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Expressing duration with "le"

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.
  • 他 做 了 八 年 经理 。Tā zuò le bā nián jīnglǐ.He worked as a manager for eight years.

Also note that 的 can be used in this pattern, which must be placed between the duration and the object.

Subj. + Verb + 了 + Duration + 的 + Obj.

Some examples:

  • 我们 坐 了 十五 个 小时 飞机 。Wǒmen zuò le shíwǔ gè xiǎoshí de fēijī.We took a fifteen hour flight.
  • 奶奶 看 了 一 天 电视 。Nǎinai kàn le yī tiān de diànshì.Grandma watched TV all day.
  • 妈妈 洗 了 一 上午 衣服 。Māma xǐ le yī shàngwǔ de yīfu.Mom washed clothes all morning.

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

  • 孩子们 周六 写 了 一天 作业 。Háizi men zhōuliù xiě le yī tiān de zuòyè.The kids did their homework all day Saturday.
  • 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.
  • 我 昨天 玩 了 一 晚上 游戏 。Wǒ zuótiān wán le yī wǎnshang yóuxì.Yesterday, I played games all evening.
  • 他 昨天 开 了 一 天 车 。Tā zuótiān kāi le yī tiān chē.He drove all day yesterday.
  • 老板 今天 开 了 一 下午 会 。Lǎobǎn kāi le yī xiàwǔ de huì.The boss had meetings all afternoon today.

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

See also

Sources and further reading

Books