If you think Chinese is tough, you are not alone. The grammar, not to mention the characters and pronunciation, can be dizzying! To make Chinese just a little less intimidating, here we detail some of the more common usages of the character 了.
1. Perfective Aspect
This usage indicates that an action of the sentence is complete.
Careful—this does not mark the past tense. This is called “verb aspect” and we will dedicate another post to this later. Here are a couple of examples:
Zuótiān wǒ pǎobù le.
I went running yesterday.
Wǒ chīfàn le.
2. Sentence 了 (Modal)
Here, the particle appears at the end of a sentence and marks a change of state. This change could be in understanding, opinion, ideas, actions, weather, etc.
In English, we could translate the particle as “now” or “anymore”.
For example: 她会走路了。
Tā huì zǒulù le.
She can walk now.
Wǒ bù hējiǔ le.
I don't drink anymore.
It can also indicate that a change is about to occur. Look for these structures:
- 要 (yào) + VERB + 了
- 快 (kuài) + VERB + 了
- 就要 (jiù yào) + VERB + 了
- 快要 (kuài yào) + VERB +了
Kuài yào xià yǔ le.
It's about to rain.
3. Sentence 了 + Perfective Aspect
When these two are combined, you are expressing what has been completed until now. This often manifests as sentences describing duration.
Tā yǐjīng chīle sānshí gè jiaozi le!
He has eaten 30 dumplings!
(The implication here is that he may continue to eat dumplings.)
Tā dāng lǎoshī dāngle wǔ nián le.
He has been a teacher for five years.
(And here you can assume he will continue to be a teacher.)
This usage can be tricky—sometimes these two overlap each other at the end of a sentence as one.
Wǒ bìyè sān nián le.
I graduated three years ago
4. IntensifierThe purpose of the particle here is to emphasize the adjective it is used with. Here are some of the most common structures:
- 太 (tài ) + ADJECTIVE + 了
- ADJECTIVE + 极 (jí) + 了
- ADJECTIVE + 死 (sǐ) + 了
- 可 (kě) + ADJECTIVE + 了
Tài hǎo le!
È sǐ le!
A helpful trick is to view these as fixed vocabulary items.
5. LiǎoThis is a verb complement. (More to come on verb complements in another post!)
Liǎo indicates whether the verb was successful. For example:
Wǒ zuò déliǎo.
I can do it.
Wǒ zuò bùliǎo.
I can't do it.
As le and liǎo share the same character, we thought it merited inclusion. We won't go into too much detail for this one though.
These are just some examples of how to use 了. Still, there are many more usages not covered here-which is both the beautiful and challenging part of learning Chinese!
Let's tackle it together! Sign up for some Chinese classes to get your grammar game on point.
If you are learning le in HSK 1, you might also like this explanation of how to use le to express change and completion.