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Grammar #4: 了


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Well, first off, there are two different 了's you have to worry about.

Verb 了: occurs after a verb; a perfective aspect marker that normally indicates an event in a past time reference. For instance: 我吃了飯 = I ate.

It can be used to express a period of time up to and including the present: 我學了三年中文 = I studied Chinese for three years [up until now]. (If you used 過 instead of 了, it would indicate that you studied Chinese a long time ago.)

However, 了 should not be equated with past tense, and should be regarded as a marker that indicates an event that happens relatively in the past of the sentence's time reference. For instance, it may refer to an anticipated completion of a future event: 我吃了飯以後就回家 = After I finish eating, I'll go home.

Sentence 了: occurs at the end of a sentence; a modal particle that usually indicates a new state exists. Unlike the verb 了, it generally introduces a relevant situation rather than state an objective fact. For instance: 我吃飯了 = I have eaten. (Contrast with 我吃了飯, which is "I ate.")

Both types of 了's may be used at the same time in a sentence. Generally doing so indicates that an event has happened and continues to happen. For instance: 我學了三年中文了 = I studied Chinese for three years [and continue to do so].

There are more nuanced uses of 了 that I haven't gone over here... perhaps other members can contribute.

I did find an old post from Altair that gives a pretty good explanation:

Verbal "le" is used to sequence verbs within the context of a narration. It is used to express what happened and in what order. The occurrence must have enough detail and specificity to make sequencing relevant. It is as if you are verbally relating the things able to be captured by a movie camera; whereas the "shi.....de" construction would be commentary on what the film would show.

Sentence "le" is used to indicate that the statement ahead of it characterizes a specific situation relevant to the context of the communication. It does not describe an objective fact' date=' but rather relates a fact to a given situation understood between the speaker and the listener. It allows you to break up occurrence into stages and to limit comments to a particular stage within an assumed process.

Verbal "le" and sentence "le" are always combined into one "le" when they would otherwise occur side by side. The use of the "shi....de" construction is incompatible with the "le" constructions, but the "le" constructions can combine in the same phrase. The "le" constructions can also indirectly convey almost the same meaning in many structural contexts, but their basic purpose remains distinct.[/quote']

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I want to add to what Claw's said but time doesn't permit (trying to finish an end-year report!), so just a repeat of a simple reply I posted sometimes ago:

You use了 in the sentense to indicate the completeness of an action or a change of state:

他来了吗?(Has he come yet?)

他不学中文了。(He doesn't learn Chinese anymore.)

我吃饭了。(I've eaten.)

Please note that the sentence-final 了 is a bit different from the mid-sentence 了 which Claw has already given some examples of.

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I understand what you're saying (similar to what I said above) but I think Claw is dead right with his explanation for this particular sentence: 我學了三年中文了.

In this sentence, the middle 了 indicates the completion of "three years" and the final 了 indicates the continuation of the "studying".

(Strictly speaking, the final 了doesn't commit into whether the "studying" is finished or not but by the presence of the middle 了, the final 了indicates the continuation by implication.)

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Could you

For instance: 我吃飯了 = I have eaten. (Contrast with 我吃了飯, which is "I ate.")

Could you confirm that this sentence is acceptable? I had thought that 我吃了飯 was acceptable only in the meaning "I ate the food" and not as "I ate." If my wife wanted to ask me what I did while she was away and I wanted to say that I ate (rather than watching TV, etc.), what would be the best way to express this?

I had thought that the required answer would be 我吃飯了. In this case, I think that the 了 indicates that the sentence is meant to characterize what is relevant about the entire evening thus far in the conversation. I think one could also say 我吃了飯了 or 我吃了一顿飯. I think the first might suggest that the meal was one event among a serious of things. I think the second gives a sense of going through a meal from beginning to end. Cannot anyone comment on this?

To say: "I have eaten," I think one can also say 我吃过反(了), which stresses simply that the eating has occurred at some indefinite time in the past.

How would one say: "I would love to have dinner with you, but I have already eaten."?

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在“我吃过饭了(I have eaten)”中,“了”一般不能被省略。

"I would love to have dinner with you, but I have already eaten.":“我很愿意和你共进晚餐,但我已经吃过了。”

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  • 3 weeks later...

