As I study usage of different aspects markers in Chinese, I started to realize that my problems with those markers come from simple fact that: "I don't see any use in them." Reason for this is: Whenever I see a bare verb phrase, I translate it as simple present time. But this is far from truth.

So, let me ask a question:

"Why does 他吃了饭 sound incomplete?" This kind of sentence is being used in many theoretical talks and papers on Chinese linguistics

My answers: The difference between 他吃饭 and 他吃了饭 lies only in that 了 renders the situation as factual rather then irreal (habitual, desirable, wishing, issuing a command etc.)


他吃饭 can be translated (in proper context) as:

  1. An order. "He (must) eat (now)!" (screaming).
  2. A habit. He eats (always).
  3. A desire. He (wants/thinking about) to eat.

But once you add 了 to a verb(as in 他吃了饭), you thus delete all the mentioned above as a possible translations. Now the situation is "factual \actual". It is not about habit, orders, desires and other irrealis modes. But rendering situation factual is not enough, you still have a big list of possible translations (in proper context), for example:

  1. A fact. He ate.
  2. A fact. He eats... and then... (not as a habit, but actually eats as in some narrative)
  3. A fact. He just initiated a process of eating.
  4. Future. He will have eaten (by the time ...)
  5. any suggestions?

that is why in 他吃了饭 you need further specification! The verb 吃了 is not rendered to ANY time (just rendered to reality, making it a fact or eventuality)!!!

P.S. Please, refrain from "perfective aspect marker 了" viewpoint if it is possible. Thank you!

P.s.s. Please, provide your possible translations and contexts for 他吃了饭 (this is very important for not natives! We need to see the point in adding aspects to naked verbs!!!)

  • 1
    specification could be as follows, A fact. He ate.他吃了饭 A fact. He eats. (not as a habit but actually eats) 他(正)在吃饭,他吃着饭 A fact. He just intiated a process of eating.他吃起饭,他开始吃饭, Future. He will have eaten (by the time ...) 。。。时,他已经吃了饭
    – user6065
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 21:28
  • I'd like to see more comments from natives about 他吃了饭 sounding incomplete. Although grammars always say that, every native I asked about says it is ok. Commented May 25, 2016 at 1:55
  • @EnricoBrasil In many situations when they say "OK" they actually mean "ok-ish". Provide your native speaker with detailed context, and ask her "What would you say" instead of "Is it OK to say..." Commented May 25, 2016 at 2:29
  • 他吃了早饭/午饭/晚饭,一顿饭,他已经吃了饭 seem complete sentences,as has been pointed out repeatedly sentence final 了 acts as modal particle, and 吃了饭了 is often abbreviated to 吃饭了
    – user6065
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 3:41
  • "Although grammars always say that" That's the POINT!!! It is complete in the right context but SOME natives just don't see any context or do not want to see any because of many possible context applied.
    – coobit
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 5:30

3 Answers 3


I can't for the life of me understand why switching an associative verb to the front forms a question in English. Am I not stupid?

The fact is, in a lot of cases, languages don't follow any kind of logic or reasoning.

If you say 他吃饭了, it's a complete sentence. If you say 他吃了饭, a listener would expect you to tell him what happened next, like 他吃了饭,拍拍肚子就走了。Now that it's complete, the listener can rest in peace.

So in this case, 他吃了饭 means "After he ate" -- Apparently an incomplete sentence.

But why does switching the position of 了 change its meaning? No one has the slightest idea.

There are situations where "verb + 了 + object" makes a complete sentence. Like when answering "他吃了什么?" with "他吃了一只火鸡."

  • Up voted! You are a funny guy! :D
    – thinwa
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 2:33
  • In fact, your last example implied that Chinese language is rely on context heavily. I feel that "他吃了饭" sounds weird to Native Chinese speakers, but I can't tell what's wrong. Until I saw your answer. It's incomplete if someone just say "他吃了饭" without any context.
    – thinwa
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 2:38
  • What would you say is the difference between 他吃了什么? and 他吃什么了? Commented May 25, 2016 at 2:53
  • @EnricoBrasil totally interchangeable. Commented May 25, 2016 at 3:20
  • 2
    @coobit depends on the tone you are speaking, both could mean a few things. However, neither 1 nor 2 stands for common usage. Commented May 25, 2016 at 5:42

