I'm Chinese learner and as everybody else I'm puzzled by the verbal aspect . My research into the subject gave such results:

  1. belongs to a class of perfective aspect markers just as many other markers 过, verb duplication, RVC (verb resulative aspect) etc.

  2. is a existential aspect marker (aka factual, aka actuality marker, aka reality marker). In other words marks what really happened or 100% going to happen. That's why you can't negate it with

So the classical test for comprehension would be to translate following phrases:

  1. 我吃饭. (I'm eating). No questions here.

  2. 我吃完饭. Is this unacceptable? The idea here is to tell that "I completed eating process but it is not real in some sense." Looks like this is a part of a bigger sentence in future tense, in my opinion.

  3. 我吃饭了. ("Now I eat!" or "I will eat now!"). No questions here.

  4. 我吃完饭了. "Now I've eaten and completed the "meal eating" i.e. the plate is empty!" I can't feel much difference between this sentence and (8).

  5. 我吃了饭. (Uncompleted sentence. "I ate."). So this states that eating took place, but no result of it is mentioned. But native spekers say that the sentence is not complete and something is missing. Why is this the case?

  6. 我吃了饭了. (I was eating, you know! Don't give me another plate!) Negation: 但是没吃完 (Negation is acceptable since it's negation of 完 and not of 了. (We do not negate that food eating took place, we negate that it was completed.)

  7. 我吃完了饭. I have eaten and completed the action of eating. Just a fact with now connection to anything. Negation: 但是没吃完 (unacceptable) since I just stated that 完 was actualized (了)

  8. 我吃完了饭了. (I have eaten and completed the action of eating by now.)

Additional comments.

  1. By the way: 我吃了饭 is not complete to most Chinese natives but 他当了兵 is absolutely complete. The difference here, I guess, is inside (stative) and (resultive) verbs. Any comments on that?

  2. Any comments on the difference between (4) and (8) sentence would be much appreciated.

  3. Please, don't tell me that is about completion of a verb (it is not as is about as much completed actions as is).

  • Since you mentioned 过, you can also add 我吃过. – Armfoot Sep 23 '15 at 11:28
  • Yep, you can add 过. But I'm not ready to formulate a good question on this subject yet. – coobit Sep 23 '15 at 17:15
  • I meant 我吃过了 with 了 (as you can see in that link), which is yet another variant. – Armfoot Sep 23 '15 at 17:32
  • By 但是没吃完, do you mean "but I haven't finished it [yet]"? If so, you should be using 未 and not 没. Moreover, what exactly do you mean by "completed the task" in (7) and (8)? ("by now" I can get a sense of, but since you make no reference to a "task" earlier, I can't tell here.) – user5714 Sep 23 '15 at 21:59
  • 1
    #3 does not necessarily mean 'I'll eat now'. It means either 'I have eaten' or 'I'll eat now', but without further context, people tend to read it as the former not the latter. – NS.X. Sep 24 '15 at 5:52

Good question, but it's hard to deal with all the issues your examples raise in just one answer: the complexity of this thing is really staggering.

One important thing I think you are missing is that there are TWO kinds of le. This is a frequently made point; one place you can read more about this is Li and Thompson's book, Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar. Their discussion is not the last word, but it's well presented and worth reading.

In short: the -le that comes after the verb is one thing: this is perfective -le. The le that comes at the end of the sentence is another thing: Li and Thompson call this 'currently relevant state'. It would take way too much space to go over both of these here. I think a lot of your post is about the idea of perfective, so let's take that one.

Li and Thompson define 'perfective' in terms of the idea of boundedness. I found this useful because it identifies a common element in sentences where -le is often used. -le says "there is a boundary here", where some event or activity ends. For this to make sense, you have to fill in what that boundary is (very abstract, I know; sorry). What sort of things can make a boundary?

1) quantifying something. There's a number in there somewhere. I'll show you how this works in a minute.

2) definite. Often this means the object is definite, so that its that particular event that's over. Try adding zhe- na- etc. to your objects and you should be able to get the feel of this.

3) the verb is inherently bounded. Verbs like 'die' are like this, the verb demands that you mark it as bounded, if you don't it sounds--illogical. "To die" is the end of something by its nature.

4) one event in a sequence. In this case, after adding the -le to mean 'this ends', we simply look after it to see what comes next.

This is why example 5 does not sound complete. adding the -le after chi means that the chi-fan activity has stopped (maybe finished, maybe not), and something else is happening. But what? You have to put the following activity in, or people will say "...and?"

If, however, you add a number, you will find you get a different response: Ta chi-le san-wan fan is bounded by the number. The three tells you when the activity stopped. There is nothing incomplete about this sentence at all. The number supplies the boundary that -le promises you.

Hmm, didn't answer most of the question.