I have very little fluency in Chinese, but have read a lot about Chinese grammar and know a fair amount about linguistics. Below is my attempt to describe one of three uses of 了, which I am calling Verb 了. The other two uses are what I am calling Sentence 了 and 了 pronounced as liao3.

There are two very common types of 了: Verb 了 and Sentence 了. Verb 了 must appear immediately after the verb. Sentence 了 must appear at the end of the sentence, except that it may be followed by sentence particles, like 吗. When a verb appears at the end of a sentence, followed by 了, the 了 may be interpreted as Verb 了, or Sentence 了, or a combination of both.

Verb 了 and Sentence 了 appear to be reduced forms of the verb 了 (liao3), which means "to finish"; however, many other Chinese dialects use separate words for these two functions, leading some linguists to believe that Verb 了 and Sentence 了 are not etymologically related.

In most langagues, verbs can be modified for tense, e.g., present, past, and future tense. Tense is generally determined by an objective time frame. It is a major feature of practically all European languages, but is virtually immaterial in Chinese grammar. In Chinese, tense is indicated by time adverbs or implied by other features of the sentence.

In most, if not all languages, verbs can also be modified for something called "aspect." This is a concept generally unfamiliar to non-linguists and often inaccurately classified under the concept of tense. The term "aspect" refers to the fact that the speaker may modify a verb to indicate that he or she is referring to some aspect or phase of an action or state. In English, the word "wrote" and the phrase "was writing" differ according to "aspect," but not according to "tense." They can always be used with reference to the same objective action; however, they do not refer to the same aspect of the action. Someone learning English cannot adequately learn to distinguish between these expressions by looking for objective facts that distiniguish them, but rather must look for which objective facts would make a speaker choose to refer to one aspect or the other of the action. Sometimes the choice is free. At other times, the "choice" is compulsory because of the presence of other functional elements in the sentence. To a native speaker, the choice will never seem a merely formal one, but something determined by a difference in the meaning he or she wishes to express.

In Chinese, Verb 了 indicates aspect, but does not indicate tense. Its basic function is to place an action in a sequence, usually as part of a narration or recounting of events that are perceived as discrete in time. Its basic meaning is that it refers to the actual endpoint of the verb for some purpose. This is often loosely referred to as describing "completed action"; however, this is arguably not really accurate. Verb 了 often connotes "completeness" because the endpoint must always be related to some other fact that is functionally explicit in the sentence. In other words, you must be saying that the action or state is complete with respect to something else. Verb 了 is definitely not an indicator of tense, because it can occur in sentences and phrases that describe the "past," "present," and "future."

One important constraint in using Verb 了 is that the sentence must explicitly indicate why referring to the actual endpoint of the action or state is relevant. This is why its use is not comparable to the simple past tense or perferct tenses of Germanic, Romance, or Slavic Languages. In essence, Verb 了 does not indicate that an action has ended, but rather that some other aspect of the sentence indicates how or when it ended. What can qualify as this "other aspect" varies from verb to verb and sentence to sentence, which means one must understand the use of Verb 了 over a range of situations and recognize that its use is dictated by a continuum of factors.

For a very limited number of verbs, the concept of "endpoint" is inherent, and the verb is generally accompanied by Verb 了, unless the verb is used to project or conjecture about reality or to evaluate something. The use of 死 is an example of this. As I understand it, a sentence like: 牛死 is incomplete without the 了. Another such verb is 忘. Such verbs are partially, but not completely predictable by their nature. "To die" usually implies an endpoint; however, in English one can say: "the ox is dying" without including the endpoint; whereas, as I understand it, one cannot say in Chinese: “牛在死,” since 死 always includes the endpoint. In Chinese, one is either 死 or not 死 and cannot be in the process of being 死. A flavor of this can be seen by examining why a sentence like "the ox is becoming dead" sounds awkward in English, while "the ox is becoming tired" is okay.

A common situation that makes use of Verb 了 appropriate is when there is something that "measures" the actual quantity of the verb. Since it must be the actual output of the verb, present tense and future tense phrases are excluded. This is one of the reasons why Verb 了 is often incorrectly described as a "past tense" particle. The measurement of the verb is usually given by a noun object that is modified by a number or a number and a measure word. E.g., 我吃了一顿饭。 Here, the 了 tells the listener that the number phrase measures the actual output of the verb up to its endpoint.

