Particle I – 了

  • Chinese is an non-inflected language. It means that Chinese verbs have no conjugation. Chinese verbs do not indicate tense. Whether they are used in the past, present or future, the form of the verb remains the same.
  • In Chinese, particles is used heavily to modify the meaning of words and sentences. Some of them are used to show the past, present or future of the verb in a sentence. The mastery of particles is important if one wants to fully comprehend both written and spoken Chinese.
  • Today we are going to learn one of the most common particles in Chinese, (le).

1. 了 as Aspect Particle (动态助词)

  • When the particle 了 (le) is added after a verb, it is known as “aspect particle”.

    Verb +了

  • The aspect particle 了 expresses the completion of an action. A completed action may take place in the past, present, or future and a time word or phrase is used to express this.

    Example:
     

    1. He drank two cups of tea.
    le liǎng bēi chá

    * The 了 here is used to modify 喝 (drink) into an action which has already been completed.

    2. I bought a bicycle.
    mǎi le liàng xíng chē

    * The 了 here is used to modify 买 (buy) into an action which has already been completed.

    3. I bought the plane tickets.
    mǎi dào le piào

    * The aspect particle 了 should be placed after the complement of result 到.

    4. Did you buy some?
    mǎi dào le méi yǒu

    * 没有 can be added to raise a question.

  • The aspect particle 了 can also be used to indicate sequential actions.
    Example: 

    1. I’ll pick you up after I finish my dinner.
    děng chī le fàn zài jiē

    In this sentence there were two actions taking place: action 1 吃 (eat) and action 2 接 (pick up). Action 1 吃 takes place before action 2 接, so it has an aspect particle 了 right after the verb 吃 to indicate that the action 2 接 takes place only after action 1 吃 is accomplished.

2. 了 as Modal Particle (语气助词)

  • When the particle 了 is added at the end of a sentence, it is known as modal particle (Wiki).
  • The modal particle 了can be used to express various different shade of meaning.
  • In common circumstances, the modal particle 了 at the end of a sentence denotes that the situation has changed.
    Example: 

    1. Now he has a girlfriend.
    xiàn zài yǒu péng yǒu le

    * Previously, he doesn’t have a girlfriend.

  • If the modal particle了 works with the adverb 太, it indicates excessiveness.
    Example: 

    1. This book is too expensive.
    zhè běn shū tài guì le
  • If the modal particle 了 works the adverb 要 / 快要 / 将要, it describes an action that will happen in the future.
    Example: 

    1. He is going to retire soon.
    kuài yào tuì xiū le
    退

Notes

  • 了 can exists as an aspect particle as well as modal particle in one sentence.
    For example: 

    1. The place looks quite different now.
    zhè fāng biàn le yàng le

    * The first 了 is a aspect particle, while the 了 at the end of the sentence is a modal particle.

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21 thoughts on “Particle I – 了”

  1. Hi MinMin,

    It is your favorite English correction guest–I hope. I think example #1 should be:
    1. I drank two cups of tea.

    1. Hi Joe,
      Thanks. I have corrected it. You are right, I think it should be ‘drank’ instead of ‘drunk’.
      While you are learning Chinese, I am trying hard to improve my English as well. 🙂
      Thanks again.

  2. Min Min – I think it should read:
    He drank two cups of tea.
    not “I”
    I drank two cups of tea.
    tā hē le liǎng bēi chá 。
    他 喝 了 两 杯 茶 。

    1. As well as 2 and 3 example should be in perfect forms, as You explain, that aspect particle overlaps with the English perfect aspect. Am I right?

    2. Hi Nurlan,
      Thanks for the question.

      As mentioned, Chinese is an non-inflected language.
      For this sentence:
      他喝了两杯茶。
      What we can tell from this sentence is that the completion of an action (drink).
      And we can’t really tell it is past tense or perfect tense.

      Here are another 2 examples:
      他昨天喝了两杯茶。 (He drank two cups of tea yesterday. )
      他刚刚喝了两杯茶。 (He has just drunk two cups of tea.)
      By adding extra words (昨天 or 刚刚), we can tell the time when an action (drink) is done.

      By the way, I have taken away the statement about the perfect aspect. I hope it do not confuse you.
      Sorry if my explanation is not clear, and if there are any mistakes please let me know.
      Thanks.

