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Navigating the Past Tense in Chinese: Mastering 过 and 了

Chinese grammar is known for its nuanced approach to expressing past actions and experiences. Two crucial particles that play a significant role in conveying events of the past are 过 (guò) and 了 (le). These particles hold distinct meanings and functions, allowing speakers to emphasize experience, indicate completion, and express changes of state in their sentences.

All about 过

The particle 过 (guò) is used to express past experiences or actions. It follows the verb directly, indicating that the action or experience took place in the past. This is equivalent to using “have” in English, for example in sentences like “I have eaten” or “He has seen it”.

Basic Usage of 过 for Past Experiences

To express past experiences without an object, simply place 过(guò)  immediately after the verb in the following structure:

For example:

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

我试过。(Wǒ shìguò. ) I’ve tried that.

By using the particle 过 (guò) in Chinese grammar, speakers express that they have already performed an action at least once in the past. The use of 过(guò) does not specify the exact time of the action, whether it occurred a long time ago or just a few moments ago.

Using 过 with an Object

In more complex sentences, 过(guò) can be used with an object by following a simple structure:

For example:

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?

By considering the verb and 过(guò) as a combined unit, representing the action and its completion, the object is placed after this unit.

Negating 过

When negating past actions expressed with 过(guò), it is necessary to use the negation words 没有 (méiyǒu) or 没 (méi). This structure indicates the denial of having performed a certain action in the past. The object is optional, and the subject can be omitted as well.

For example:

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(guò) with 从来没有

The particle 过 (guò) is used to express past experiences. By combining 过(guò) with 从来没有 (cónglái méiyǒu), you can emphasize that something has never happened before. The structure for this is:

For example:

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.

To shorten the sentence, you can use 从来没 (cónglái méi) instead of the full 从来没有 (cónglái méiyǒu). This modification maintains the emphasis while creating a more concise expression.

Using 过 in Questions

The particle 过 (guò) can be combined with various question forms to inquire about past experiences. By incorporating 过, you can ask whether someone has done or encountered something before.

As seen in the following examples, 过(guò) can combine with the usual question structures used in Chinese grammar:

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?

过 and 了

The particles 过 (guò) and 了 (le) are both used to indicate completed actions. However, there are distinct differences between them that affect their usage and meaning.

Here are the key differences between 过 and 了:

1. 了 indicates that the event took place.


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

2. 了 placed after a verb denotes accomplishment.


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 in Beijing.

3. 了 can also express 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.

4. 过 emphasizes past experiences.

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

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

Using 过 and 了 together

It is possible to combine the particles 过 (guò) and 了 (le) in the same sentence to convey a change of state. This combination, referred to as ‘change of state 了’ or ‘了sentence,’ indicates that there is new information or a shift in the situation.

When 过(guò) and 了(le) are used together, it signifies that “it is now the case that something has been done.” These sentences often refer to specific objects known to both the speaker and the listener.


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?


Mastering the usage of 过 (guò) and 了 (le) in Chinese grammar opens a gateway to accurately conveying past experiences, emphasizing completion, and expressing changes of state. By understanding their distinctions and employing them appropriately, learners can enhance their communication skills and express themselves with precision and clarity.

As you continue your language journey, practice incorporating 过(guò) and 了(le) into your conversations and written practice. Pay attention to context, verb placement, and the objects they modify to ensure accurate usage. With time and practice, you will gain confidence in effectively using these particles to convey your intended meaning in the past tense.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. There is a small error in the article. You write “le, modal/ aspect patical.” It should be “aspect particle.”

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