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]!
我太困了 (Wǒ tài kùn le – I’m too tired)
你的头太大了 (Nǐ de tóu tài dà le – Your head is too big)
你的普通话好极了 (Nǐ de pǔ tōng huà hǎo jí le – Your Mandarin is extremely good)
热死了 (Rè sǐ le – It’s extremely hot)
阳朔的风景可漂亮了 (Yáng shuò de fēng jǐng kě piào liang le – Yangshuo’s scenery is very beautiful)
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 When a state changes to be no longer in effect, we use “no longer” or “not…anymore.”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.
下雨了 (Xià yǔ le – It’s raining now)
他是经理了 (Tā shì jīng lǐ le – He’s a manager now)
她会说话了 (Tā huì shuō huà le – She can talk now)
他们不住在这里了 (Tā men bú zhù zài zhè lǐ le – They don’t live here anymore)
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)
我吃了三个苹果 (Wǒ chī le sān ge píng guǒ – I ate 3 apples)
我吃了最后一个苹果以后，我会再买四个 (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.
我中文学了四年 (Wǒ zhōng wén xué le sì nián – I studied Chinese for 4 years)
我中文学了四年了 (Wǒ zhōng wén xué le sì nián le – I have been studying Chinese for 4 years)
我这件T恤穿了两天 (Wǒ zhè jiàn T xù chuān le liǎng tiān – I wore this t-shirt for 2 days)
我这件T恤穿了两天了 (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, you don’t pronounce this 了 as “le”. And yes, we hate that as much as you do. This is “liǎo”. You use this after a verb to tell whether an action is or isn’t possible. You can use it with 得 for “can” and 不 for “can’t”, like this:
Verb + 得了 = can (verb)
Verb + 不了 = can’t (verb)
你做得了 (Nǐ zuò de liǎo – You can do it)
我受不了 (Wǒ shòu bu liǎo – I can’t stand it)
你吃得了这么多吗? (Nǐ chī de liǎo zhè me duō ma？- Can you eat this much?)
我喝不了那么多 (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. Go out and spread the 了！Because remember…. all you need is 了.
Live, laugh, 了.
Ok, I’ll stop.
Also, if you’re considering studying Chinese in China, make sure you find the right Chinese language school for you! Check out our guide to Mandarin schools.
For more Chinese learning resources, follow us on Instagram.