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Obviously this question is very similar to When should 了 be after the verb and when should it be at the end of the sentence?. I just wanted you to know that I consulted that before I posted this question.

I'm working through Rosetta Stone and I have a screenshot that illustrates what I'm struggling with. screen shot from Rosetta Stone chinese

So here we have two instances where le is appearing at the end of the sentence and one where it appears immediately after the verb. However, all three sentences involve someone giving an item to someone else so I would think they would all follow the same grammar rules. Here is another example: Woman that ate chocolate People that ate

In both pictures someone finished eating something so I would think they would follow the same grammar. So why does le appear after the verb in one picture but at the end of the sentence in the other?

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他们吃了饭 means that they have had a meal, while 他们吃饭了 means that they have started eating. –  user58955 Mar 31 at 22:04
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Putting 了 at the end seems to convey a meaning that they didn't do the action in the past but now they are doing it or they have done it. Putting 了 directly after the verb only has the meaning that the action has been done. –  user58955 Mar 31 at 22:07

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

The order where 了 appears in the sentence is important: when placed at the end of a sentence, it represents a change of state (it has nothing to do with tenses); when placed at the end of a verb, it represents a completed action. Using the examples in your question:

  • 他们给我写信
    They wrote me a letter. (This is the first time I receive a letter from them.)
  • 他们给我写
    They have written me a letter. (This is the fifth letter from them.)
  • 她给我们买巧克力
    She bought us chocolate. (It has been a long while since she last treated us.)
  • 她给我们买巧克力
    She just bought us chocolate. (Oh, she bought some yesterday too.)

Please read this article for other use cases.

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+1 for that fantastic link, thanks! –  Ming Apr 1 at 6:18
    
Wow, that article is fantastic! Thank you so much for sharing that with us. –  Kevin Thompson Apr 1 at 19:28

I think whatever you put 了 after verb or at the end of of sentence. they both means the action is finished or completed. It is past tense. So, 我吃了巧克力 and 我吃巧克力了 just means I ate chocolate.

But there is a slight difference between them . 我吃了巧克力 means to emphasize the verb ate. 我吃巧克力了 means to emphasize ate chocolate. Hope it helpful.

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I think it somehow depends on the verb, like you can say 我下楼了 with both senses. And 我下了楼 emphasize the existence of a series of verbs. –  user3685 Apr 1 at 4:09
    
Chinese doesn't have tense and telling people that 了 denotes past tense is really, really bad, because it effectively hinders them from learning how to actually use 了. See Question Overflow's answer above. –  Olle Linge Apr 1 at 6:45
    
@OlleLinge Don't agree with you. Here is an example in French using past tense (passé composé) to indicate an action that has not happened but ensured by being regarded as finished by the speaker: Un peu de patience: j'ai fini dans un moment. (A little patience pls, I (would) have finished in a moment.) –  user3685 Apr 1 at 7:55
    
Olle is right. Chinese does not have a tense, and to tell learners otherwise is very misleading. Just take this as an example: 豬逃了怎麼辦? It could mean "The pig has escaped; what should we do?" or "What should we do if the pig escapes?" Saying that 了 just indicates past tense is plain wrong. –  user43898 Apr 8 at 23:20

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