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Expressing completion with "le"

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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.

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!

Structure

Subj. + Verb + 了

Examples

  • 他们 到 Tāmen dào le.They have arrived.
  • 我 买 Wǒ mǎi le.I've bought it.
  • 我们 都 去 Wǒmen dōu qù le.We all went.
  • 我 找到 Wǒ zhǎodào le!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.

Structure

Subj. + Time + Verb + 了 + Obj.

Time + Subj. + Verb + 了 + Obj.

Examples

  • 今天 早饭 。jīntiān chī le zǎofàn.This morning I ate breakfast.
  • 上个 月 北京 。shàng gè yuèle Běijīng.Last month she went to Beijing.
  • 中午 我 见 朋友 。Zhōngwǔ wǒ jiàn le péngyou.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.

Structure

Subj. + Verb + 了 + [Number + Measure Word] + Obj.

(Make sure you're clear on what a measure word is and how to use them.)

Examples

  • 老师 问 五 个 问题 。Lǎoshī wèn le wǔ gè wèntí.The teacher asked five questions.
  • 我 买 三 本 书 。Wǒ mǎi le sān běn shū.I bought three books.
  • 我 喝 两 杯 咖啡 。Wǒ hē le liǎng bēi kāfēi.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.

Structure

Subj. + Verb + Obj. + 了

Examples

  • 上个 月 我 去 台湾 Shàng gè yuè wǒ qù Táiwān le.I went to Taiwan last month.
  • 昨天 晚上 我 看见 UFO Zuótiān wǎnshang wǒ kànjiàn le UFO.I saw a UFO last night.

If you're upper intermediate-ish and think you can "handle the truth," also check out our more advanced, full exposé on 了 (le) after an object.

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.

Structure

Subj. + 来 / 去 + Place + Verb / [Verb Phrase] + 了

Examples

  • 昨天 她 我 家 吃饭 Zuótiān tā lái wǒ jiā chīfàn le.She came to my place and ate dinner yesterday.
  • 我们 上周 北京 开会 Wǒmen shàng zhōu Běijīng kāihuì le.We went to Beijing and had a meeting there last week.
  • 我 和 朋友 商场 买 衣服 Wǒ hé péngyou shāngchǎng mǎi yīfu le.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.

See also

Sources and further reading

Books

Websites