  3. ni hao^^
    fisrt i should thank u…
    ur site really help me to study ^^
    Can i ask something? haha

    what is the different between them?

    ( from the sentences u took examples)

    1. zhe ben shu tai gui.
    2. zhe ben shu tai gui le.

    ( sorry. i can’t type chinese.)

    too difficult…for beginers…
    plz hlep me!!!

  4. Hi Min Min,
    i got an assignment to compare the use of 过 and 了. Can you help me?

    1) 他去过中国
    2) 他去了北京
    3) 我来过一次纽约
    4) 我的爸爸妈妈来纽约了

    i have to give the meaning of both 过 and 了.
    I know that 过 is a verb that indicates a past experience, so you said that when 了 is put after the verb it means the completion of an action, but when 了 is put at the end doesn’t it still mean the completion of an action?

    Also, can you please tell me what the difference is between 过 and 了 used in the above sentences?

    are the sentence structures for sentence 2 and 4:
    2) subject+ verb+ 了+Object
    4) subject+verb+object+了
    ??

    Please help:] and thank you so much for teaching Chinese.

    1. Hi Chinese learner,
      Sorry for the late reply.

      For your sentence:
      1) 他去过中国 means he went to China before.
      2) 他去了北京 means he has gone (went) to Beijing.

      3) 我来过一次纽约 means I came to New York once before.
      4) 我的爸爸妈妈来纽约了 means my parents come (or are coming) to New York.

      For sentence (2):
      verb+ 了 indicates completion of an action.
      e.g. : 去了 have gone to … or went to …

      For sentence (4):
      了 is at the end of a sentence. It acts as a Modal Particle (语气助词). You can read the explanation above.

      1. I thought it also worth noting the possibility of combining the two 了 structures, though often there are better ways to give the same meaning.
        i.e.:
        subject + verb + 了 + Object + 了
        e.g.:
        我学了中文了 I have studied Chinese and, in fact, continue to do so.

        Min Min, 如果是不准确,请改正。我还在学。谢谢。:-)

      2. Hi Jason,
        我学了中文了。 Two “了” in a sentence is a bit redundant, and normally we don’t say with two 了。
        It is more correct to say:
        我开始学中文了。
        or
        我在学着中文。

        1. 谢谢你回答我。

          I don’t normally use it either but it was something I learned when I was first starting out. That course was actually very grammar-centric and discussed a few sentence constructions that I’ve never used.

          Normally, for the sentence above, I just say: 我还在学 if someone asks me. Your second example is quite good too. 谢谢。

  5. hi. I’ve recently gotten familiar with your website. i found it very useful. now I’m studying Chinese and i think its grammar is a little bit confusing.i don’t know when to use “了“and when to use “过“. what is the difference between them? and can we use them interchangeably or not? what are the different kinds of usages of “过“in different sentences? you see , I’ve got many problems. please help me in these matters.
    I’ll appreciate it.

    1. Hi excellency,
      I have explained briefly about the different between “了” and “过” in the comment above.

      Here is another explanation from the wikipedia:

      Aspect is a feature of grammar that gives information about the temporal flow of language. Chinese has a unique set of aspects:
      for example, there are two perfectives, 了 (-le) and 过 [過] (-guo) which subtly differ in meaning.

      了 le (perfective)
      我 当 了 兵。
      I became a soldier (and I still am; note that this is subjected to the context. One could say 那时,我当了兵 and this sentence would not necessarily indicate that the speaker is still a soldier now).

      他 看 了 三 场 球 赛。
      He watched three ballgames (and he probably has watched many during his lifetime; often used in a time-delimited context such as “today” or “last week”).

      过 guo (experiential perfective)
      我 当 过 兵。
      I was/used to be a soldier before (but no longer am).

      他 看 过 三 场 球 赛。 [他看過三場球賽。]

      He has watched three ballgames (and that is the sum of all the ballgames he has ever watched; in the context of actions like “watch” or “take part,” which can easily be repeated, this does not have the same connotation of the first usage, but merely denotes that the action was in the past and describes the state of affairs up to now).

  6. I just wanted to tell you that despite having studied Chinese for a couple of years now, I have never found such a clear and coherent explanation for the ”了“ grammar. 谢谢你。

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