It can be difficult for Western Chinese learners to understand how to use 了 as there isn’t an equivalent grammar particle in Latin-based languages. Before we dive into its uses, here’s an overview:
了 (le) in structures
了 (le) showing a change of state
了 (le) showing a completed action
了(liao) indicating whether or not an action can be done
了 in Structures
了 is found in very common grammar structures in Chinese. It shows up when adding degree to an adjective in the following structures:
太 [adjective] 了! = too [adjective]!
[adjective] 极了! = extremely [adjective]!
[adjective] 死了! = extremely [adjective]!
可 [adjective] 了! = very [adjective]!
Wǒ tài kùn le!
I’m too tired!
Nǐ de tóu tài dà le.
Your head is too big.
Nǐ de pǔ tōng huà hǎo jí le.
Your Mandarin is extremely good.
Rè sǐ le!
It’s extremely hot!
Yáng shuò de fēng jǐng kě piào liang le！
Yangshuo’s scenery is very beautiful!
了 Showing a Change of State
了 can express the change of one state to another. In English, we often express the beginning of a new state with the use of the word “now.” When a state changes to be no longer in effect, we use “no longer” or “not…anymore.” In the same way, we can use 了 or 不 …了.
Xià yǔ le。
It’s raining now.
Tā shì jīng lǐ le.
He’s a manager now.
Tā huì shuō huà le.
She can talk now.
Tā men bú zhù zài zhè lǐ le.
They don’t live here anymore.
了Showing a Completed Action
Many Chinese learners mistake this function of 了 as indicating past tense, but more accurately it shows the completion of an action. This is an important distinction, because an action’s completion can be discussed in the past or future tenses. This 了 is placed immediately after the verb.
昨天我买了四个苹果。 Zuó tiān wǒ mǎi le sì ge píng guǒ.
Yesterday I bought four apples.
Wǒ chī le sān ge píng guǒ.
I ate 3 apples.
Wǒ chī le zuì hòu yí ge píng guǒ yǐ hòu, wǒ huì zài mǎi sì ge
After I eat the last apple, I’ll buy four more.
Completed Action vs. Continuing Action
In English, I can say “I studied Chinese for 4 years.” This usually implies that I’ve studied for 4 years and now I’m finished studying.
If I’m still continuing to study, I might say “I have been studying Chinese for 4 years.” The “have been” implies that I have studied for 4 years and I’m still studying.
For a continuing action, we can see a 了 both immediately after the verb and at the end of the sentence.
Wǒ zhōng wén xué le sì nián。
I studied Chinese for 4 years.
Wǒ zhōng wén xué le sì nián le.
I have been studying Chinese for 4 years.
Wǒ zhè jiàn T xù chuān le liǎng tiān.
I wore this t-shirt for 2 days.
Wǒ zhè jiàn T xù chuān le liǎng tiān le.
I have been wearing this t-shirt for 2 days.
了(liǎo) Indicating Whether or Not an Action Can Be Done
Sorry, this 了 isn’t pronounced “le”. And yes, we hate that as much as you do. This is “liǎo”. It will be used after a verb to tell whether an action can or can’t be done. It will be used with 得 for “can” and 不 for “can’t”, like this:
Verb + 得了 = can (verb)
Verb + 不了 = can’t (verb)
Nǐ zuò de liǎo.
You can do it.
Wǒ shòu bu liǎo.
I can’t stand it.
Nǐ chī de liǎo zhè me duō ma？
Can you eat this much?
Wǒ hē bu liǎo nà me duō!
I can’t drink that much!
If you have read this far, you are now a master of 了.
Live, laugh, 了.
Ok, I’ll stop.
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