Expressing "about to happen" with "le"
Remember that 了 (le) is not only for the past! When something is about to happen, you can also indicate this using 了 (le). Normally it is paired with a 快 (kuài), 快要(kuàiyào) or a 要 (yào). This is a special form of using 了 to indicate a change of situation.
快⋯⋯了 (kuài... le) with Verbs
When using 快 ⋯⋯了 (kuài... le) with verbs, it takes on a meaning similar to the English "just about to." Normally you can add 要 (yào) before the verb.
快+ Verb + 了
快要 + Verb + 了
- 我们 快 到 了。We're almost there.
- 快 下雨 了 。It's going to rain soon.
- 快 要 过年 了，你 什么 时候 回家？It's almost Chinese New Year. When are you going back to your hometown?
- 我 女朋友 快 要 过 生日 了。My girlfriend is about to have her birthday.
- 快 下车 了 ，你 再 等 一会儿 。We're about to get off. Just wait a little while.
Notice that for some translations, it's more natural to use the English word "almost" instead of "soon."
快⋯⋯了 (kuài... le) with Adjectives
In this structure, 快⋯⋯了 (kuài... le) is closer to the meaning of "almost" in English.
快 + Adj. + 了
- 天 快 黑 了。It’s almost getting dark.
- 我 快 好 了。I'm almost ready.
- 饭 快 凉 了。The food is about to be cold.
- 这些 脏 衣服 快 臭 了。These dirty clothes are about to smell bad.
- 不 能 再 喝 了，我 快 醉 了。I can't drink another, I am almost drunk.
要⋯⋯了 (yào... le) with Verbs
You can also just use 要 (yào) before the verb, without 快 (kuài).
Subj. + 要 + Verb / Adj. + 了
Note that occasionally you'll see adjectives (instead of verbs) in this pattern as well.
- 我 要 生气 了！I'm going to get angry!
- 他们 的 孩子 要 出生 了。Their child is about to be born.
- 9 点 了，超市 要 关门 了。It's 9 o'clock. The supermarket is about to close.
- 我 最好 的 朋友 要 结婚 了！My best friend is about to get married!
- 圣诞节 要 到 了 ，你 有 什么 打算 ？It's almost Christmas. What plans do you have?
Sources and further reading
- HSK Standard Course 2 (pp. 116) →buy
- Integrated Chinese: Level 1, Part 1 (3rd ed) (pp. 267-8) →buy
- Boya Chinese Elementary Starter 1 (博雅汉语初经起步篇) (pp. 183) →buy
- New Practical Chinese Reader 2 (新实用汉语课本2) (pp. 196-7) →buy
- 40 Lessons for Basic Chinese Course (基础汉语40课上册） (pp. 271) →buy
- ChinesePod: Qing Wen - 了 (le): Something's About to Happen (free podcast content)