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A Comprehensive Guide to Using “了” Correctly in Chinese

The sentence “我去公司。” may make you ask, “Why do I need ‘了’ twice in one sentence? Do they mean the same thing? What do they do? How do I even use ‘了’ properly?”

There are three frequently used auxiliary words in Chinese, and one of them is ‘了’(le). This word is used in both spoken and written Chinese to indicate grammatical features, unlike in English where word forms are changed for the same effect. Many foreign learners struggle with when and where to use ‘了’(le) because of this difference. While its usage can be complex, we will focus on the basics in this article.(You can also find a video summary and more HSK1-related grammar tutorials here.)

1. Verb + 了

‘了’ denotes the completion or achievement of an action and should be placed directly after the verb.

E.g.

我去看了那部电影。(Wǒqùkànlenàbùdiànyǐnɡ.)
I have seen that movie.

他买了一部新手机。(Tāmǎileyíbùxīnshǒujī.)
He bought a new mobile phone.

The action can be done in the past or in the future.

我明天下了课就去找你。(Wǒ míngtiān xiàle kè jiù qù zhǎo nǐ.)
I’ll see you after class tomorrow.

我洗了澡就睡觉。(Wǒ xǐle zǎo jiù shuìjiào.)
I’ll go to sleep after taking a shower.

The negative form of this structure involves placing ‘没有’/‘没’ before the verb, but then leaving out ‘了’.

E.g.

他没有去公园。(Tā méiyǒu qù ɡōnɡyuán.)
He did not go to the park.

妹妹没买那条裙子。(Mèimei méi mǎi nà tiáo qúnzi.)
Younger sister didn’t buy that skirt.

2. Sentence + 了

‘了’ functions as a modal particle here, and it’s placed at the end of a sentence.

  • It can be used to confirm certain facts.
  • It indicates something new will appear.
  • It shows that a change or something has happened or occurred. Note that there is usually a time word in the sentence, but if not, it indicates that something happened just now.

E.g.

周末他去逛街了。(Zhōumò tā qù ɡuànɡjiē le.)
He went shopping this weekend.

我刚刚发现我的电脑被偷了。(Wǒ ɡānɡɡānɡ fāxiàn wǒde diànnǎo bèi tōu le.)
I just discovered that my computer has been stolen.

上课了,上课了。(Shànɡkè le,shànɡkè le.)
Class has begun, class has begun.

下雪了。(Xiàxuě le.)
It’s snowy.
(Change of weather. It wasn’t snowy before, but now it is.)

五点了。(Wǔdiǎn le.)
It’s 5 o’clock.
(Change of time)

今天天晴了。(Jīntiān tiānqínɡ le.)
It’s sunny today.
(Change of weather. It wasn’t sunny before, but now it is.)

To make the negative form, add ‘没有’ or ‘没’ before the verb and leave out ‘了’.

E.g.

上课了。→没上课。((Shànɡkè le → Méi shànɡkè)
Class has begun. → Class hasn’t begun.

昨天我的自行车坏了。→昨天我的自行车没坏。
(Zuótiān wǒde zìxínɡchē huàile. → Zuótiān wǒde zìxínɡchē méi huài.)
My bike broke yesterday.→ My bike did not break yesterday.

—你吃饭了吗?(Nǐ chīfàn le mɑ?) Did you eat already/Have you eaten?
—没吃。(Méichī.) Did not eat yet/Haven’t eaten yet.

3. Using two “了” in one sentence

To indicate the completion of an action and something has happened, use ‘了’ after the verb and at the end of a sentence at the same time.

E.g.

他去了医院了。(Tā qù le yīyuàn le.)
He has gone to the hospital.

我唱了一首歌了。(Wǒ chànɡ le yìshǒu ɡē le.)
I sang a song.

To negate this structure, use ‘没有’/ ‘没’ before the verb and exclude ‘了’. If there’s a numerical word, it’s usually omitted.

E.g.

他没去医院。(Tā méiqù yīyuàn.)
He didn’t go to the hospital.

我没唱歌。(Wǒ méi chànɡɡē.)
I haven’t sung.

Notes:

1. If words indicating frequency, like ‘每天’(měitiān), ‘经常(jīnɡchánɡ)’, ‘常常’(chánɡchánɡ), or ‘总是’(zǒnɡshì) are used, there is no need to use ‘了’.

E.g.