Instead of a number phrase, a noun like 饭 can also be modified by almost any phrase that individualizes the noun, such as 很多 or 那顿. No matter what the case, the noun phrase indicates that a limited or specific amount of the verb was actually performed as of the endpoint.

Another use of Verb 了 is to mark off one verbal element as happening before another verbal element. This use can take place in the past, present, or future, althought the use in present and future sentences seems generally limited to situations where Verb 了 marks off different phrases. In this use, Verb 了 gives a sense of "after..." or "once..." to the phrase, because it indicates that the endpoint of the verb is reached before something else takes place.

Here are a list of examples that are based on sentences in my grammar books. Hopefully, others can point out where my logic, conclusions, or grammar are wrong.

1. ***我吃了饭。(I ate.) This sounds like an incomplete sentence in Chinese, because the reasons for using Verb 了 are not specified in the sentence. Whether the action of eating was completed or not is irrelevant, the question is why the endpoint of the process is being referred to.

After further reading, I think that this sentence will be awkward regardless of whether one interprets 饭 as "food" or "the food." The normal way to translate "I ate." would be "我吃饭。", since this merely names the action that took place, rather than recounting an event.

2. 我在那家流行的饭馆吃(了)饭。 (I ate in that popular restaurant.) Here, a possible stress on the location can apparently be enough to change the function of the sentence from naming an action to recounting a specific event of limited extent. If there is no stress on the specific location, the 了 should be omitted.

3. 我从六点到七点半吃了饭。 (I ate from 6:00 to 7:30.) Here the sense of endpoint and narration is so strong that I think the 了 is required. If, however, the sentence refers to non-specific action, habitual action, or action projected into the future, the sense of narration or sequencing is often lost and the 了 is no longer used, e.g., 我从六点到七点半吃过饭 or 我要从六点到七点半吃了饭.

4. 我吃了饭就睡着。 ("Once I eat, I fall asleep." or perhaps "I ate and then fell asleep."). Here, 了 is required to indicate the sequencing and 就睡着 completes the meaning of the sentence.

5a. 我吃了一顿饭。 ("I had a meal.") Here, there is a sense of specific measurement and narration, making the 了 required. In 我明天会吃一顿饭 ("I will probably eat tomorrow"), the sense of narration and sequencing is lost, and the 了 cannot be used. In other words, the actual endpoint is not known, making 了 inappropriate.

5b. 我嘘(了)一口气. (I heaved a sighed.) Although this sentence is structurally the same as 5a, the sense of quantity and specificity is much weaker. From what one of my grammar books says, it would be usual to omit the 了, unless there is special emphasis on the fact that "I sighed" only once. Perhaps, it is like the difference between "I sighed" and "I gave a sigh."

6. 昨天牛死了。 (The ox died yesterday.) This shows no difference in tense from "I ate yesterday," but the two sentences receive different treatment in Chinese because of the issue of "endpoint." The concept of endpoint is inherent in 死, but not in 吃饭.

7. 他问我昨天晚上做(了)什么。 (She asked me what I did last night.) Here the .了 is possible after 做, but less usual. If the 了 is used, the speaker is asking for a specific narration,recounting, or listing of what occurred. Without the 了, the speaker is simply asking an open-ended question. Verb 了 is not used after 问 because this would imply an emphasis on the endpoint of the question rather than on the content of the question.

8a. 我把手表放在抽屉里。 (I put the watch in the drawer) Here, Verb 了 should not be used. 放 and 在 are both verbal elements. When Verb 了 appears between two verbal elements, its normal function is to separate them into a sequence, showing what happened first and then what happened next. In this sentence, the whole point is not to separate the two verbs, but to cast the second one as the logical result and endpoint of the first one. Putting 了 after 放 would imply that the endpoint of "putting" took place before the watch was in the drawer. For similar reasons, 了 is not usual in any of the following types of sentences.

8b. 我走到那个饭馆。 (I walked to the restaurant.)

8c. 我寄给他一封信。 (I mailed him a letter.)

8d. 我笑得站不起来。 (I laughed to the point that I could stand up.)

9a. 我去(了)北京。 (I went to Beijing) Here, 了 is possible, because "Beijing" is not a verbal element and cannot imply a different endpoint. Whether or not 了 is required depends on whether this sentence refers to the first event in an implied narration or merely explains what the nature of a particular activity was.

