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I kind of have an idea when 了 and 过 should be used but it's mostly on a case by case basis, and I don't know the exact rules.

So if I want to express something that happened in the past, when should I use 了 and when should I use 过?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

There are multiple uses for both 了 and 过, so it's good you are just asking about usage to express past action or events. 了, as you probably know, is often used to express a change of state. Perhaps somewhat relatedly, 了 can be used to express a past action that is still ongoing. But 过 cannot: when 过 is used to refer to a past event, that past event must have completed. Additionally -- and most distinctly -- 过 is used to express having had the experience of something, rather than a particular instance. As a simple example, consider the difference between

我去了长城 (I went to the Great Wall, refers to a single trip)

and

我去过长城 (I have been to the Great Wall, could be one or more times)

Here the same structure is used intentionally.

When combining them, it emphasizes the completion of a single action or event. So, for example,

我去过了长城 (I went to the Great Wall, refers to a single, completed, event)

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"Someone + 去了 + Place" can also mean "Someone has gone to Place", for example, 他去了北京/他去北京了 = He's gone to Beijing. While 他去了北京 is more of a statement that he's gone to Beijing, 他去北京了 has more emphasis on that fact that he's not here and has gone to Beijing and you've missed him. But again, the meaning can also depend on the tone in which you say the sentence. –  Georgeee Dec 14 '11 at 11:20
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