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I struggle a bit to get my head around tenses in Mandarin, and in particular when I need to use 了 (le).

Do you have any tips, examples or resources to help me out with this?

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3 Answers 3

up vote 16 down vote accepted

Usually 了 is used to indicate past tense (or the completion of). Such as:

我吃了

了 is added to the end of the sentence that change the statement to past tense. You can add 过 before 了 to add emphasis.

E.g., 我吃了 (I ate) vs. 我吃过了 (I have (already) eaten.)

but 了 may be used for different reasons, some of which have nothing to do with past tense.

With imperatives, it adds urgency:

走了, 走了

(Let's) go, (let's) go.

So, a negative imperative becomes a warning:

别说话

(Keep quiet.)

vs.

别说话了

(I'm warning you [to]) stop talking!

With certain modifiers you can use 了 to indicate future tense:

天就要下雨了(it's raining soon)

Here 要 (an auxiliary verb) indicates future tense, by implying the sense of "going to do (something)." 會 is another auxiliary verb that does the same thing, but in the sense of "intending to do (something)."

了 when used after an adjective or noun, conveys the meaning "has become"

我餓 (I'm hungry)

vs.

我餓了 (I became hungry)

Here 了 expresses a clear (change of) state.

了 can also be used to express excessiveness.

太 + (stative verb/adjective/noun) + 了. E.g., 太冷了.

(stative verb/adjective/noun) + 极了. E.g., 热极了.

可 + (stative verb/adjective/noun) + 了. E.g., 可难了.

太 can be used without 了. If omitted, the tone can sound rather rough.

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"With certain modifiers you can use 了 to indicate future tense" - yikes! This really is going to take some time to get my head round :} –  Cocowalla Dec 13 '11 at 22:37
2  
Basically if 要/會/就/快 appears before the verb or any time specification appears before the subject (except with 快), 了 can be used to indicate future tense. But with 快, you can't use a construct of time like the word "yesterday." There are other verbs when used as a modal do the same/similar things, but these are usually the most common ones. –  Krazer Dec 13 '11 at 23:09
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I think sometimes the 了 is used just because it sounds right. –  Matthew Rudy 马泰 Dec 14 '11 at 6:17
    
I think you can also use 了 when expressing surprise or emphasis. e.g. 太好了! Although in this case its use is within an idiomatic expression and should therefore be learnt as a unit. –  jaffa Jan 3 '12 at 23:35

The particle 了 (le) suggests a completed action. For example,

Chi fan le, finished eating.

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I understand that, but from other uses I've seen it appears to be more complex than that –  Cocowalla Dec 13 '11 at 22:35
    
@Cocowalla: Yes, there are more complex usages. I've given you the simplest one. –  Tom Au Dec 13 '11 at 22:36
    
@Cocowalla Chi Fan Le DO NOT means finished eating. Instead that, like a mom want to call for her children to eat: "孩子们,吃饭了"(boys, time for meal) –  AntiGameZ Dec 14 '11 at 10:49
    
@AntiGameZ what about nǐ chī le ma? - does that not mean, have you eaten? –  Cocowalla Dec 14 '11 at 11:03
    
@Cocowalla no, 了 in 你吃了吗 means have you eaten, which suggests a completed action. –  AntiGameZ Dec 14 '11 at 11:08

了 is often used in the past tense, but should not be confused with 过. 了 implies a recent change that might still be in effect, while 过 is further in the past and is no longer in effect.

Example:

我坐了 I have sat down (and am still sitting)

我坐过 I have sat down (and am no longer sitting)

You can also use it with 太 to put emphasis on something.

Example:

太冷了 Too cold!

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In your 太冷了 example, does have any effect on the tense of that statement? –  Cocowalla 2 days ago
    
@Cocowalla The way I understand it, you have to add 了, otherwise it will sound weird to native speakers. –  Friso1990 6 hours ago

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