了 le in Chinese: The ‘Change’ Particle

This post talks about how to use the Chinese grammar particle “了” le in Chinese when it is functioning as a finished action or as an indication of change.

Completed Actions with 了 le in Chinese

了 (Le in Chinese) has the umbrella function of indicating a change, and nested within the idea of a change is completed actions. For example, take a look at this sentence from Level 13 of the Mandarin Blueprint Course:

Sentence 1:

我早上骂了我的儿子 – Level 13
wǒ zǎoshàng mà le wǒde érzi
I scolded my son this morning.

The action of scolding (骂) is complete, so you add 了. What would happen if you removed the 了?我早上骂我的儿子 means “I scold my son in the morning,” aka, this is a habitual behavior that does not need to indicate a specific instance. Scolding his son is just something that 我 does all the time (what a jerk!).


Sentence 2 with 了 le in Chinese:

我吐了。 – Level 14
wǒ tù le.
I threw up.

Once again, the 了 indicates two things:

1. A change has occurred in the form of a completed action.

2. It’s a specific instance that is completed.

If you removed the 了 and said “我吐,” suddenly this is no longer a specific instance, and there’s no indication that anything is completed. What a sad state of affairs for the speaker! 


Sentence 3:

我早上吃了面,还吃了一个面包。 – Level 13
wǒ zǎoshàng chī le miàn, hái chī le yíge miàn bāo
I ate noodles and a piece of bread in the morning.

In the first two examples, the idea of not adding 了 is somewhat ridiculous. Of course, someone doesn’t just habitually ‘吐’ all the time. However, in this sentence, it’s indeed possible that you habitually eat noodles and a piece of bread in the morning. Therefore, the use of 了 expresses that the speaker ate noodles in this instance, and is not a comment on whether or not this is a habitual behavior.

Change with 了 le in Chinese

了 le in Chinese, 了 le in Chinese: The ‘Change’ Particle

Above, we discussed how to use 了 to express completed actions. However, we also mentioned that that particular usage of 了 is nested in a broader context of CHANGE 变化 biànhuà.

This part of the post will focus on how to use 了 to express changes that are not necessarily related to individual actions.

Let’s check out some example sentences:

Sentence 1:

我想你了。 – Level 13
Wǒ xiǎng nǐ le.
I miss you (now).

A simple (but not foolproof) trick to understanding 了 is to imagine adding “now” to the end of a statement. In English, if you say “I miss you now,” the implication is that you didn’t miss the person before, but NOW you do. A change has occurred.

Whenever you see a sentence that contains 了 (Le in Chinese), ask yourself, ‘Where is the change?’ To say 我想你 without 了 is fine, but by adding 了, you see the sentence in a different context.


Sentence 2:

你可以说话了。 – Level 17
Nǐ kěyǐ shuōhuà le.
You can speak (now).

Imagine that you walk into your supervisor’s office. You start to speak, but your supervisor is on the phone and puts a single finger up to indicate “wait a moment.” She finishes her call, hangs up the phone, and says, “你可以说话了.” You weren’t allowed to speak a moment ago, NOW you are. There’s the change.


Sentence 3 with 了 le in Chinese:

我太太不来了。 – Level 15
Wǒ tàitai bù lái le.
My wife is not coming (now).

You’re at a party. The host of the party comes over with a smile, but then a look of confusion. “Where’s your wife?” he says, to which you respond, “She’s sick in bed, she’s not coming now.” Before your wife planned to come to the party, NOW she isn’t coming. There’s the change.


Sentence 4:

我在他家里住了一年了。 – Level 15
Wǒ zài tā jiālǐ zhù le yīnián le.
I’ve been living at his house for a year.

OMG, there are TWO 了’s in this sentence *brain explodes*. Not to worry, it’s easy to understand. Gather up your brain matter and check this out: Two 了’s in a sentence indicates that an action has happened and continues to happen.

Both 了’s are necessary, because if you take one of them away, the meaning of the sentence changes:

我在他家里住了一年。
I lived in his house for a year.

Omitting the second 了 creates an entirely different meaning because the speaker is no longer living in his friend’s house. By adding the second 了, we know that the “living” is still in progress.

我在他家里住一年了。
It’s been a year that I’ve been living in his house.

If you omit the first 了, the meaning is almost the same as the original sentence, but the emphasis is different. The focus is on the “one year” part, as opposed to the “living” part. You’d say the original sentence in response to someone asking where you live, whereas this sentence could be a comment with a tone of surprise that it’s been so long.

Whether it’s a completed action or a change of state, 了 le in Chinese always indicates transformation. Keep asking, “where’s the change” every time you see 了, and you’ll be a 了 master before long.

If you want to learn more about Chinese grammar particles, we suggest you read this post about the Chinese particle 的 de.

Chinese Particles
15 June , 2020
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