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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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4 Answers 4

up vote 21 down vote accepted

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


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:


(Keep quiet.)



(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)


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
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
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,

吃饭了 (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.


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.


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 Nov 24 '14 at 16:08
@Cocowalla The way I understand it, you have to add 了, otherwise it will sound weird to native speakers. – Friso1990 Nov 26 '14 at 22:05

Personally I think the answers you got here are dangerously imprecise, despite being correct in practice.

Since 了 is often a critical topic for all newbies, I would like to integrate in the following way:

了 expresses completion of an action or change.

That's why you can use it to produce a past tense, as in:

我买了一辆车 = I bought a car 我吃饭了 = I ate Warning: 我吃饭了 is NOT the same as 我吃了 because chinese has a grammatical feature known as "apparent object", but that's another story.

Then you can use it with its other value (change) to express commands (imperative), as in: 闭嘴了 = shut up! 别闹我了= stop bothering me! 我们走了 = let's go 你关门了 = close the door!

and so on. You can do that because a command implies a change in what someone's doing: you're talking (status quo), but now I want you to stop (change); or you are not closing the door (status quo), now I want you to close it (change).

For this reason, the following very common sentences have completely different meanings: 我知道 = I know 我知道了 = I got it (I know it now, but I didn't knew it before)

And then you can use it to express something you're going to do (future) or a decision you just made: 我付钱了 = I'll pay! As opposed to 我付了钱 = I've (already) paid

The presence of other particles can strengthen its soon-to-change valence, as in 要…了: 飞机马上要落地了 = the plane's about to land

我快要毕业了 = I'm graduating soon

And finally some examples to show the difference between past, status quo, change and future change with: 今天下了雨 = it rained today (it's stopped now) 下雨呢 = it rains (it was raining before too) 下雨了 = it rains (now, while it wasn't before) 今天要下雨了 = it's going to rain today

But watch out, because 了 doesn't necessarily express a change that's taking place right now: it might describe a situation that started and hasn't ended yet. Then mix it with the past 了 and you'll have enough to play with for a while:

Change in the past (ending point): 我等了一个小时的车了 = I waited the bus one hour (I'm not waiting anymore)

Change in the past (starting point) 我等车(已经)一个小时了 = I've been waiting the bus for one hour (the wait has started and I'm still waiting)

Hope this helps clarify a little bit!

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