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Expressing duration with "le"

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Whether you need to express how long you lived somewhere, how long you studied astrophysics, or how long you worked as a mime, you'll need to use 了 (le) to express that time duration.

Basic Usage

Structure

Saying how long you did something for in Chinese can seem tricky, as there is no preposition as in English. Instead it's all about word order:

Subj. + Verb + 了 + Duration + Obj.

So 了 (le) is placed after the verb (to indicate that the action is completed), followed by the duration. This is how you talk about the duration of completed actions.

Examples

  • 他 学 了 一 年 中文。Tā xué le yī nián Zhōngwén.He studied Chinese for a year.
  • 我 看 了 一 个 晚上 书。Wǒ kàn le yī gè wǎnshang shū.I read books all evening.
  • 妈妈 看 了 一 天 电视。Māma kàn le yī tiān diànshì.Mom watched TV all day.
  • 他 在 Google 做 了 八 年 经理。 Tā zài Google zuò le bā nián jīnglǐ.He worked as a manager at Google for eight years.
  • 我们 坐 了 十五 个 小时 飞机 去 美国。Wǒmen zuò le shíwǔ gè xiǎoshí fēijī qù Měiguó.We took a fifteen hour flight to the United States.


To Express "Definitely Concluded"

Structure

Note that the previous pattern can be used to express the duration of completed actions which are no longer in progress, although strictly speaking, it's not entirely clear if the actions are still ongoing or not. To indicate that the actions are definitely concluded (not ongoing), a time word may be inserted into the sentence to indicate that you're talking about an event in the past:

Subj. + [Time Word] + Verb + 了 + Duration + Obj.

Examples

  • 昨天 他 写 了 一 天 作业。Zuótiān tā xiě le yī tiān zuòyè. He did his homework all day yesterday.
  • 我 刚才 打 了 半 个 小时 电话。 Wǒ gāngcái dǎ le bàn gè xiǎoshí diànhuà.I was on the phone for half an hour.
  • 他 今天 喝 了 一 个 晚上 酒。 Tā jīntiān hē le yī gè wǎnshang jiǔ.He drank alcohol all night.
  • 我 昨天 玩 了 一 个 下午 游戏。Wǒ zuótiān wán le yī gè xiàwǔ yóuxì.Yesterday, I played games all afternoon.
  • 上 个 周末 我 和 老公 开 了 三 个 小时 车 回 老家。Shàng gè zhōumò wǒ hé lǎogōng kāi le sān gè xiǎoshí chē huí lǎojiā.Last weekend, my husband and I drove three hours to our hometown.

To indicate that the action is definitely still in progress, use a slightly different pattern.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books