The use of ‘了’(le)in Chinese

Editor`s Notes:

我去了公司了。”When you first read or hear this kind of sentence, you may wonder, why do I need to use two “了” in one sentence? Do they have the same meaning? What are their functions? How do I use “了” correctly? Many learners couldn`t tell the differences, and use “了” incorrectly even after they have reached a higher level. Our contributor, Cecilia, will talk about “了” and give us a clearer understanding on how to use this Auxiliary word.

Editor in Chief | Cao Jing

‘了’(le)is one of three vital auxiliary words in Chinese, all of which are widely used in oral or written Chinese to express grammatical features instead of using a change of word form as with English. Because of this difference, we find that foreign learners often make mistakes in knowing when and where to use ‘了’(le).  Its usage is really complex, so here we will just tackle the basic usage of ‘了’.

 

1. ‘1’ indicates the completion and achievement of an action being used tightly behind the verb.

E.g.

(1) 我去看了那部电影。(Wǒqùkànlenàbùdiànyǐnɡ.)

I have seen that movie.

(2) 他买了一部新手机。(Tāmǎileyíbùxīnshǒujī.)

 He has bought a new mobile phone.

Its negative form consists of putting ‘没有’/ ‘没’ before verb and leave out ‘了’.

E.g.

(1)他没有去公园。(Tāméiyǒuqùɡōnɡyuán.)

He hasn’t gone to the park.

(2)妹妹没买那条裙子。(Mèimeiméimǎinàtiáoqúnzi.)

 Younger sister hasn’t bought that skirt.

2. ‘2’ functions as a modal particle

(a) It can be placed at the end of a sentence;

(b) It can be used to indicate that something has happened or has occurred;

(c) It can be used to show or confirm a certain fact;

(d) There usually is a time word in the sentence; if not, the sentence will indicate that something happened or occurred just now.

E.g.

(1)周末他去逛街了。(Zhōumòtāqùɡuànɡjiē le.)

 He went shopping this weekend.

(2)下周三下了课,我把书给你。(Xiàzhōusānxiàlekèwǒbǎshūɡěinǐ.)

 Next Wednesday, I’ll give you the book.

(3)我刚刚发现我的电脑被偷了。(Wǒɡānɡɡānɡfāxiànwǒdediànnǎobèitōu le.)

I discovered that my computer has been stolen just now.

(4)上课了,上课了。(Shànɡkè leshànɡkè le.)

Class begins, class begins.

Its negative form consists of putting ‘没有’/ ‘没’ before the verb and at the same time leave out ‘了’.

E.g.

(1)上课了。没上课。(Shànɡkè le→ Méishànɡkè.)

  Class begins.→ Class doesn’t begin.

(2)昨天我的自行车坏了。昨天我的自行车没坏。

(Zuótiānwǒdezìxínɡchēhuàile.→Zuótiānwǒdezìxínɡchēméihuài.)

My bike broke yesterday.→ My bike did not break yesterday.

(3) —你吃饭了吗?(Nǐchīfàn le mɑ?)

没吃。(Méichī.)

—Did you eat already/Have you eaten?

—Did not eat yet/Haven’t eaten yet.

3. ‘1+2’ as a modal particle indicates a change, or in other words, something new has occurred, which is also put at the end of the sentence.

E.g.

(1)下雪了。(Xiàxuě le.)

      It’s snowy.

(Change of weather. It wasn’t snowy before, but now it is.)

(2)我不吃了。(Wǒbùchī le.)

 I don’t want to eat.

(Change of attitude. I said I wanted to eat, but now I don’t want to eat.)

(3)五点了。(Wǔdiǎn le.)

It’s 5 o’clock.

(Change of time)

(4)今天天晴了。(Jīntiāntiānqínɡ le.)

 It’s sunny today.

(Change of weather. It wasn’t sunny before, but now it is.)

Its negative form is complicated according to the meanings and structures of different sentences, so we will not deal with it here.

4. Using ‘’ at the end of a sentence and after the verb to show that something has happened and there is a completion of the action.

E.g.

(1)他去了医院了。(Tāqùleyīyuàn le.)

  He has gone to the hospital.

(2)我唱了一首歌了。(Wǒchànɡleyìshǒuɡē le.)

 I have sung a song.

Its negative form uses ‘没有’/ ‘没’ before the verb, and leaves out ‘了’. If there is a numerical word, it is usually left out also.

E.g.

(1)他没去医院。(Tāméiqùyīyuàn.)

 He hasn’t gone to the hospital.

(2)我没唱歌。(Wǒméichànɡɡē.)

 I haven’t sung.

Summary

use le

Notes

1. When words which indicate that something happens frequently (like ‘每天’(měitiān), ‘经常(jīnɡchánɡ)’, ‘常常’(chánɡchánɡ) , ‘总是’(zǒnɡshì) etc.) appear, we don’t need to use ‘了’.

E.g.

我常常去图书馆看书。(Wǒchánɡchánɡqùtúshūɡuǎnkànshū.)

I often go to the library to read.

2. When verbs which indicate mental activities (like ‘想’(xiǎnɡ), ‘要’(yào), ‘打算’(dǎsuɑn), ‘希望’(xīwànɡ), ‘喜欢’(xǐhuɑn), ‘讨厌’(tǎoyàn ) etc.) appear, we can’t use ‘了’ behind the verb.

E.g.

我打算去云南旅游。(Wǒdǎsuɑnqùyúnnánlǚyóu.)

    I plan to go to Yunnan to travel.

*我打算去了云南旅游。(Wǒdǎsuɑnqùleyúnnánlǚyóu.) ×

3. When the sentence indicates continuous action, to stress the continuity and compactness of the action, we could leave out ‘了’(le).

E.g.

穿好衣服开门,走了出去。

Wǒqǐchuánɡchuānhǎo yīfu dǎkāi ménzǒu le chūqu.

 I got up and put on my clothes, then opened the door and walked out.

4. When the speaker wants to emphasize a certain adverb in the sentence, then we can leave out ‘了’.

E.g.

前天吃面,昨天吃面,今天我不想面。

(Qiántiānchīmiànzuótiānchīmiànjīntiānwǒbùxiǎnɡchīmiàn.)

Today I don’t want to eat noodles, because I have eaten it yesterday and before yesterday.

5. When there is a modal verb before the verb, ‘了’ can only be used at the end of the sentence.

E.g.

我能说汉语。(Wǒnénɡshuōhànyǔ.)I can speak Chinese.

*我能说了汉语。(Wǒnénɡshuōlehànyǔ.)×

我能说汉语了。(Wǒnénɡshuōhànyǔ le.)I can speak Chinese.

6. When there is a repeated monosyllabic verb in the sentence, ‘了’ should be placed between the repeated verbs.

E.g.

我闻了闻这盒牛奶。(Wǒwén le wénzhèhéniúnǎi.)

    I slightly smell this box of milk.

他想了想我的话。(Tā xiǎnɡ le xiǎnɡwǒdehuà.)

He thinks slightly of my words.

 

That’s all for the auxiliary word ‘了’. I hope this helps with your studies.

Cecilia He

Cecilia majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language. She has vast experience in educating her students on how to listen to and speak Chinese, and is trained to teach HSK courses. She has mastered the method and practice of teaching the structure, historical development, and relationships of languages as an academic subject, and has also done extensive research on Intercultural Communication and Sinology.