The different uses between 过 and 了

过 and 了

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 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

我听说过。(Wǒ tīng shuōguò. I’ve heard about that.)
我试过。(Wǒ shìguò. 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.

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

我已经看过那部电影。(Wǒ yǐjīng kànguò nà bù diànyǐng. I’ve already seen that film.)
你见过他吗?(Nǐ jiànguò tā ma? Have you seen him 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.

Negating 过Because 过 is about past actions, you have to use没有 (méiyǒu)/没 (méi) 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.

我没看过。(Wǒ Méi kànguò. I haven’t seen it.)
他没去过美国。(Tā méi qùguò Měiguó. He hasn’t been to America.)

过 with 从来没有 (cónglái méiyǒu) 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

我从来没有这么生气过。(Wǒ cónglái méiyǒu zhème shēngqìguò.)
I’ve never been angry like this before.
他从来没有见过如此大的狗。(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.

Asking questions with 过

你有没有去过中国?(Nǐ yǒu méiyǒu qùguò Zhōngguó?)Have you ever been to China?
你听说过吧?(Nǐ tīng shuōguò ba?) You’ve heard about it, right?

As you can see, 过 can combine with all the usual ways of forming questions in Chinese grammar.
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 differences are:

  • 了indicates that the event took place, e.g.

昨天我去故宫了。( Zuótiān wǒ qù gùgōngle. I went to the Forbidden City yesterday.)

  • 了placed after a verb denotes that the action is accomplished, e.g.

我买了一本汉语书。(Wǒ mǎile yī běn hànyǔ shū. I bought a Chinese book.)
我到了北京就给你打电话。(Wǒ dàole běijīng jiù gěi nǐ dǎ diànhuà. I will call you as soon as I arrive Beijing.)

  • 了 can also be used to talk about changes of state.

现在是12点了,该睡觉了。(Xiànzài shì 12 diǎnle, gāi shuìjiàole. It is 12 o’clock now, it’s time to go to bed.)

  • The particle 过 denotes that some action has done in the past. It is used to emphasize experience. Compare the following sentences:

他来过我们家。(Tā láiguò wǒmen jiā.)
He’s been to our house (in the past – he’s left now).

他来我们家了。(Tā lái wǒmen jiā le.)
He’s come to our house (and he’s still here – completed action 了).

Using 过 and 了 together 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”. Sentences that combine 过 and 了 are also about specific objects, i.e. ones that the speaker and listener know about already, e.g.

你洗过澡了吗?(Nǐ xǐguò zǎole ma? Have you had a shower?)
你吃过药了吗?(Nǐ chīguò yàole ma? Have you taken your medicine?)