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
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 11:28
  • Yep, you can add 过. But I'm not ready to formulate a good question on this subject yet.
    – coobit
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 at 17:15
  • I meant 我吃过了 with 了 (as you can see in that link), which is yet another variant.
    – Armfoot
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 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.
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 at 5:52

3 Answers 3


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.

  • 1
    I'm assuming the sentence at the end is suppose to be 他吃了三碗饭?
    – user5714
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 23, 2015 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.
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 24, 2015 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
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 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.
    Commented Sep 25, 2015 at 18:21

In regard to your translations, I would make the following comments as a native Chinese user based on my intuition of my first language:

  1. "我吃饭" is not "I'm eating". It means simply "I eat". "I'm eating" would be e.g. "我在吃饭" or "我正在吃饭" or "我吃饭呢". Chinese is not like German in this regard, where "ich esse" can mean "I'm eating".

  2. "我吃完饭" cannot be a sentence by itself. If you want to say "I have finished eating", you must say e.g. "我吃完饭了" or "我吃完了饭了", where the "了"'s are indispensable.

  3. "我吃饭了" can mean, as you mentioned ("Now I eat!" or "I will eat now!"), but it could also mean simply "I ate" in certain contexts, e.g. as an answer to the question "你吃饭了吗?" ("Did you eat?")

  4. As discussed before.

  5. "我吃了饭" indeed sounds incomplete even though it is grammatically valid as a sentence by itself. However in certain contexts it sounds perfectly natural (and complete) as a sentence by itself, e.g. as an answer to "你吃了饭吗?" or "你吃饭了吗?". Also "我吃了饭" indicates that the action of the eating of the meal has finished - it [does not] refer to a situation where a person started eating but has not finished.

  6. "我吃了饭了" indeed often means approximately what you mentioned of it, except that it does not mean "I was eating", but "I ate" or "I've eaten", with the connotation that "I" doesn't want to eat more. But depending on context it could also simply mean "I ate" or "I've eaten" without the connotation you mentioned.

  7. "我吃完了饭" also sounds unnatural as a sentence by itself, but I don't think it is grammatically incorrect - it just sounds unnatural to a native user of Chinese (at least me and I would assume most native users of Chinese I know) in most contexts. But it [can be] natural (but perhaps not [very] natural - I'm not even sure because it depends on [how] one [utters] the sentence) as an answer to e.g. "你吃完了饭吗?"

  8. What you mentioned regarding it is correct.

In general, you need to understand that just as in English and other languages you know, the meanings of Chinese sentences are [context dependent], especially the connotations of the sentences (and note that the context I referred to includes e.g. characteristics of the sound of one's utterance such as its tone, loudness, stress amd "rhythm").

In regard to your additional comments:

  1. I don't see "他当了兵" as being complete or in some sense much more complete than "我吃了饭". I see them as being almost the same in regard to completeness. I think as an independent sentence "他当兵了" sounds more natural than "他当了兵". Similar to the case of "我吃饭了" as discussed before, "他当了兵" can be a sentence by itself in certain contexts, e.g. as an answer to the question "他这几年做了什么工作?" ("What work did he do in these years?")
  2. They are pretty much the same. I cannot think of any notable differences between them right now. I think it is safe to assume that they have exactly the same meaning.
  3. Sorry, but "了" is indeed very much about the completion of an action. "了" is a [verb] which literally means "to finish; to be completed" in ancient Chinese. It became a particle later and the use of it as a particle is in my view derived from the intuition about the finishing of an action. For example, "那我走了" indeed has the meaning of "Then I'm leaving" or "Then I'll leave" rather than "Then I have left". However I think here "我走了" really indicates, at some primitive intuitive level (speaking as a native Chinese user), the completion of [the making of the decision to leave at the moment] or that [the initiation of the action of leaving] will soon be completed. Therefore I think "了" here nevertheless indicates the [completion of an action]. Practically, you can simply think of "了" in this context (and other similar contexts) as indicating or suggesting a [change of state] of something.

By the way, I'm not a linguist, so my opinions here are not academic. I merely expressed my personal reflections on this matter as a native user of Chinese.

  • 1
    @coobit 1. Yes. I think "我吃饭" is just like "I eat" in English - I can't see any notable difference between them at the moment. 2. I agree with what you said here. "我吃完饭" is just like "I finish eating" in English. When do we ever say "I finish eating." instead of "I finished eating."? Similarly in Chinese we don't say "我吃完饭。" but we say "我吃完饭了。" Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 0:11
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    @coobit 3. ”你吃了饭吗?" is a perfectly valid and natural sounding Chinese sentence. "你吃了饭。" can be e.g. an answer to the question "我吃了饭吗?". It is just like "You ate." in English. The sentence "你吃了饭。" is grammatically valid (so it is not incomplete), but only [feels] incomplete because it is only used in very specific contexts, such as when it is used as an answer to the aforementioned question. When it is used in the proper context, it does not feel incomplete at all. Commented Feb 18, 2021 at 0:18
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    @coobit No, nobody who knows Chinese would understand "我吃完饭。" to mean that. As I said in my answer, "我吃完饭" cannot be a sentence by itself. I think whether it is grammatically valid or not depends on what grammatical system one uses, but even if it is taken to be grammatically valid, it is nevertheless semantically nonsensical. To express the meaning of "I seldom leave any food leftovers", you should say something like "我一般都会把饭吃完" or "我一般不会剩饭", which translate to English as "I would normally finish eating meals" and "I normally wouldn't leave leftovers". Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 8:02
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    @coobit I'm personally inclined to consider "我吃完饭" to be grammatically valid but semantically nonsensical. Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 8:11
  • 1
    Thanks for your answers. Really helps. :)
    – coobit
    Commented Feb 19, 2021 at 9:48

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