Archive for the ‘Aspect particles’ Category

The aspect particle 了 is used to show that an action has been completed.  What does “aspect particle” mean?  As Chinese verbs aren’t conjugated like English verbs are (EX.: run -> running -> ran), they require the insertion of particles to show the status of the verb.  For instance,

我买东西 (I’m going to buy some things)

我买东西     or     我买东西 (I’ve bought some things)

The difference, therefore, is the insertion of 了 to show the completion of the action (in the aforementioned case, the purchase).

Because 了 is an aspect particle, it shouldn’t be considered as the Chinese equivalent of “past tense”.  It should be known as the “completed action” particle.

Remember that Chinese is a highly contextual language.  If it is clear that the event, or series of events, took place in the past, then you can omit 了. 

Further, if the sentence contains a time word, then 了 is generally unnecessary, unless required to emphasise to the speaker that the action is complete.  EX.: 昨天晚上我做作业了. (Yesterday afternoon, I (totally) completed my homework).

The placement of 了 frequently causes confusion for foreign students.  Essentially, it can come immediately after the verb or after the verb-object construct.  For example, the sentences below both mean: I went to the Bank of China.

我去中国银行

我去中国银行

However, I have observed that了 is commonly placed directly after the verb when there is an extended verb-object construct.  An “extended verb-object construct” typically contains a verb + modifying phrase + object.  To illustrate,

他卖很多纪念品 (He sold many souvenirs)

她吃一点食物 (She ate a few pieces of food)

我借你的借书证 (I borrowed your library card)

More advanced students will note that 把字句 can be used here to show the transformation of an object, or a change to its state.  Where the object is unaffected by the action (Ex.: looking at your watch), 把字句 cannot be used, and 了 must be utilised instead.

We hope this clarifies the use of 了.  Feel free to use the sandbox to practice your sentences.

Michael and Jing

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