Expressing completion with "le"
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- Also known as: verb 了, completed action 了 and perfective aspect 了.
The particle 了 (le) has a lot of uses. One of the most common is to express the completion of an action. This is called aspect, which is not the same as tense. Tense is about when an action happens - past, present or future. Aspect is about whether the action is complete in whatever time frame we're talking about.
The Basic Pattern
To indicate completeness with 了, the structure is:
Subject + Verb + 了 + Object
Notice that 了 goes directly after the verb. This 了 is called verb 了.
Some basic examples:
- 他 上 了 飞机。 He got on the plane.
- 我 喝 了 五 瓶 啤酒。 I drank five bottles of beer.
- 我 吃 了 两 个 苹果。 I ate two apples.
- 两 个 小时 看 了 一 本 书。 I read a book for two hours.
- 做 完 了 这 个 工作，还 有 两 个。 After finishing this work, there are still two.
- 今天 我 做 了 很 多 事。 Today I did a lot of things.
- 他 只 买 了 一 个 三明治。 He only bought one sandwich.
- 我 看见 了 UFO。 I saw a UFO.
- 老板 说 了 两 句 话 就 走 了。 The boss said two sentences then left.
- 我 学了 两 年 中文。 I studied two years of Chinese.
- 他 偷 了 你 的 钱包？ He stole your wallet?
The examples above indicate a completed action, but they might also seem very similar to a "past tense" in English. To illustrate that 了 can also indicate that one action is completed before another, see the following examples:
- 你 吃 完 了 以后，来找我。 After you've finished eating, come find me. (future action)
- 你 到 了 以后，给 我 打电话。 After you have arrived, give me a call. (future action)
- 明天 我 吃 了 晚饭 以后 就 跟 朋友 去 咖啡店。 Tomorrow after I've eaten dinner, I'll go to a cafe with friends. (future action)
As you can see, 了 can appear in sentences about the future as well as the past. What's important is whether or not the action has been completed, no matter what time we're talking about. This also means that the verbal 了 can't be used with habitual or continuous actions.
Sources and further reading
- Basic Patterns of Chinese Grammar (pp. 65-8) →buy
- Chinese: An Essential Grammar, Second Edition (pp. 57-9) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 137-9, 208) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 2, Part 1 (pp. 11-4) →buy
- Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar (pp. 185-217) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1) (pp. 199-200) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 1 (新实用汉语课本1)(2nd ed) (pp. 226-8) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 2 (新实用汉语课本2) (pp. 16-8) →buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (pp. 156-7)→buy
- Yale: The Perfective –Le了 Versus The Modal Particle Le了
- East Asia Student: 了 grammar: four kinds of 了 in Mandarin