我常常去图书馆看书。(Wǒ chánɡchánɡ qù túshūɡuǎn kànshū.)
I often go to the library to read.

2. Verbs that indicate mental activities like ‘想’(xiǎnɡ), ‘要’(yào), ‘打算’(dǎsuɑn), ‘希望’(xīwànɡ), ‘喜欢’(xǐhuɑn), ‘讨厌’(tǎoyàn) cannot be followed by  ‘了’.

E.g.

我打算去云南旅游。(Wǒ dǎsuɑn qù Yúnnán lǚyóu.)
I plan to go to Yunnan to travel.
*我打算去了云南旅游。(Wǒ dǎsuɑn qùle Yúnnán lǚyóu.) (×)

3. To emphasize the continuity or compactness of an ongoing action, it’s common to leave out ‘了’ (le).

E.g.

穿好衣服开门,走了出去。
((Wǒ qǐchuánɡ chuān hǎo yīfu dǎkāi mén,zǒu le chūqu.)
I got up and put on my clothes, then opened the door and walked out.

4. ‘了’ can also be omitted if the speaker wants to emphasize certain adverbs

E.g.

前天吃面,昨天吃面,今天我不想面。
(Qiántiān chīmiàn,zuótiān chīmiàn,jīntiān wǒ bùxiǎnɡ chīmiàn.)
I don’t want to eat noodles today because I had them yesterday and the day before that.

5. If a sentence contains a modal verb before the main verb, ‘了’ can only be added at the end of the sentence.

E.g.

我能说汉语。(Wǒ nénɡ shuō hànyǔ.)I can speak Chinese.(√)
*我能说了汉语。(Wǒ nénɡ shuō le hànyǔ.)(×)
我能说汉语了。((Wǒ nénɡ shuō hànyǔ le.)I can speak Chinese.(√)

6. If a sentence contains a repeated monosyllabic verb, ‘了’ should be placed between the repeated verbs.

E.g.

我闻了闻这盒牛奶。(Wǒ wén le wén zhè hé niúnǎi.)
I smelled this box of milk.

他想了想我的话。(Tā xiǎnɡ le xiǎnɡ wǒde huà.)
He thought about my words.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the usage of “了” in Chinese grammar can be complex, but by understanding its basic functions, you can start to use it correctly in your daily communication.

Remember, “了” is an auxiliary word or modal particle that can indicate completion or change, and its position in the sentence can affect its meaning.

With practice and patience, you can improve your Chinese language proficiency and confidently express yourself using this essential word.

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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.

This Post Has 8 Comments

    1. “incomplete information”….dude, if u want the “complete information” either go take a chinese class or go to a bookstore and buy the chinese grammar book about “le”! Srsly, what do u expect more?!?! its already a great overview! if u dont believe so, ur poor brain is already obvious. Srlsy, those ppl who arent even able to thank others efforts FIRST but just criticize as soon as they can,u guys pissin me off! go fk off and fk urself dude! 你们别听他的话,又只是废话而已!非常感谢你们这个 了 的介绍!对正在学了语法的 同学一定会有很大的帮助!可以这个样子下去啦,加油!

  1. This is nothing original but the mere regurgitation of standard manual content. The Chinglish translation is both irritatingly misleading and incomplete.

  2. “我去了公司 了"
    It’s not been explained clearly although this article is written for clear it in unnative’s brains. For me I can not distinguish the meaning : I am still going (on my way) to the company. / or I arrived at the company and didnot leave it.???!!

    1. Hi, “我去了公司了”, “了” in “去了” stresses “去” this action has finished, “了” after the whole sentence focuses on “我去了公司” this whole thing has occurred. So this situation would happen when you actually has gone to the company but has leaved there, in another word, the timing when you said this sentence you’re not in the company.
      →I am still going (on my way) to the company. We prefer to say “我还在去公司的路上”, “be going“ indicates the action hasn’t finished, so we don’t use “了”.

  3. hello why is there “le” in the end of 你几岁了? is “le” used as a set phrase for 岁了 which means years old? hehe just wanted to confirm because I am confused maybe it’s wrong in how I understand it. Thank you so much.

    1. Hi, “你几岁了” this sentence, “几” a pronoun means “how many”, “岁” a noun means “year”. ”几岁” together as a regular collocation indicates “how old”(<10). “了” here at the end of the sentence indicates a change. And of course, we can also directly say “你几岁” which is correct grammatically and semantically.

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