Couple of times in my research on Verb+了aspect, I've stumbled across really interesting nonstandard ideas about what this particle really means. Only one theory strikes some notes in my mind. Namely it is a theory that 了 is not a perfect aspect marker (there is a GROUP of perfect aspects one of them is 了) but rather an "actuality" ("reality or existential") aspect marker.

Can anyone suggest some reading about 了 from "actual\existential\realization" stand point of view? Thanks.

Please, don't talk about "sentence final 了". This problem is solved for me. I'm intereted only in verb+了.

Ok. I think I need to elaborate on the difference between "perfect" and "actual".

You can negate perfect aspect of a verb in question. But you can't nagate a verb once you make it "actual" by adding 了 to it.

For example:

我吃了饭了, 但是没吃了完. - "I have eaten, but haven't eaten."

It is absurd. You can't just negate something you just made "real"!! (by stressing it's actuality, the thing took place in reality)

But you can nagate perfect aspect (完) of the verb.

我吃了饭了, 但是没吃完 - "I've eaten, but didn't finish!".

This is ok, sicne in the second case we negate the 完 part (perfect aspect) and not the 吃了 part (actuality aspect, the stressing that "eating" really took place).

P.S. I have forgotten one more name for the 了 - 'actuallity aspect". 了 is used whenever the "thing" actually was or 100% will take place.

P.S.S. Some papers I've gathered in my research:

  1. "Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: A Corpus-based Study" by Richard Xiao,Tony McEnery (chapter 4.1.4)
  2. "The Influence of Worldview on Second Language Acquisition: A Study of Native English Speakers Acquiringthe Chinese Aspect Marker -Le." by Yang Li-qiong
  3. "Corpus-Based Contrastive Studies of English and Chinese" by Tony McEnery,Richard Xiao (page 11-12 and so on)
  4. "Lecture 17: Existential Sentences in Chinese: Syntax and Semantics" by Barbara H. Partee
  • 1
    What's the source of that quote?
    – KWeiss
    Mar 9, 2016 at 14:58
  • KWeiss, Soory it's not a quote but my summary of some quotes. I'll change the post so not to confuse people.
    – coobit
    Mar 9, 2016 at 19:50
  • I find the sentence "我吃了饭了" also absurd, it would have to be "我吃过饭了” or not?
    – andrew
    Mar 16, 2016 at 13:05
  • @coobit You made me wonder that maybe it's NOT 了 that is an actuality marker, but 没有 is instead a non-actuality marker, because is negates everything that isn't real, not only 了 sentences: 我吃了一个苹果/我没吃一个苹果 -- 我在吃一个苹果/我没在吃一个苹果 -- 苹果被我吃了/苹果没被我吃, and so on. Mar 16, 2016 at 16:09
  • Ok. If you make TWO claims in a sequence: 1-st being "我吃了一个苹果" and the 2-nd being "我没吃一个苹果" You migth be considered strange person because you either ate or didn't eat! So that just prooves that 了 and 没 are absolutly antogonistic in this sence. If 没 makes smth unreal then 了 makes it real.
    – coobit
    Mar 17, 2016 at 9:06

2 Answers 2


I'm not sure if you've tried looking at the interaction of aspect and evidentiality. This is covered in this 2001 paper. The claim is countered in this 2014 paper. I get the feeling that guo4 is more widely explored in this context. The 1997 tome "Territory of Information" makes use of several comparisons with Japanese.

  • The second link here includes discussion of Xiao and McEnery "Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: A Corpus-based Study." Mar 11, 2016 at 12:21
  • Read 2001 paper. All links to "realis" 了papers are behind a "pay wall". :( Didn't quiet get the idea of original authors. Still reading.
    – coobit
    Mar 11, 2016 at 17:53

Answering your new edited question. Your first reference, "Aspect in Mandarin Chinese: A Corpus-based Study" by Richard Xiao,Tony McEnery, indeed gives a novel fine-grained analysis of perfective particles in Mandarin. But it is their own theory and so far as i can see more people cite it than expand on it. A list of 186 works citing it is given at https://scholar.google.com/scholar?oi=bibs&hl=en&cites=14017749010703840750&as_sdt=5

The issue here is grammaticalization. If we want to say 了 has a purely grammatical role in the sentence 我吃了 then we obviously cannot just say that role is as a perfect aspect marker. The word clearly does more than indicate perfect aspect. So we must define some much more specific subdivision of perfect aspect like "actuality aspect." But other grammarians prefer not to subdivide aspect that way, and rather say 了 has a lexical or pragmatic role in addition to its grammar. There is a vast literature on this, and references in Michaelyus answer are one good way into it.

  • Sorry about the "quote". It wasn't an actual quote. It was a summary of the idea. See edited post for explanation.
    – coobit
    Mar 9, 2016 at 20:00

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