The mother of all Newbie conundrums: 了
This is one of the simplest of all Chinese particles, one which you probably encountered in Chapter 1 of your textbook. However, after the initial “new word glow” wears off and you get deeper into its usage, you’ll start encountering all these confusing phrases like “resultative complement” and “modal particle”. When struggling how to correctly express yourself in basic Chinese, these confusing linguistic phrases aren’t much help.
Trying to navigate the dizzying array of forum posts and blog discussions on this humble two stroke character is enough to scare anyone away from this language and never look back. It can indicate either past or future tense? It is pronounced either le or liǎo? Who actually takes the time to learn this?
We do! While it will always be most effective to engage with authentic Chinese content, sentence mining, or getting out in the wild and practice with living humans, a simple English explanation of basic usage could do everyone some good. This isn’t meant to be an exhaustive, comprehensive study of 了, but rather a guide as you embark on your Chinese grammar journey (or need a brushing up)!
Here they are…the 4 most basic uses of 了. No nonsense!
1. After a verb or adjective, indicating completion
In its most basic incarnation, 了 is usually placed after a verb (or occasionally adjective) to indicate completion of an action, which usually indicates the past tense. Yet there are cases when it is used to indicate the expected completion of an action, in which case it is not necessarily past tense.
wǒ tīng le zhè shǒu gē
I’ve listened to this song
wǒ chī le fàn yǐ hòu yào chū qù
After I’m done eating, I want to go out
Ó, zhè ge wèn tí wǒ dǒng le
Oh, I understand this problem
xiàn jīn mǎi qì chē gèng guì le
Buying a car these days is even more expensive
2. End of sentence, indicating change of circumstance
Beyond signalling the completion of a specific verb, adding 了 to the end of a sentence shows a circumstance has changed, and a new state exists.
wǒ è le
I’m hungry (I wasn’t hungry before, but am now!)
tā zhōng yú lái le
He’s finally arrived
wǒ yǐ qián měi tiān kàn diàn shì, dàn shì xiàn zài máng le
Before I watched TV every day, but I’m too busy now
A truly wonderful grammar pattern absolutely worth mastering, 太…了 is a set pattern expressing an excessive amount or extent of an adjective or adverb. Learn this pattern, it will serve you well.
nǐ duì wǒ tài hǎo le
You are too good to me
zhè jiàn chèn yī tài guì le!
This shirt is way too expensive!
zhè xiē shù jù tài bù kào pǔ le
This data is not reliable at all
4. Able or unable
Finally, the major usage of 了 isn’t even pronounced le! When preceded by either 得 or 不, it is almost always pronounced “liǎo“. In the case of 不了, it indicates the inability or impossibility of completing the verb preceding it. In the case of 得了, it means to successfully complete or finish the task which preceded it, or the ability to complete it.
wǒ chī bù liǎo
I’m unable to eat this
wǒ méi zuò wán zuò yè, wǒ qù bù liǎo!
I haven’t finished my homework, I can’t go!
wǒ néng bàn dé liǎo
I’ll be able to do it
nǐ chī dé liǎo yī zhěng zhǐ jī ma?
You can eat an entire chicken?
1) 了 is NOT equivalent of past tense. It indicates the completion of an action or change of status, and can be used in any tense. It is not the English equivalent of the suffix -ed. Don’t confuse 了 with 过.
2) 了 is NOT always pronounced “le”. In cases preceded by either 不 or 得 (or in words meaning “to understand” like 了解), it is usually pronounced “liǎo”.
3) You’ll learn more by watching 10 minutes of FluentU videos than scouring the internet for detailed dissertations of small grammar points. Study accordingly.