Chinese is quite challenging yet a fascinating language to learn. More people learn Chinese today as it helps in daily conversation or education. Well, it is getting popular now.
Today, before we dive into our topic, let’s have some fun.
“我吃了饭了。” Look at this sentence. Are you thinking why there are two “了” in one sentence? What are their meanings, are they the same? Will you confuse about their meaning? See, there are lots of questions in just a short sentence.
了（le）is one of the vital auxiliary words in Chinese. It can be one of the trickiest aspects of learning Chinese too. Why? It is because it is extremely common in Chinese.
This word is widely used in oral and written Chinese. There are many different uses to express grammatical features. Its uses also have many differences from English. Hence, foreign learners tend to make mistakes on how to use 了.
Let us have a deep dive into the basic usage of 了.
How to Use 了 in Chinese
The basic use of the 了 (le) particle is in specific set structures. The easiest way to understand 了 (le) is to know the vocabulary first, rather than doing any deeper analysis. Here are some common examples for 了(le) :
- 太 （adjective） 了
- 可 （adjective） 了
- （adjective） 极了
- （adjective） 死了
These set patterns are used to strengthen the adjective used. Let’s have some quick examples of these structures:
Structure 1: 太 （adjective） 了
The “太 （adjective） 了” structure expresses an excess of something.
- 太棒了! (tài bàng le!)
- 这个盒子太大了。(zhè ge hé zi tài dà le)
This box is too big.
Structure 2: 可 （adjective） 了
- 这个糖果可甜了！ （zhè ge táng guǒ kě tián le!)
This candy is so sweet!
- 我可难受了！（wǒ kě nán shòu le!)
I’m so sad!
Structure 3:（adjective） 极了
The 极了 structure is used on positive adjectives.
- 你的中文好极了！（nǐ de zhōng wén hǎo jí le!)
Your Chinese is excellent!
Structure 4: （adjective） 死了
The 死了 structure is often used with negative adjectives.
- 我们快要饿死了！（wǒ men kuài yào è sǐ le!)
Look! This is how the structures can be massive. Remember that grammatical patterns rarely match up precisely with other languages. That means translations of the same structure might be different.
So, it is crucial to focus on understanding the function of the structure rather than any set translations.
Change of State
Next, we are going on a slightly trickier 了 (le) grammar. It is used to indicate a new situation or change of state. So, it is only used at the end of a sentence. Furthermore, it is also called sentence-final.
了 （le) used on change of state is to draw attention to the fact that the situation is now different from before. It is like how we might express it with “now” in English.
Here are the example sentences for change of state 了:
- 他会走路了。（tā huì zǒu lù le.）
He can walk now.
- 她会用电脑了。(tā huì yòng diàn nǎo le.)
She can use a computer now.
- 他们不住在这里了。(tā men bù zhù zài zhè lǐ le.)
They don’t live here anymore.
English usually marks a negative state change with the word “anymore.” But in Chinese, you can mark any change of state with 了.
This kind 了 is called “completed action 了.” It’s also technically called the “perfective aspect 了.” This means that the action is complete. Sometimes, it is also called “verb 了” as it appears right next to the verb in a sentence.
This type of 了 is used to indicate that an action is complete within the time frame that we mention in the sentences. But, remember, the aspect 了 has nothing to do with tense. It’s just about the completeness of an action.
Here are a few examples to make this clearer:
- 昨天我买了三颗糖。（zuó tiān wǒ mǎi le sān kē táng.)
I bought three candies yesterday.
- 叔叔卖了三颗糖给我。(shū shu mài le sān kē táng gěi wǒ.)
Uncle sold me three candies.
Hopefully, these example sentences will make you clearer. “Verb 了” isn’t about tense; it is the completeness of an action.
When Two Kinds of 了 (le) Grammar Appear Together
What happens if a sentence has two 了? Actually, it happens quite a lot.
These sentences express both completed action and change of state. It means that something that is happening now is completed. It commonly describes what has been completed “up to now” or “so far.”
Here are some examples of double 了 in one sentence. These sentences include 已经 (already) to show what’s been done up till now:
- 他已经吃了八碗面条了！(tā yǐ jīng chī le bā wǎn miàn tiáo le!)
He ate eight bowls of noodles!
- 你已经花了太多钱了！(nǐ yǐ jīng huā le tài duō qián le!)
You’ve already spent too much money!
- 他们已经跑了两个小时步了。(tā men yǐ jīng pǎo le liǎng gè xiǎo shí bù le.)
They’ve been running for two hours.
Liǎo – 了
Next, we’ll come to the final kind of 了, which isn’t pronounced as “le.” It’s pronounced liǎo. This kind of 了 is entirely different from the ones we learn above. 了（ liǎo ）means “finish” or “complete.”
It is a verbal complement, unlike the particle 了（le）. 了（liǎo ） gives more information about the action. It is also used to indicate the potential for an action to be successful. Usually, it tells whether the action can or can’t be done.
了（liǎo ）is often combined with either 得 (can) or 不 (can’t). The action can be done when 得了 is placed after a verb. At the same time, 不了 means that it can’t.
Here are some examples for 了 (liǎo):
- 我做得了。(wǒ zuò dé liǎo.)
I can do it.
- 我受不了。(wǒ shòu bù liǎo.)
I can’t stand it.
- 我觉得他们来得了。(wǒ jué de tā men lái dé liǎo.)
I think they’ll be able to come.
- 这么多饭你吃得了吗？(zhè me duō fàn nǐ chī dé liǎo ma?)
There’s so much food, can you eat it all?
When le Grammar and liǎo Grammar Work Together
Do you know that liǎo 了 can also appear together with sentence 了? This will indicate whether an action can or can’t be done anymore. In this pattern, two 了 will appear side by side: 了了. Whenever you see this in a sentence, you will know that it must be pronounced: “liǎo le.”
Here are some examples for you:
- 我受不了了。(wǒ shòu bù liǎo le.)
I can’t stand it anymore.
- 我吃不了了。(wǒ chī bù liǎo le.)
I can’t eat anymore.
It is vital to learn 了 if you want to speak Chinese well. You’ll be using this word in most sentences when you communicate using Chinese daily.
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