chinese le

Mastering the Chinese “Le”: 8 Ways to Use This Super-powered Particle

It’s a bird…

It’s a plane…

It’s…le!

Yes, that’s right. We’re not talking about Superman here. We’re talking about Chinese grammar, and specifically, about the sentence particle 了 (le).

了 has many superpowers. It can change situations, express time durations, complete an action and even be used to describe ongoing events.

With all of these varied uses, knowing when and how to use 了 can be tricky.

That’s where we come in.

Whether you’re a grammar nerd ready to tackle the 了 particle, or you feel you’ve reached your wit’s end trying to grasp it, stay tuned. Keep reading to learn all about the Chinese 了 and eight of its most common uses.
 


 

Tips for Learning the Chinese Particle 了 (le)

Studying grammar can be tricky. Unlike vocabulary, grammar involves learning sentence structures, patterns and particles, and then using them in real-life conversations.

Luckily, Chinese grammar is actually quite easy for English speakers, compared to other Asian languages. Mindblowing, right? This is because Mandarin Chinese grammar follows similar patterns to English grammar.

Learning particles is one of the most difficult parts of learning grammar because oftentimes, the target language has particles much different than our native language. And in the case of the Chinese 了, the particle has multiple usages.

Before diving into the eight most common uses of 了, let’s discuss some key tips for learning and mastering this mysterious Chinese particle.

  • Know the difference between aspect particle 了 and modal particle 了. Remembering these two major “categories” of 了 as well as their uses will make familiarizing yourself with every other usage of 了 easier. This is because every usage of 了 falls into one of these two “categories.” (We’ll explain these in the next section!)
  • Listen for when native speakers use 了. Immersing yourself in the language and actively listening for when native speakers use certain sentence structures is one of the most beneficial ways to study grammar. While watching Chinese movies, dramas or YouTube videos, try to pick out the sentences the speakers use 了 in.
  • chinese le

    One great way to immerse yourself in Chinese from home is by using FluentU. FluentU turns real-world videos—like movie trailers, music videos, news clips and inspiring talks—into language-learning experiences. Each FluentU video features native Chinese speakers, so you’ll learn the language as it’s really spoken. While watching videos, use the interactive subtitles to spot 了 in the videos you watch.

    For even more targeted practice, you can search for 了 in the search bar and find tons of video clips that include the word. Take some time to figure out what 了 means in each example, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering this tricky particle. Check out the FluentU free trial today!

  • Create your own sentences using 了. You’ll never master grammar if you never use it! Take what you learn from this article and when watching Chinese media and apply it with your own sentences. If you want to ensure you’re using it correctly, upload your sentences to a site like italki where you can get corrections from native speakers. It’s a great way to ensure you’re getting the hang of tricky grammar topics.
  • Learn different usages of 了 according to your current level. Not all usages of 了 are beginner-friendly. Chinese Grammar Wiki divided 了 and its multitude of uses into levels A1, A2, B1 and B2. If you’re a beginner, don’t stress if it’s too hard to learn all these usages right now. Start with the basics.
  • Use a mixture of analytical approaches and inductive approaches. Polyglot Luca Lampariello describes two kinds of popular grammar study methods: purely analytical approach and purely inductive approach. The purely analytical approach is the idea that thorough, grammar-based studies are essential to understanding a language. The purely inductive approach, on the other hand, is the idea that grammar books are unnecessary and immersion is the best way to master a language. A mixture of both approaches is ultimately the most beneficial way of studying grammar naturally and effectively.

The Basics of Le: Aspect Particle 了 and Modal Particle 了

In Chinese, 了 is divided into two types of particles: the aspect particle and the modal particle. This is because 了 is used in two different ways:

  • Expressing the completion of an action
  • Expressing a change in a situation

Aspect particle 了 comes at the end of a verb to show that an action has been completed. Modal particle 了 comes at the end of a sentence to show that a previous situation has now been changed.

In Chinese, the aspect particle is also known as 了1 and the modal particle as 了2.

