this sentence is school
    你在哪? where are you at?

    “在” is equivalent to “at” in english at these two sentences.

    2. 在 + motion.
    他在唱歌。 he is singing。 (he is at a motion, and the motion in this sentence is singing)
    (天)在下雨。 (The sky) is falling rain. ( sky is at a motion, and the motion is falling rain)

    the usage of “着“ is very similar to ” (verb +) ing” to express a continuous action.
    because of this similarity, in some chinese forum you can always see people with replies like this:
    看着电视。 watching TV。

    Look at this english sentence:
    He is watching TV.
    you can translate it in Chinese following, they all have the same meaning.

    excuse me for my poor english.

  17. Hi, Tea

    First, I would like to thank you for your excellent, excellent job!

    I stumbled across your web site via google search, when I was wrestling with some Japanese verb forms. I really like the way you explain the grammatical rules without introducing grammatical jargons, also with a lot of examples, (reminds me Steve Krashen’s “comprehensible input”) I only wish I would’ve found your site long time ago. It seems that your approach to Chinese is a bit different…. 🙂 Anyway, I will keep following your blog and spread the word.

    Chinese is my native language. I think the only answer to your question is, it’s just the way it is. As for “他在打电话。”, conversationally, it also can be “打电话呢。”
    A. 他在干吗呢?
    B. 打电话呢。

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