9b. 我去北京买一幅画。 (I went to Beijing to buy a painting.) Here, 了 is surprisingly not possible. Although "buying a picture" is the outcome of the trip, it is more than the mere endpoint. It is described as the purpose of the trip from the very first step, or even before. This is really like the sentences in 8.

10a. 我拿起来了手表。

10b. 我拿了手表起来。

10c. 我拿起手表来。

10d. 我把手表拿起来了。

As far as I understand, these sentences mean more or less the same thing, i.e., "I picked up the watch.". Sentence 10d. differs from the others in that it emphasizes the fate of the watch. The other sentences emphasize the action itself.

In 10a, 拿起来 is treated as a compound verb, allowing 了 to be added at the end. In 10b, 拿 is treated as the verb, and 起来 is treated as a directional complement. This case differs from sentence 9 above because the action of "picking" is perceived to occur before the direction is perceived. Even in a sentence like 车停了下来 ("The car came to a stop") , where the perception of the verb and its direction are arguably simultaneous, I think the structure is still perceived to be like 去了北京, rather than like 放在抽屉里.

In 10c, 了 should be omitted. Although it is possible to refer to the endpoint of "picking," there is no endpoint between the time the upward direction is perceived and the motion toward the speaker is perceived.

11a. ***我爬上(了)来(了)山。

11b. ***我爬了山上来。

11c. 我爬上山来。

11d. 我爬上了山。

(I climbed up the mountain.) The sentence order of modern Chinese generally requires much stricter observance of certain logical sequences than is mentioned in most of the grammar books. The elements of a sentence must generally appear in the same order that matches movement in time, space, and perception.

Sentence 11a is unacceptable because it implies that the action of coming toward the speaker (embedded in the meaning of 来) occurs before the mountain is encountered. The meaning of the sentence should not, however, be that the speaker arrives at the mountain after a process, but rather that climbing on the mountain proceeds in the direction of the speaker. This implies that 来 must follow 山.

Sentence 11b is unacceptable because it implies that the action of "climbing" involves manipulating and controlling mountains, rather than in engaging in an activity that proceeds on or to a mountain.

In Sentence 11c, 了 should be dropped so that it does not imply an endpoint between the directional components. Sentence 11d is an alternative way of expressing the same meaning, except that it does not make clear whether the motion proceeds towards or away from the point of focus. In summary, one can drop either the 了 or the 来/去 lai/qu.

12. 我今天晚上才到。 (I didn't arrive until this evening.) Here, 了 is omitted, because the emphasis is not on the endpoint, but rather on the fact that the action almost did not take place at all.

13a. 跑进来(了)一个孩子。

13b. 跑进了一个孩子来。

(A child came running in.) I think these sentences are interchangeable, but that the 了 is likely to be dropped from the first one because of reasons of rhythm. Modern Chinese seems to have a strong preference for disyllabic rhythms. Occasionally, the rhythmic choices in a sentence are so limited that it will affect the surface grammar. Yip and Rimmington layout many of the rules for this, but many more seem still to need some research.

Sentence 了 has many of the same features as Verb 了; but with Sentence 了, it is the entire sentence that marks some sort of endpoint, rather than the verb.

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Altair, I think you hit the explanation squarely on the head. I just wanted to add just one more comment to this:

Verb 了 and Sentence 了 appear to be reduced forms of the verb 了 (liao3), which means "to finish"; however, many other Chinese dialects use separate words for these two functions, leading some linguists to believe that Verb 了 and Sentence 了 are not etymologically related.

I was always under the impression that 了 was just chosen to represent /le/ when modern written Chinese was devised and there really is no etymological relationship between liao3 and both verb-le and sentence-le. To give one example of another dialect where this looks more obvious, in Cantonese, liao3 is liu5, verb-le is zo2, and sentence-le is laak3 (or laa3) -- liu5, zo2, and laak3/laa3 don't readily appear to be any way related.

BTW, I think you're right about 我吃了飯. On second thought, the sentence does seem awkward to me, and I get the urge to add another 了 at the end to make it sound better.

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  • 4 months later...

Sandra Thompson in her book "Mandarin Chinese- A Functional Reference Grammar" describes sentence le as indicating a currently relevant state, or CRS as she abbreviates it.

The whole book is very good by the way, and helped me a lot.

