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le

As Chinese has no past-tense form for verbs, can act, of sorts, as a substitute. However, instead of explicitly saying, “this verb is past tense,” it says, “this is a completed action.” This might seem like a trivial distinction, but it’s important when entering the nuanced world of . Let’s take a look at some of those, from most common (and easiest!) to some more obscure, baffling ones.

Primary uses of

Completed actions

verb +

When used to state that an action has been completed, the generally comes directly after the action.

昨天 壽司
Wǒ zuótiān chī le shòusī.
I ate sushi yesterday.
打破 你的 花瓶
Wǒ dǎpò le nǐde huāpíng.
I broke your vase.

Since  indicates a completed action, it can also refer to actions that will be completed in the future - not just the past! This is useful when talking about a sequence of things that will happen.

明天 午飯 醫院
Wǒ míngtiān chī le wǔfàn hòu, yào qù yīyuàn.
I need to go to the hospital tomorrow after eating lunch.
來到 時候 已經
Tā láidào de shíhòu wǒ yǐjīng è sǐ le
I will have starved to death by the time he gets here.

Changes of state

verb +

Just as an action being completed is one particular change of state (uncompleted to completed),  can also indicate and emphasize other changes of state. In these cases,  generally comes at the end of the sentence or clause but will sometimes come right after the verb, too.

Wǒ cháng gāo le.
I've grown tall.

I used to be a shorty.

妹妹 現在
Wǒ mèimèi xiànzài chī ròu le
My sister eats meat now.

She used to be a vegetarian.

喜歡
Wǒ xǐhuān nǐ le.
I've fallen for you.

This indicates that I didn’t like you before (sorry), but, hey, I do now!

Indicates something is soon to happen.

+ verb/adjective +

When paired with ,  can indicate that an action or change is about to happen.

Wǒ kuài fēng le!
I'm about to lose my mind!
Wǒ kuài è sǐ le!
I'm about to lose my mind!
Wǒ kuài zǒu le.
I'm about to leave.

Intensifying

 + adjective +  + adjective + adjective +

 can pair with certain intensifiers to indicate excess.

天氣
Tiānqì tài rè le!
The weather's too hot!
我的 感冒 現在
Wǒde gǎnmào xiànzài hǎo duō le.
My cold is much better now.
怎麼 那麼 愚昧
Nǐ zěnme nàme yúmèi? Nǐ zhēn kě xiào le!
How can you be so ignorant? You're really ridiculous!

Tone softening

Command +

Incredibly,  can also be used to tone down a command, much like the particle . If we want to sound less forceful when making a command, we can add  to the end.

Bié xiào wǒ le.
Don't laugh at me, please.
說話
Bié zài shuōhuà le.
Please stop talking.
大家
Dàjiā dōu tīng hǎo le.
Everyone, please listen.

Double  for emphasis

verb +  + Object +

If you see twice in one clause, it’s generally either for emphasis, expressing duration (see next section), or both.

已經 功課 現在 可以 出去
Wǒ yǐjīng zuòhǎo le gōngkè le , wǒ xiànzài kěyǐ chūqù ma?
I’ve already finished my homework. Can I go out now?
不要
Tā hē le shí bēi le , bùyào zài bī tā hē le!
She has already drunk 10 glasses; don't force her to drink more!

Duration

verb + + duration  verb +  + duration +  direct object

As mentioned,  indicates a completed action when placed directly after a verb. If you want to say how long that action had been going, add a period of time after .

剛才 小時 好像 錯過 機會 你們 早餐
Wǒ gāngcái shuì liǎo shí ge xiǎoshí! Hǎoxiàng cuòguò jīhuì gēn nǐmén chī zǎocān.
I just slept for ten hours! I guess I missed the chance to join you for breakfast.
禮拜日 我的 兒子 小時 電子遊戲
Lǐbàirì, wǒde érzǐ wán le bā ge xiǎoshí de diànzǐyóuxì.
Sunday, my son played video games for eight hours.

Note that in the above examples, the actions have definitely ended. You can add a second 了 after the period of time to specify that the action is still ongoing.

verb + + duration +  verb +  + duration +  direct object +

已經 小時 怎麼 睡醒
Tā yǐjīng shuì le shí ge xiǎoshí le! tā zěnme hai méi shuìxǐng?
He’s already been asleep for ten hours! How has he not woken up yet?
洗手間 小時 什麼 時候 出來
Nǐ zài xǐshǒujiān lǐ kū le bàn ge xiǎoshí le! shénme shíhòu yào chūlái?
You’ve been crying in the bathroom for half an hour. When are you going to come out?

Note that duration, whether with one or two, can be measured in things other than time, take the example from above:

Tā hē le shí bēi le!
She has already drunk 10 glasses!

We’re measuring duration with number of glasses drunk. She’s already had ten glasses. She’s plastered. And the final  shows that she has no intention of stopping unless acted on by an outside force.

Ability or lack thereof

verb + 得了 verb + 不了

In some cases,  even has a different pronunciation: liǎo. This is mostly when placed after  or  to show whether an action is able to be completed 得了 or unable to be completed 不了.

今天 工作 得了
There's a lot of work today. Can you handle it?
已經 穿 睡衣 肯定 不了
Wǒ yǐjīng chuān le shuìyī, wǒ kěndìng qù bùliǎo!
I’ve already put on my pajamas. There’s no way I can go!