  • I'm assuming the sentence at the end is suppose to be 他吃了三碗饭? – user5714 Sep 23 '15 at 20:33
  • Yes, I know there are 2 了. The "sentential 了" is not a problem for me at all!!! (maybe since I'm russian and we have something of this kind of aspect in russian language. The "verbal 了" (I made it BOLD in my question) is a really big problem! The perfectivness of 了 .... well that road leads nowhere. Since 过 is perfect to, and resultive verb complement (RVC), and "sentential 了". They are all perfect but the difference between them.... That is what interesting. – coobit Sep 23 '15 at 22:26
  • Sentential le is not perfective. It can, for example, be inchoative, meaning it shows you when something starts, not ends. guo is also not perfective, in Li and Thompson's sense of being bounded. But that's the answer to a different question. – wpt Sep 24 '15 at 1:32
  • Hm, after thinking a few minutes my comment about -guo above seems very unclear. Try this. Ask people what they think of two sentences: 我吃了三碗飯 and 我吃過三碗飯. This will help give you a feel for the difference between 過 and 了. Boundedness is one way to describe this difference. – wpt Sep 24 '15 at 2:09
  • 1)'我吃了三碗飯' I ate three plates of rice. Simple fact because of existential character of 了. Speaker may not add any experiential info futher. 2)'我吃過三碗飯' 'I ate three plates of rice.' Futher speaker should\can add some description of his expirience 'Yes, there was such an expirience in my life, and I can add that '三碗飯' was too much for me.' But both of these deeds are completed, finished, perfect. The difference is the character of the situation. The 1) sentence stresses existance the 2) sentense stresses expirience. – coobit Sep 24 '15 at 5:55

Alexander's answer, as it currently stands, is slightly at odds with my thoughts on the matter and also doesn't comment on some thoughts I have on the grammar, so I will write an answer. For the most part, when your sentences are grammatically correct, you have the right interpretation. However, you seem to missing some grammar / usage information.

Firstly, 了 should generally be placed directly after the relevant verb when used as a marker, so 7-8 are flat-out wrong. The same is true of 完, as in such scenarios it modifies the verb. I cannot simply fix the issue by writing 吃了完. Using both 完 and 了 as modifiers is inappropriate, from a grammatical perspective.

Now, it's possible that you're using 了 as a sentence-final particle that works as an intensifier. This is why 3-4 and 6 can sound correct and would give the translations you give; were 了 intended to merely be a marker for the verb here, they would be incorrect.1

Now secondly, 我吃完饭 (2) sounds a bit incomplete without either 了 at the end (used in more of the "sentence-final particle" fashion) or additional context (see my example at the end of the paragraph). However, note that usage of 完 to indicate completion is not only restricted to actions taken in the future. An online dictionary gives examples such as 我们刚刚吃完晚饭 (we've just finished eating dinner; do note that the "just" is because of 刚刚), and I can confirm as a semi-native speaker that these, or something like 我吃完饭,现在去做功课了 (I've finished the meal and am now going to do my homework.), sound fine to me.

Similarly, 我吃了饭 (5) (I have eaten) is not wrong, although it sounds a bit dry without additional context (e.g. 我刚才吃了饭,现在不饿). This has already been addressed in Alexander's answer, so I will omit a more thorough discussion here.


Additional comments:

  1. Here, I should note that your negation of (6) (I have eaten) does not sound correct. If someone asked me 你吃了饭吗?, which is essentially the same sentence modified into a question and my answer was "no", the response I would give would be 我没有吃饭 (I haven't eaten) or 我未吃饭 (I haven't eaten yet). What you write as 但是没吃完 (which I presume should instead be 但是没有吃完 or 但是未吃完) negates 吃完饭. (The English parallels to this, "I have eaten" as opposed to "I have finished eating", should make this clear.)
  • I was thinking of providing some sentences as an alternative to (7) and (8). However, I'm still not really sure what you mean by those (particularly by "the task") and so will not for the meantime. (As a matter of policy, I generally avoid writing answers I'm fairly uncertain about.) – user5714 Sep 23 '15 at 21:56
  • I don't think 7 and 8 are plainly wrong. 7 is a sentence fragment (clause) by convention for lacking final particle but still syntactical (not sure if grammatical though). The clause usage is actually common: 我吃完了饭,就……; 8 is wrong for the unnecessary repetition of 了, yet I couldn't say for sure if it's a grammatical rule or an idiomatic one. Native speakers may very well blurt out such sentences like 8 in a hurry. – NS.X. Sep 24 '15 at 5:48
  • About my negation. Yep, you are right - with 没有. I'm not a native so forgive me. By negating I tried to stress the character of 了. Since if it was perfect maker the negation would sound funny: 'I have eaten rice, but have not eaten it.' But since 了 is not about perfection you can negate perfect information with '我没有吃饭.' – coobit Sep 24 '15 at 6:03
  • @NS.X.: that's strange: I've never seen that sort of usage (i.e. like in 我吃完了饭, with 完了 where 完 isn't a verb) before. Let me think about it. – user5714 Sep 25 '15 at 1:33
  • @Maroon May I ask if you're from Southern China or native speaker of Cantonese? That may explain your view on 7, 8 and 没/未. In Mandarin, especially in Northern dialects (including Putonghua), 没吃完 is perfectly valid even in written language, 7 & 8 are poorly organized but acceptable in colloquial language. On the contrary, 未吃完 sounds more Cantonese than Mandarin. – NS.X. Sep 25 '15 at 18:21

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