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Sandra Thompson in her book "Mandarin Chinese- A Functional Reference Grammar" describes sentence le as indicating a currently relevant state, or CRS[/color'] as she abbreviates it.

Oh man, did that throw me off. :D

(I hope that doesn't break rule #11) :oops:

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try to understand the '了' in the following sentence. :twisted:









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Claw, I missed your earlier reply until just now.

You may be interested in the following excerpt about 了 from the book Chinese by Jerry Norman. This is from page 123.

In this passage, Norman discusses what can be found by examining texts that represent the beginnings of the vernacular literature that led to Modern Chinese. The book is almost 20 years old and so is almost certainly superseded by more recent scholarship; nevertheless, I have found its contents to be extremely well presented and documented. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in a relatively brief, but scholarly, history of the Chinese language, including script, dialects, basic elements of Classical and Modern Chinese grammar and phonology, and the history of alphabetic writing and transcription systems. My only caution is that it would be quite dry for anyone not interested in linguistics.

I am going to make some slight alterations in the text to deal with my inability to reproduce accents and other annoyances; for instance, I have added some characters where Norman simply uses Pinyin.

"The most important development in the aspectual system between the period of Classical Chinese and the modern standard language was the appearance of the verbal suffixes le and zhe. In Classical Chinese perfected action was indicated by the use of the preverbal particle ji4 [既?]; this particle progressively came to be replaced by yi3 [已?] in the late Classical period and the Han dynasty. In the popular Buddist texts examined by Gurevich, although both of these preverbal perfective markers continue to be used, there is a clear tendency for yi3 to move to the end of the clause. Where the Classical language would have had 王既出 KING PERF GO-OUT 'after the king went out', the language of these early Buddhist sources may have 王出已 with the marker of completed action at the end. In the case of transitive verbs having objects, 已 follows the object; 王見賊已 KING SEE BANDIT PERF 'when the king saw the bandit'. This grammatical frame of V[erb] O[bject] PERF[ECTIVE MARKER] is found very commonly in Nanbeichao texts; in addition to 已, several other perfective markers, all derived from verbs meaning 'finish, come to an end', are found; the most important of these are bi4 [畢?], jing4 [竟?], and qi4 [棄??]. The popular Buddhist texts of the Tang dynasty (bian4 wen2) contain many examples of this construction; but in this period another perfective verb, liao3 (M[iddle] C[hinese] lieu:), progressively begins to oust the above-mentioned forms, so that the most common perfective construction in these texts eventually becomes V (O) liao3. [Here there is a footnote alerting to the difficulty in knowing whether 了 in these texts represents the stressed pronunciation "liao3" or the unstressed "le"] By the tenth century, cases of V liao3 O have begun to make an appearance. T. L. Mei (1981b) has suggested that this new word order was influenced by the movement of resultative and potential complements to a postverbal position at the same period; the tendency to place liao3 after the verb was also undoubtedly influenced by the fact that resultative complements by their very nature carry with them the notion of completed action. By the Song dynasty the modern construction of V liao3 (=le) O is firmly established in the written vernacular."

If this analysis is correct, which I cannot say, it suggests that Cantonese retained 了 for its use at the end of sentences, but used some other word meaning "finish" for the uses that now correspond to 咗 (zo2). According to my sources, Cantonese liu5 and laa3/laak3 are represented by essentially the same character, i.e. 了 . Their different sound could simply have resulted from change in stress or from borrowing from other dialects that would have been using 了 extensively at the end of a huge number of utterances. I think that "a" is the least distinctive vowel in Cantonese and corresponds to Mandarin "e." The lengthening to "aa," the addition of "k," and the variation in tones would simply represent expressive elements appropriate to the emotional coloring it can give to different sentences.

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For those folks, who found my earlier grammatical treatise too dense and technical, let me try another approach about post-Verb le. My grammatical understanding is way ahead of my actual skill in Chinese, but I am trying to bridge gaps and will plow ahead. If anyone catches any major errors or question any of my logic, please bring it up.

First, the "simple" 1-2-3 approach.

1. Do not put 了 (le) in any sentence simply because your are talking about the past. Some past sentences take it, but many do not. 是 (Shi4) is a wonderful example of a verb that never takes 了 and that makes clear that we are talking about distinctions that are different from what are made in European languages, all of which seem to have some form of the is/was distinction that exists in English.

