Expressing completion with "le"
- Also known as: 了1, 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. With regards to 了 (le), aspect is about whether the action is complete in a certain time frame.
- 1 Most Basic Pattern
- 2 Putting 了 After a Verb with an Object
- 3 Putting 了 After Consecutive Actions
- 4 Completion in the Future
- 5 See also
- 6 Sources and further reading
Most Basic Pattern
The simplest way to use 了 (le) is to just put it after a verb. When there's nothing else after the verb, there are no complications!
Subj. + Verb + 了
- 他们 到 了 。They have arrived.
- 我 买 了 。I've bought it.
- 我们 都 去 了 。We all went.
- 我 找到 了 ！I found it!
Putting 了 After a Verb with an Object
Here is where things start to get slightly more complicated. If the verb has an object, 了 (le) can go directly after the verb to indicate completion, but there are a few other conditions that should be met.
When Time is Specified
It's a good idea to specify the time anyway, if you're still getting used to Chinese verbs not indicating tenses by themselves. When you do this, it's generally OK to put the 了 (le) right after the verb and before the object.
Subj. + Time + Verb + 了 + Obj.
Time + Subj. + Verb + 了 + Obj.
- 我 今天 吃 了 早饭 。This morning I ate breakfast.
- 她 上个 月 去 了 北京 。Last month she went to Beijing.
- 中午 我 见 了 朋友 。At noon I met a friend.
When the Object's Quantity is Specified
This pattern works if the sentence includes more information about the object, such as how many there are.
Subj. + Verb + 了 + [Number + Measure Word] + Obj.
(Make sure you're clear on what a measure word is and how to use them.)
- 老师 问 了 五 个 问题 。The teacher asked five questions.
- 我 买 了 三 本 书 。I bought three books.
- 我 喝 了 两 杯 咖啡 。I drank two cups of coffee.
When 了 Comes After the Object
OK, so here's the tricky part. Even when indicating completion, the 了 (le) can sometimes go after the object. This is not a topic that can be covered in depth at the elementary level, but you should be aware that this does happen too.
Subj. + Verb + Obj. + 了
- 上个 月 我 去 台湾 了 。I went to Taiwan last month.
- 昨天 晚上 我 看见 UFO 了 。 I saw a UFO last night.
Putting 了 After Consecutive Actions
So what happens if a whole string of things happened in the past? Do you have to put a 了 (le) after each one, just like we'd put each verb in the past tense in English? Good question! The short answer is that you only need one 了 (le).
To keep things simple, we'll make the first action "coming" or "going" somewhere, which will be followed by another action. So we'll be using 来 (lái) or 去 (qù) plus a place in each sentence, and then another action. For this type of "consecutive action," 了 (le) should be placed after the final verb (or verb phrase), which marks the completion of the entire sequence.
Subj. + 来 / 去 + Place + Verb / [Verb Phrase] + 了
- 昨天 她 来 我 家 吃饭 了 。She came to my place and ate dinner yesterday.
- 我们 上周 去 北京 开会 了 。We went to Beijing and had a meeting there last week.
- 我 和 朋友 去 商场 买 衣服 了 。I went to the mall with my friend and bought some clothes.
Completion in the Future
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 frame we're talking about. This also means that this 了 (le) isn't used with habitual or continuous actions.
Sources and further reading
- HSK Standard Course 1 (pp. 106) →buy
- 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