Attention! “了 le” does not indicate past tense

Regarding “了 le” as the indicator of past tense is a widespread conceptual mistake that many Chinese learners make. The trouble is that many Chinese teachers taught them so. 

At the first glance, “了 le” does seem to indicate a past event, such as “我昨天看了电影 wǒ zuó tiān kàn le diàn yǐng”, meaning “I watched a movie yesterday”, or “我今天早上去了健身中心 wǒ jīn tiān zǎo shang qù le jiàn shēn zhōng xīn”, meaning “I went to the gym this morning”. This seeming connection is where the problem starts. When students want to say “I was at home yesterday”, they say “我昨天在了家 wǒ zuó tiān zài le jiā”, or “Last year I lived in Hong Kong”, they say “去年我住了在香港 qù nián wǒ zhù le zài xiāng gǎng”. Both sentences are grammatically wrong. The fundamental reason is that “了 le” is not about past tense. In fact, Chinese does not have past tense. There are no tenses in Chinese.

The function of “了 le” is to indicate the action is completed or a change of status, including past, present and future.

For example:

我昨天看了电影。 wǒ zuó tiān kàn le diàn yǐng.
I watched a movie yesterday. The action “看 kàn” is completed in the past.

现在开始上课了。 xiàn zài kāi shǐ shàng kè le.
Now the class begins. The status is changed from the free time earlier to the class time now. 

你明天到了就给我打电话。 Nǐ míng tiān dào le jiù gěi wǒ dǎ diàn huà.
Call me when you get here tomorrow. The action “到 dào” is perceived to be completed in the future. 

你胖了。nǐ pàng le.
You have gained weight. The status is changed from a skinnier person before to a heavier person now.

In “sub + verb + object” structure, “了 le” can appear either right after the verb or at the end of a sentence.

For example:

我昨天看了电影。 wǒ zuó tiān kàn le diàn yǐng.

我昨天看电影了。 wǒ zuó tiān kàn diàn yǐng le.

When you only want to express a fact, not a change of status, do not use “了 le”.

For example:

I was at home yesterday.
我昨天在家。 wǒ zuó tiān zài jiā.

Last year I lived in Hong Kong.
去年我住在香港。qù nián wǒ zhù zài xiāng gǎng.

He said he is Chinese.
他说他是中国人。 tā shuō tā shì zhōng guó rén.

Practice makes Perfect

Read the following sentences, and explain the meaning of sentences with a “了 le”, and the meaning of sentences without it.

他有钱了。 tā yǒu qián le.

他有钱。tā yǒu qián.

你明天来了以后马上来找我。 nǐ míng tiān lái le yǐ hòu mǎ shàng lái zhǎo wǒ.

我明天来。 wǒ míng tiān lái.

A message from April

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An additional note, besides indicating a change of status or completed actions, “了 le” is also used in fixed expressions, such as “要 yào ... 了 le”, or simply appears at the end of a sentence as an expression of mood, similar to “啦 la”. The usage of “了 le” first appears in Mandarin Express Intro Level A Student’s Book.

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