Chinese le grammar summary (了)
了 le grammar can be one of the trickiest aspects of learning Chinese, right the way up to intermediate level. This particle is extremely common in Chinese, and that’s why learning its grammar can be so tricky. The first thing to remember is that 了 actually has many distinct uses, so it makes sense to try and separate these and understand them individually.
Here is one way to categorize Chinese le grammar, in the order that learners would most likely to want to study them:
- 了 (le) in set structures
- 了 (le) used to mark change of state
- 了 (le) as an aspect marker
- When 了 isn’t le at all
You might not immediately understand exactly what the last three items mean, but fear not, as we’re going to explain them clearly and concisely below! This article is intended as a concise summary that covers the entirety of le grammar in one page. More detailed explanations of each 了 usage are also linked above.
了 le grammar #1: Set structures
The most basic use of the 了 (le) particle is in specific set structures. We think that the easiest way for learners to understand these is as set vocabulary items that just are, rather than trying to do any deeper analysis.
There are endless examples of these words / patterns, but the most common include:
- 太 [adjective] 了
- [adjective] 极了
- [adjective] 死了
- 可 [adjective] 了
All of these set patterns can be used to intensify or strengthen the adjective used. That is, these le grammar structures emphasize the adjective used in them. The “太 [adjective] 了” structure is also used to express an excess of something. Also note that the 极了 structure is only used with positive adjectives, and the 死了 structure is only used with negative adjectives.
We won’t go into more detail than that here, as this page is just a summary of le grammar. Here are some quick examples of these structures in action:
Notice how the English translations of these structures can vary massively. In language learning, it’s always important to remember that grammatical patterns rarely match up exactly with those in another language. In other words, translations of the same structure will often be different.
Because of that, we think it’s better to focus on understanding the function of a structure rather than any set translations or meanings for it.
了 le grammar #2: Change of state
Now we’re on to the slightly trickier le grammar! This kind of 了 is used to indicate a new situation or change of state. Because it is only used at the end of a sentence, it is also called sentence final 了 or just sentence 了. It’s technically referred to as modal 了 as well.
Change of state 了 is used to draw attention to the fact that the situation is now different compared to before. The state of something has changed. In English, this might be expressed with “now”, or “it is now the case” that if we wanted to really emphasize it.
Have a look at these example sentences for change of state 了:
Notice how English marks a negative change of state (i.e. something is no longer the case) with the word “anymore”. In Chinese, any change of state can be marked with 了.
了 le grammar #3: Aspect marker
This kind of 了 is also called completed action 了. More technically, it’s called perfective aspect 了. This means that it marks an action as complete. It is also called verb 了 as it appears right next to the verb in a sentence.
This “aspect 了” (or verb 了) is used to indicate that an action is complete within the time frame we’re talking about. That could be in the past, present or future. Remember that aspect 了 has nothing to do with tense. It’s about the completeness of an action, not when it happened.
Let’s have a look at a few examples to make this clearer:
Hopefully these example sentences make it clear that verb 了isn’t about tense, but the completeness of an action. In each example the action is complete but the tense is different. The cars have been stolen. The speaker is already in the city. The cars will have been sold in the time frame the speaker is talking about.
When two kinds of le grammar appear together
If you’re on the ball and you’ve had a lot of coffee today, you might be wondering what happens if a sentence has both a verb 了 and a sentence 了. This actually happens quite a lot.
Such a sentence expresses both completed action and change of state. So it means something like “it is now the case that this has been completed”. It most commonly expresses what has been completed “up to now” or “so far”.
Here are some examples of double 了 sentences. Note that these sentences nearly always include 已经 (already) to show what’s been done up till now:
Now you might be wondering what happens if there’s a verb 了 at the end of a sentence that also needs a sentence 了. Can you put two 了s in the same place? The answer is that the two 了s just combine into one.
In this case, it may not be totally clear whether it’s a combined 了 or just one. Either way, the meaning will come from context.
Some examples for this combined double 了:
Even for native speakers, it’s pretty difficult to explain the difference between the English sentences above. But not to worry - they’re the same in Chinese, so you don’t have to think about it!
了 le grammar #4: liǎo
Now we come to one final kind of 了 that isn’t pronounced le. It’s pronounced liǎo. This kind of 了 is completely and utterly different to the ones above. If you look up this liǎo 了 in a dictionary, you will that it means “finish” or “complete”.
It is not a particle like the le 了, but a verbal complement. This means that it’s attached to verbs to give more information about the action. Liǎo 了 is used to indicate the potential for an action to be successful. That is, it indicates whether the action can or can’t be done.
To do this, it’s combined with either 得 (can) or 不 (can’t). So 得了 after a verb means that the action can be done, whilst 不了 means that it can’t. Here are some examples:
这么多饭 - 你吃得了吗？
Hopefully you can see how 得了 and 不了 work as neat little units that are placed after verbs to indicate their potential.
When le grammar and liǎo grammar work together
Note that liǎo 了 can also appear together with sentence 了. This indicates that an action can now be done, or cannot be done anymore. In this pattern, the two 了s will appear side by side: 了了. If you see this, you know that it must be pronounced “liǎo le”.
Here are some examples:
Chinese le grammar super short summary
And now a very, very short summary of le grammar:
- 了 in set structures. These are best seen as fixed vocabulary items.
- 了 to mark change of state:
- Expresses “it is now the case that…”
- Expresses “it is no longer the case that … anymore”
- Also called sentence 了 as it goes at the end of the sentence.
- 了 as an aspect marker:
- Indicates that an action is complete.
- Does not mark tense: used in past, present and future.
- Also called verb 了 as it appears with the verb.
- Sentence 了 and verb 了in the same sentence:
- Expresses what has been completed up till now, or so far.
- Can ‘overlap’ each other at the end of a sentence as just one 了.
- 了 pronounced liǎo:
- Completely different to the kinds of 了 described above.
- Used with 得 or 不 as a part of a potential complement for verbs.
- Indicates whether or not an action can happen.
- Can appear together with sentence 了.
That rounds off this concise summary of _le_ grammar. If anything is unclear or you can suggest some improvements for the article, please leave a comment below!
- Uses of “le” - Chinese Grammar Wiki
- Modal Particle Le - Yale
- Perfective Le Versus The Modal Particle Le - Yale
Other articles about 了
More A2 articles
- Using 了 (le) and 过 (guò) in Chinese grammar A2
- Five uses of 要 (yào) in Chinese grammar A2
- 以前 (yǐqián) and 以后 (yǐhòu) in Chinese grammar: before and after, past and future A2