Remembering when and how to use which 了 can be a bit tricky, but never fear. Let’s dive deep into the uses of Aspect Particle 了 and Modal Particle 了.

Aspect Particle 了

The aspect particle 了 is used to express the completion of an action. It comes at the end of a verb in order to show the action has been done.

For example, note the difference between these two sentences:

我买两个苹果 (wǒ mǎi liǎng ge píng guǒ) — I buy two apples.
我买了两个苹果 (wǒ mǎi le liǎng ge píng guǒ) — I bought two apples.

Here are some more examples that show completion of an action:

我看了这本书 (wǒ kàn le zhè běn shū) — I read this book.

我吃了三个小时 (wǒ chī le sān ge xiǎo shí) — I ate for three hours.

In these sentences, the 了 particle is placed at the end of the verb because the action has been completed and is now in the past.

An important rule to know about using the aspect particle 了 is that it cannot be used in negative sentences. This is because the negation words (méi) and (bù) are used to make verbs negative.

For example:

我没看这本书 (wǒ méi kàn zhè běn shū) — I didn’t read this book.

我没买两个苹果 (wǒ méi mǎi liǎng ge píng guǒ) — I didn’t buy two apples.

我没吃三个小时 (wǒ méi chī sān ge xiǎo shí) — I didn’t eat for three hours.

If the sentence is negative (expressing how you didn’t do something), the particle 了(le) is not needed.

Modal Particle 了

The modal particle 了 is used to express a change in a previous situation. It is used to differentiate a past situation from a current one. Some learners find it easier to remember by thinking of the particle 了 as meaning “now.”

Modal particle 了 comes at the end of the sentence describing the new situation instead of at the end of a verb.

For example, note the difference between these two sentences:

我工作了一整天,现在很累 (wǒ gōng zuò le yī zhěng tiān, xiàn zài hěn lèi) — I worked all day, I am tired.
我工作了一整天,现在很累了 (wǒ gōng zuò le yī zhěng tiān, xiàn zài hěn lèi le) — I worked all day, I am tired now.

Or, here’s another example:

我以前不喜欢看书,可是现在我非常喜欢了(wǒ yǐ qián bù xǐ huān kàn shū, kě shì xiàn zài wǒ fēi cháng xǐ huān le) – I used to not like reading books, but now I like it a lot.

Unlike the aspect particle 了, modal particle 了 can be used in negative sentences. In this situation, many learners find it easier to think of the particle 了 as meaning “anymore.”

For example:

我以前喜欢看书,可是现在不喜欢了 (wǒ yǐ qián xǐ huān kàn shū, kě shì xiàn zài bù xǐ huān le) — I used to like reading books, but now I don’t.

我们以前是同学,可是现在不是了(wǒ men yǐ qián shì tóng xué, kě shì xiàn zài bù shì le) — We used to be classmates, but we aren’t anymore.

Mastering the Chinese “Le”: 8 Ways to Use This Super-powered Particle

Now that you know the difference between aspect particle 了 and modal particle 了, let’s get into eight common and simple usages of this interesting particle.

1. 太 (Tài) + 了

(Modal Particle 了2)

The sentence pattern “太 + 了” is used to express excessiveness. For example:

今天太热了!(jīn tiān tài rè le!) — Today is too hot!

我昨天晚上睡得不好,我太累了!(wǒ zuó tiān wǎn shàng shuì de bù hǎo, wǒ tài lèi le!) — Last night I didn’t sleep well, I’m so tired!

菜太多了,我吃不完!(cài tài duō le, wǒ chī bù wán!) — There is too much food, I can’t eat it all!

2. Verb + 了

(Aspect Particle 了1)

One of the very first uses of 了 you’ll learn as a beginner is that when it comes after a verb, it describes a completed action. Let’s take a look at some examples:

我吃早饭了(wǒ chī zǎo fàn le) — I ate breakfast.

我去超市了(wǒ qù chāo shì le) — I went to the supermarket.

他回家了(tā huí jiā le) — He went home.

It’s important to note that when a list of things follows the verb, place 了 before the list.

