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Chinese Grammar Hack: The Many Uses And Rules of “了 (Le)”

Oct. 12, 2018

HSK 3 quiz

Chinese grammar is famously simple. However, some grammatical aspects are still difficult for my Mandarin Chinese students. In this lesson, I will help you understand one of these tricky aspects that you are likely to see on tests such as the HSK. What’s so difficult about the particle “了 (le)”?

I often need to spend extra time teaching the many uses of the “了 (le)” to my classes. “了 (le)” is a frequently-used Chinese word and knowing its use is essential. When pronounced flat, like “le”, it is used as a grammatical particle and does not actually have any meaning, but it still plays a very important role in a sentence. The character “了 (le)” can be divided roughly into two usages, one as a dynamic auxiliary word and the other as a tone auxiliary word.

“了 (le)” is an essential part of Mandarin Chinese grammar. Let’s learn more today!

There are 3 main uses of “了 (le)”:

1. The completion of an event
A basic meaning of “了 (le)” is to indicate the completion of the event. It is not quite the same as the English past tense. In the English past tense, whether it is representative of modality or event, the past tense should be used as long as the event is in the past. However, the Chinese character “了 (le)” is used in past events instead of past modalities.

Tā yǐqián hěn tǎoyàn tā.
他以前很讨厌她。
He hated her in the past.

VS.
Tā chī wán le fàn. 
他吃完了饭。
He had a meal.

As we can see in the first sentence, “hated her” shows a state, not the completion of a specific activity. Therefore, we don’t use “了 (le)” after the verb, or at all in this first example.

As for the second example, we learn of an activity that has been done, so we use “了 (le).”

2. To describe a sequence of events
Secondly, “了 (le)” shows the sequence in which two actions occur.

Wǒ xǐ le zǎo jiù shàngchuáng shuìjiào le.
我洗了澡就上床睡觉了.
After taking a shower, I went to bed.

3. Thirdly, as a sign of major events
Often, a sentence contains more than one event. We can divide these events into main events and secondary events, so we only need to use “了 (le)” in the main event instead of using it again in the secondary event.

Tā rèxīn de bāng wǒ sǎo le dì.
她热心地帮我扫了地.
She helped me eagerly to sweep the floor.

Examples:

Tā cānjiā le zhècì huódòng.
他参加了这次活动。
He took part in this activity.

Tā xiě wán le zuòyè jiù qù wán diànnǎo le.
他写完了作业就去玩电脑了。
He finished his homework and then played on the computer.

Tā dǎdiànhuà gàosù wǒ, pài duì qǔxiāo le.
她打电话告诉我,派对取消了。
She called and said that the party has been canceled.

Keywords from today’s lesson:

了 (Le): to finish; a particle of completed action

讨厌 (Tǎoyàn): hate; to be disgusted with; disagreeable

热心 (Rèxīn): enthusiastic; warmhearted

参加 (Cānjiā): join; enter; participate

活动 (Huódòng): activity; maneuver; function

派对 (Pàiduì): party

So, now you know how to use the Chinese word “了 (le)” in its many different ways!

HSK 3 quiz
1. Which of the following is not correct according to the proper usages of “了(le)”?

A. Tā xiǎngniàn le tā de dàxué shēnghuó.
A. 她想念了她的大学生活。

B.Tā qù le dòngwùyuán.
B.他去了动物园。

C. Tā mǎi le yì tiáo wéijīn.
C.她买了一条围巾。

See Answer Analysis

―Written by Becky Zhang―
Becky Zhang is a teacher at eChineseLearning.com. She has over eight years of experience teaching Mandarin Chinese to foreign students and promoting Chinese culture. She lives in Beijing but loves traveling to ancient Chinese villages. One day she’d like to be a tour guide in China!

More Chinese Grammar You Want to Learn:
Basic Sentence Patterns in Chinese
Chinese Grammar: The Difference Between “得” “地” “的”
Chinese Grammar: “是 (shì)” Sentence (Beginner)

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