3 Common usages of 了

In Chinese by Gwilym James

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.

Action completion

(the most common usage!)

我今天早上喝 两杯茶。
我今天早上喝 兩杯茶。
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.

我明天早上喝 咖啡以后,去运动。
我明天早上喝 咖啡以後,去運動。
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.

我好久没运动 !
我好久沒運動 !
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

刚刚还没下雨,现在下雨 !
剛剛還沒下雨,現在下雨 !
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?

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