Chinese Language Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for students, teachers, and linguists wanting to discuss the finer points of the Chinese language. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

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?

share|improve this question
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.

share|improve this answer
"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

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!

share|improve this answer
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!

share|improve this answer

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

吃饭了 (chi fan le), finished eating.

share|improve this answer
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

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.