2. When forming sentences about past actions or processes, do not yield to the temptation of asking whether or not something happened, came to an end, or was completed. The objective facts of what occurred are insufficient to guide your choice.

3. Ask yourself whether there is a clear demarcation in the phrasing in the progression between one state of the action or process to another. If there is, put 了 (le) after the verb. If not, leave it out. The words, "demarcation," "phrasing," and "progression" are each important to note.

To flesh this out, let's examine the subtlies of this with the minimal pairs "I ate yesterday" and "I ate a lot yesterday." Imagine that you have told your mother that you ate yesterday and are now showing her a video of yesterday's activities to prove your point. As you show the video, you can give an accompanying narrative of what it shows, describing everything in the present tense. For example, "Here is me doing XYZ. Here is the rain coming down." Note that you are using present tense forms to describe the past. This is essentially the stance that Chinese takes all the time.

Now imagine the movie shows you eating a pie. You say: "Here is me eating yesterday" or "Here is me eating a lot yesterday." Does the image on the video confirm that you ate yesterday? Yes. Does it confirm that you ate a lot yesterday? Not yet. The difference is progression.

The first statement is instantly confirmed at the first bite. Although an event occurs, the importance of demarcation between a state before and a state after is trivial. Chinese would not use verb 了 in this situation. The second statement requires examining the progression of the eating and a judgment about when enough pie is consumed to qualify as "a lot." Here, the demarcation or endpoint of the relevant inquiry is key to what is being communicated. Chinese requires verb 了 in this situation. Again, note that phrasing, demarcation, and progression all matter.

To test whether this makes sense to you, consider the statement "I ate some eggs yesterday." Should you use 了 or not?

It depends on the phrasing in Chinese. If the statement is meant to convey that any amount of egg was significant, no 了 would be used and nothing would modify 鸡蛋 (ji1 dan4, "eggs"). Its eggs or nothing. If the amount of egg was significant, something would be added like, 几个 (ji ge, "some" a "few") or yi4 xie1 (一些) before 鸡蛋 and 了 would generally be necessary. The addition of the element of quantity introduces an element of progression and demarcation that is important to the statement. One egg does not do, only some eggs are relevant.

Is the idea of "completion" important? Not exactly. Whether or not you consumed all the eggs or all of one egg really does not matter. Nor does it matter whether your meal reached a natural conclusion. The issue is the need to express demarcation within a progression.

Let's look at one more set of examples, since they may at first seem hard to relate to what I have fleshed out. If you say: "I went to the store yesterday," do you need 了 after the verb?

It depends. Clearly going to the store can be an involved process and a "progression" of activities, but is this sentence phrased to describe such a progression? It is actually ambiguous in English or Chinese, since not enough information is given in the statement to decide. Here we must examine the speech context. Let's run our video.

How much of the video do I have to run to prove I went to the store. The answer is probably one second. If this is the reason I made the statement, i.e., to name the activity I engaged in, no 了 would be used. Progression and demarcation are unimportant. But consider a different reason. Suppose what I am about to say is that I went to the store and bought an apple. Here I have to show you a progression in the video from one thing to another. One second will not do, since I have to show you enough to be able to demarcate when one action turned into the other. There is a progression between two processes with a demarcation in the middle.

Now the "kicker." If you say: "I went to the store yesterday to buy an apple," do you use 了?

The answer is no. Run your video. Suppose you got to the store and they were out of apples. Your statement is true, but there is no way to show it. We know you went to the store, but how do we show you had originally intended to buy apples? Suppose you did buy an apple. A one-second video clip of you in front of the cashier would prove this, but it would not prove that that is why you went to the store. Maybe you went to buy a banana and they were fresh out, so you settled for a banana. Here there is no demarcation of a before and after. Note that saying: "I went to the store and bought an apple" and "I went to the store to buy an apple" yield different results.

Since I know everyone likes simple rules, let me give a few. I put these at the end because they all have exceptions and are actually somewhat incorrect. This is the minimalist approach that most grammars take. They try to give you enough to go on and let familiarity with the language sort the details out later. I list these rules because they might ease frustration for some and will at least apply to 95 percent of the situations. For the remaining 5 percent, which mainly apply to Rules 3, 4 and 5, you just have to grapple with what I have put above.