我吃了三个汉堡包 (wǒ chī le sān ge hàn bǎo bāo) — I ate three hamburgers.

我去超市买了五个苹果 (wǒ qù chāo shì mǎi le wǔ ge píng guǒ) — I went to the supermarket and bought five apples.

他回家看了一场电影 (tā huí jiā kàn le yī chǎng diàn yǐng) — He went home and watched a movie.

3. Subject + 都 (Dōu) + Verb + 了

(Modal Particle 了2)

The sentence pattern “subject + 都 + verb + 了” indicates that the subject has already done something. In this usage, a tip is to think of the particle 了 as meaning “already.”

我都知道了(wǒ dōu zhī dào le) — I already know.

你都吃过了(nǐ dōu chī guò le) — You already ate.

他们都去了(tā men dōu qù le) — They already left.

4. Subject + Verb + 完了 (Wán Le)

(Modal Particle 了2)

By placing a 完了 (wán le) at the end of a typical subject + verb sentence, you indicate that the verb has been finished. This is called a complement of result.

我把作业做完了 (wǒ bǎ zuò yè zuò wán le) — I finished my homework.

他终于说完了 (tā zhōng yú shuō wán le) — He is finally done speaking.

你吃完了吗?(nǐ chī wán le ma?) — Are you done eating?

5. New Situation + 了

(Modal Particle 了2)

This structure involves the modal particle 了. If you want to describe a change in a situation, simply describe the new situation and add 了 to the end of the sentence.

我回来了 (wǒ huí lái le) — I have returned. (I’m back now.)

我不上班了 (wǒ bù shàng bān le) — I don’t go to work anymore.

我以前不吃肉,可是现在吃了 (wǒ yǐ qián bù chī ròu, kě shì xiàn zài chī le) — I used to not eat meat, but now I do.

6. Verb + Object + Verb + 了 + Time Duration

(Modal Particle 了2)

When the particle 了 is placed immediately after the verb and is followed by a timeframe, it indicates the duration of an event that happened in the past and has been completed. Note that when followed by an object, the verb must be repeated twice — once before and once after.

我学中文学了一年 (wǒ xué zhōng wén xué le yì nián) — I studied Chinese for one year.

她住在美国住了五年 (tā zhù zài měi guó zhù le wǔ nián) — She lived in America for five years.

你唱歌唱了三个小时 (nǐ chàng gē chàng le sān ge xiǎo shí) — You sang for three hours.

7. Verb + Object + Verb + 了 + Time Duration + 了

(Modal Particle 了2)

If the particle 了 is added at the end of the sentence structure in the previous example, the meaning becomes slightly different. Instead of indicating that the verb happened in the past and has been completed, it indicates that the action is still happening.

我中文学了一年了(wǒ zhōng wén xué le yī nián le) — I’ve been learning Chinese for one year (and still am).

她在美国住了五年了(tā zài měi guó zhù le wǔ nián le) — She has been living in America for five years (and still is).

你唱了三个小时了(nǐ chàng le sān ge xiǎo shí le) — You’ve been singing for three hours (and still are).

8. 已经 (Yǐ Jīng) + 不 (Bù)/没 (Méi) + Verb Phrase + 了

(Modal Particle 了2)

This sentence pattern means the action (verb phrase) is not happening anymore.

我不想去了 (wǒ bù xiǎng qù le) — I don’t want to go anymore.

我已经不在家了 (wǒ yǐ jīng bù zài jiā le) — I’m not at home anymore.

我已经不想吃了 (wǒ yǐ jīng bù xiǎng chī le) — I don’t want to eat anymore.

 

And there you have it: eight simple sentence structures using the Chinese 了.

 Just master these patterns and we know you’ll have a great understanding of this multifunctional particle!


Brooke Bagley is a freelance writer and passionate language learner. She’s learned Mandarin Chinese for seven years, Spanish for three and Indonesian for one. Aside from languages, Brooke runs her freelance writing business, Writing & Thriving, and specializes in B2B copywriting, content marketing and holistic health and wellness.
 

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