了 le is one of the most important grammatical markers in Chinese, if not the most important one. Let’s learn the 3 most common uses of 了.
(the most common usage!)
Wǒ jīntiān zǎoshang hēle liǎng bēi chá.
I had two cups of tea this morning.
🔑 From the previous sentence, we might be tricked into the conclusion that 了 is a “past tense” marker. In many cases, it appears with actions we did in the past. However, 了 can be used for the future or non-time-sensitive sentence to indicate the completion of an action.
Wǒ míngtiān zǎoshang hēle kāfēi yǐhòu, qù yùndòng.
After I have my coffee tomorrow morning, I’ll go work out.
We can change 明天 to 每天 “every day” in the sentence to show a routine that is not tense related at all.
Continuation of an action or event
This function often puts 了 at the end of a sentence.
Wǒ hǎo jiǔ méi yùndòng le!
I have not worked out for a while.
This 了 shows the continuation of not working out. Because we have not done any workout, 了 can’t be the meaning of action complete.
The “continuation 了” is frequently used together with the “action-complete 了” in the same sentence.
我今天已经喝 两杯茶 。
我今天已經喝 兩杯茶 。
Wǒ jīntiān yǐjīng hēle liǎng bēi chá le.
I’ve already had two cups of tea today, (and I might have more).
🔑 The first 了 indicates I finished two cups, and the second 了, placed at the end of the sentence, shows that it’s a continuation ▸ I might have more…
More examples of using the “action completion 了” and “continuation 了”
雨已经下 三个小时 。
雨已經下 三個小時 。
Yǔ yǐjīng xiàle sān gè xiǎoshí le.
It has already been raining for 3 hours now.
Change of situation or state
Gānggāng háiméi xiàyǔ, xiànzài xiàyǔ le.
It wasn’t raining just a moment ago, but now it is raining.
了 shows the change of state of the weather, from not raining to raining!
Lastly, let’s look at how we can use the “action complete 了” with the “change of state 了”!
Shàng gè xīngqī rèle yì zhěnggè xīngqī, jīntiān zhōngyú liáng xiàlái le!
It was so hot for the whole of last week. Today, it has finally cooled down.
1.Which 了 is the “action complete” one?
2.Which one indicates a change of state?