1. Verb 了 and Sentence 了 are different, although they must combine into one if they otherwise would appear together after a verb that is at the end of a sentence. The rules for Sentence 了 are different from the ones for Verb 了. It is not true that there is one 了 and that the issue is deciding where to put it in the sentence.

2. If you are translating a future sentence, use 了 only if you can associate it with the meaning "after."

3. If you are translating a present-tense sentence, use 了 only if you can associate it with the English present perfect structure "have......----ed."

4. If you are translating a past tense, consider using 了 only if you are talking about an action, activity, or process. Then make your decision as follows:

4a. Use 了 if your statement is part of a sequence expressed or intended to be expressed in the overall speech context.

4b. Use 了 if you are talking about a specified amount of action, activity, or process.

5. If you feel desperate that what you need to say happened in the past and that the Chinese will be too ambiguous, just add in appropriate adverb. Don't just add in 了.

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Just to add to the confusion, have I given myself bad habits or found useful workarounds by setting time and place then putting 了 after the verb. I learned chinese "the hard way" and never had formal training before going. A friend told me that proper grammar always follows "time, place, action" then you can bend the rules a bit after that.




3. 回家后上桌子放了我的钱抱和钥匙

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One difficulty in analyzing these issues is that they can be quite dependent on speech context. Another one is that because of the nature of modern Chinese, there are many possible structures that are apparently perceived of as awkward, but not necessarily ungrammatical or impossible.

An example in English would be saying something like "The sky was seen by me yesterday." There is nothing technically wrong with this sentence according to traditional grammatical analysis, but linguists now understand that languages also operate at deeper levels. In fact, there really are rules in English that make my sample sentence too awkward for use and therefore "ungrammatical."

I am not confident enough in my Chinese to label your sentences good or bad with any real authority, perhaps someone else can help out with that. What I can do is explain what I understand to be the grammatical import of how you have phrased them and give you my inexpert opinion of what they probably "mean."

I have gone way out ahead of my functional ability because I think I have good grammatical materials and because native speakers generally have no use for the type of grammatical knowledge important for learners. Much of Chinese grammar accomplishes things indirectly in ways that are heard to describe compactly or are highly dependent on context. An example is that Chinese very quite frequently distinguishes between definite nouns and indefinite nouns and between singular nouns and plural nouns, but does this in quite complex ways.


I think this is well formed, except that it is two separate sentences. The meaning I get is: "I am not hungry. I just ate." The 了 is not within what I treated in my earlier posts, since it is "sentence 了," not "verb 了. I think it probably can be omitted, depending on the exact nuance intended. My guess that omitting it is more neutral and usual. Again, perhaps people with better skills than mine can comment.

What I can also add is that the past tense here is indicated by 刚刚, not by the 了.


I think this sentence is probably well formed, but is probably not the intended one. I understand it as meaning something like "(After all this hassle/concern/interest) I visited Hangzhou yesterday (prior to these other things that happened.). Basically the 了 at the end implies that there was something in the air that the trip resolved. To merely report what you did yesterday, I think you would simply say 我昨天参观杭州. To report that this event as the start of a series of things that happened yesterday, you would probably say 我昨天参观了杭州. Here the verb了 sets up the expectation of a sequence and the beginning of a narration.

3. 回家后上桌子放了我的钱[包]和钥匙

I have problems with this sentence, but think you mean: "After returning home, I sat at the table and put my purse/wallet and keys down."

I think that 回家后 is okay, because 了 is often omitted in the presence of 后. 上桌子 is a second action that needs to be appropriately related to the the third one. If the meaning is a sequence of three actions, then I think it must be 上了桌子 or reworded with 后. 放 generally needs a location expression after it that will supersede 了, although apparently speakers accept the presence of both. Here you have not indicated where your purse or wallet ends up.

I am not sure of the best way to convey the intended meaning because of the gaps in my functional Chinese, but here is a guess: 回家后上了桌子把我的钱包和钥匙放下去了. The last 了 is probably not necessary, but helps establish if I have finished setting the scene of what is important to the conversation at that point.

As for the idea of "time, place, and action" controlling grammar, I think that this really doesn't work in a practical sense. Human languages are far more diverse in their structures than is commonly realized and handle surface grammar in extraordinarily different ways. How these concepts are dealt with in English and Chinese are quite different. To speak Chinese well, it is probably worth the effort of understanding some of these differences.

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