Expressing completion with "le"
- 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.
To indicate completeness with 了 (le), the structure is:
Subj. + Verb + 了 + Obj.
Notice that 了 (le) goes directly after the verb. This 了 (le) is called verb 了 (le).
- 你 今天 晚上 吃 了 什么？ What did you eat tonight?
- 他 买 了 一个 新 手机。 He bought a new cellphone.
- 昨天 晚上 我 看见 了 UFO。 I saw a UFO last night.
- 我 学 了 两 年 中文。 I studied two years of Chinese.
- 今年 夏天 我 跟 我女朋友 去 了 台湾。 I went to Taiwan with my boyfriend this summer.
The examples above indicate a completed action, but they might also seem very similar to a "past tense" in English. To illustrate that 了 (le) can also indicate that one action is completed before another, see the following examples:
- 你 到 了 告诉 我。When you have arrived, tell me. (future action)
- 老板 走 了 以后 你们 再 走。 After the boss have left, you leave. (future action)
- 你 找到 了 给 我 打 电话。 After you find it, give me a call. (future action)
- 你们 吃 了 饭 以后 可以 出去 玩。 After you finish eating the meal, you can go out to play. (future action)
- 下 了 这 节 课，我 要 问 老师 一些 问题。After finish this class, I need to ask the teacher a few questions. (future action)
As you can see, 了 (le) 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 (le) 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