newbie-chinese-le

No Nonsense Newbie Tips: What the Heck is up with 了?

The mother of all Newbie conundrums: 了

This is one of the simplest of all Chinese particles, one which you probably encountered in Chapter 1 of your textbook. However, after the initial “new word glow” wears off and you get deeper into its usage, you’ll start encountering all these confusing phrases like “resultative complement” and “modal particle”. When struggling how to correctly express yourself in basic Chinese, these confusing linguistic phrases aren’t much help.

Trying to navigate the dizzying array of forum posts and blog discussions on this humble two stroke character is enough to scare anyone away from this language and never look back. It can indicate either past or future tense? It is pronounced either le or liǎo? Who actually takes the time to learn this?

We do! While it will always be most effective to engage with authentic Chinese content, sentence mining, or getting out in the wild and practice with living humans, a simple English explanation of basic usage could do everyone some good. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive, comprehensive study of , but rather a guide as you embark on your Chinese grammar journey (or need a brushing up)!

Here they are…the 4 most basic uses of . No nonsense!


 
1. After a verb or adjective, indicating completion

In its most basic incarnation, is usually placed after a verb (or occasionally adjective) to indicate completion of an action, which usually indicates the past tense. Yet there are cases when it is used to indicate the expected completion of an action, in which case it is not necessarily past tense.

Examples

我听了这首歌
wǒ tīng le zhè shǒu gē
I’ve listened to this song

我吃了饭以后要出去
wǒ chī le fàn yǐ hòu yào chū qù
After I’m done eating, I want to go out

哦, 这个问题我懂了
Ó, zhè ge wèn tí wǒ dǒng le
Oh, I understand this problem

现今买汽车更贵了
xiàn jīn mǎi qì chē gèng guì le
Buying a car these days is even more expensive

 

2. End of sentence, indicating change of circumstance

Beyond signalling the completion of a specific verb, adding to the end of a sentence shows a circumstance has changed, and a new state exists.

Examples

我饿了
wǒ è le
I’m hungry (I wasn’t hungry before, but am now!)

他终于来了
tā zhōng yú lái le
He’s finally arrived

我以前每天看电视, 但是现在忙了
wǒ yǐ qián měi tiān kàn diàn shì, dàn shì xiàn zài máng le
Before I watched TV every day, but I’m too busy now

 

3. Excessive!

A truly wonderful grammar pattern absolutely worth mastering, 太…了 is a set pattern expressing an excessive amount or extent of an adjective or adverb. Learn this pattern, it will serve you well.

Examples

你对我太好了
nǐ duì wǒ tài hǎo le
You are too good to me

这件衬衣太贵了!
zhè jiàn chèn yī tài guì le!
This shirt is way too expensive!

这些数据太不靠谱了
zhè xiē shù jù tài bù kào pǔ le
This data is not reliable at all

 

4. Able or unable

Finally, the major usage of isn’t even pronounced le! When preceded by either or , it is almost always pronounced “liǎo“. In the case of 不了, it indicates the inability or impossibility of completing the verb preceding it. In the case of 得了, it means to successfully complete or finish the task which preceded it, or the ability to complete it.

Examples

我吃不了
wǒ chī bù liǎo
I’m unable to eat this

我没做完作业, 我去不了!
wǒ méi zuò wán zuò yè, wǒ qù bù liǎo!
I haven’t finished my homework, I can’t go!

我能办得了
wǒ néng bàn dé liǎo
I’ll be able to do it

你吃得了一整只鸡吗?
nǐ chī dé liǎo yī zhěng zhǐ jī ma?
You can eat an entire chicken?

 

So…Remember this

1) 了 is NOT equivalent of past tense. It indicates the completion of an action or change of status, and can be used in any tense. It is not the English equivalent of the suffix -ed. Don’t confuse 了 with 过.

2) 了 is NOT always pronounced “le”. In cases preceded by either 不 or 得 (or in words meaning “to understand” like 了解), it is usually pronounced “liǎo”.

3) You’ll learn more by watching 10 minutes of FluentU videos than scouring the internet for detailed dissertations of small grammar points. Study accordingly.

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn Chinese with real-world videos.

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9 Responses to No Nonsense Newbie Tips: What the Heck is up with 了?

  1. Ting August 13, 2012 at 11:25 pm #

    This is awesome! Best explanation of this wonderful little creature ever.

  2. The World of Chinese August 14, 2012 at 1:15 pm #

    Brilliantly helpful explanation of ‘le’. Enjoy these mini language guides, no matter how well you know Chinese they are always helpful.

  3. Ben August 14, 2012 at 8:14 pm #

    I appreciate the feedback. There are plenty of detailed discussions of the minute details of these grammar points, so I think its important to provide a nice “entry level” page for newbies. Thanks!

  4. BanTian Niao August 20, 2012 at 10:46 am #

    Excellent synopsis, and good examples. One minor point: The “bu” in “bù kào pǔ le” changes to rising tone since it precedes a falling tone character (kào).

    • Ben August 21, 2012 at 6:29 am #

      Eagle eye! Good catch.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  5. Jeff December 22, 2012 at 9:04 am #

    How about this one:

    “你吃饭了吗?”

    Anyone have any idea why ‘了’ comes after the noun?

    • Christina December 26, 2012 at 10:06 pm #

      Hi Jeff, in that particular sentence, “吃饭” acts as one phrase/word. That’s why the “了” comes after the verb. Hope that helps!

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