Expressing duration with "le"

Revision as of 07:28, 2 February 2016 by Mguerra (talk | contribs) (→‎Examples)

After reading this primer on one of the many uses of 了 (le), you will have gotten a good grasp on how to express the duration of something.

Basic expression


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.


  • 他 学 了 一 年 中文。Tā xué le yī nián Zhōngwén. He studied Chinese for one year.
  • 我 看 了 一 个 晚上 书。Wǒ kàn le yī gè wǎnshang shū. I had been reading books all evening.
  • 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.
  • 妈妈 看 了 一 天 电视。Lǎobǎn gēn kèhù kāi le yī tiān huì. Mom watched TV all day.
  • 我们 坐 了 十 五 个 小时 飞机 去 美国。Wǒmen zuò le shí wǔ ge xiǎoshí fēijī qù Měiguó. We took a fifteen hour flight to the United States.

To express completed definitely


Note that the pattern above 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 completed, 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.


  • 你 刚才 上 了 半 个 小时 厕所。 Nǐ gāngcái shàng le bàn ge xiǎoshí cèsuǒ. You just went to the bathroom for half an hour.
  • 他 今天 上 了一天 网。 Tā jīntiān shàng le yītiān wǎng. He went online all day today.
  • 今天 晚上 我 加 了 两个 小时 班。Jīntiān wǎnshang wǒ jāi le liǎng ge xiǎoshí bān. I worked two extra hours toninght.
  • 上 个 周末 我 和 老公 开 了 三 个 小时 车 回 老家。Shàng ge zhōumò wǒ hé lǎogōng kāi le sān ge xiǎoshí chē huí lǎojiā. My husband and I drove back home for three hours last weekend.
  • 昨天 爸爸 跟 妈妈 吵 了 一 晚上 架。Zuótiān bàba gēn māma chǎo le yī wǎnshang jià. Dad was quarreling with mom all evening yesterday.

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

See also

Sources and further reading