I would say that your sentence 他吃了饭 sounds incomplete for two reasons:

  1. there is an aspect marker 了 exactly
  2. the sentence structure in Chinese is theme-comment

IMHO, what you say here:

The difference between 他吃饭 and 他吃了饭 lies only in that 了 renders the situation as factual rather then irreal (habitual, desirable, wishing, issuing a command and ect.)

is due to the fact that if you state that something has ended, you imply that it happened. There's nothing that hints about "factual" vs "non factual" directly in the presence of 了 there. I believe it is a consequence of it being an aspect marker. Therefore that's exactly the aspect particle 了 making the sentence hang. That's what that 了 is for.

As Wang Dingwei says:

So in this case, 他吃了饭 means "After he ate" -- Apparently an incomplete sentence.

You must complete with something more:


And you can also see that the sentences above can be translated with different tenses, therefore:

The verb 吃了 is not rendered to ANY time

is intuitively true because aspectual 了 doesn't convey information about time. It marks the completeness of the action, not directly its actuality. In 他吃了饭 you are stating that something ends without accounting for what the subject (actually, the theme) does next. That's all what there is to it, IMHO.

As a last note, if you just want to say that you have finished eating without adding further information, than the theme of your sentence is the food! And to specify that the action is not hanging, I would use a result verb (完,好) AND a modal 了, indicating that I ate and I'm eating no more.


  • "hypothetical" is not a good word. I've made a mistake to use it. 我吃饭 can be translated in many ways and "hypothetical case" would be just one of many. The general class to which 我吃饭 belongs is named - irrealis, which includes: habits(I usually eat), desires (I want to eat), demands (I will eat now, as a command to myself), hypothetical (if I eat...) and ect.
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 12:17
  • Adding 了 to 我吃饭 just forces 我吃饭 change it's "class" of possible translations from "irrealis" to "real or factual". So 我吃了饭 is not a habit, not a demand, not a desire, but a fact (it took place) but WHEN it took place is not possible to guess, thus your "translation of 我吃了饭 as "AFTER I eat then......". And this can be in any tense.
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 12:17
  • "overthinking" Well, it's not my theory. All languages belong either to tense or modal family. Modal languages indicate time by using modal particles (了 for example) thus dividing actions to those, which took place indeed and to those which haven't yet taken place anywhere but in someone mind. English is a tense language, but Chinese and many other asian-oceanic languages are modal (without any tense).
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 12:23
  • I was not aware of the irrealis category. I've edited my answer
    – blackgreen
    Commented Jan 19, 2017 at 12:28
  • I see. Nice post. Now about "他吃了饭": you are RIGHT that even adding 了 situation is still tense-ambiguous, but only absolute-tense-ambiguous! The "relative tense" is rendered completely since now "他吃了饭" must be translated as "After I eat..." V+了 serves just this purpose: rendering factual anteriority.
    – coobit
    Commented Jan 20, 2017 at 9:33

Mandarin is not my mother language, yet I would tend to think like this.

  1. Using 了 after the verb and object (verb + object + 了)

It denotes that the action is completed, with an implication that it is not completed a long time ago, or it is just completed.

  1. Using 了 right after the verb.

It also denotes the completion of an action, but there is no indication of the time. It may sounds unnatural to be complete, yet it is OK to end a sentence like this. Only because 吃饭 is a very usual situation would the listener expects more than that usually.

  1. Using 了 right after an adjective

This one is completely different from the previous two. Adding 了 in this case means "become (adjective)". Example: 你帅了。 => You became handsome.

  1. Using 了 after verb, adjective and adverb (verb/adjective + adverb + 了)

For this one, I think 了 is only used to soften the tone of the sentence, without any actual meaning. Example: 你漂亮极了。 -> You are so beautiful.

Well, if that is the case, what is the difference between 了 and 完?

  1. You cannot use 完 after the object but only after the verb, yet this rule does not apply to 了.

Example: 你吃饭完 —> incorrect, 你吃完饭 —> correct, 我吃完饭了 —> correct

  1. Using 完,you can continue the sentence with another job. (Ex: I finished doing sth, and THEN...)

Another approach: 了 actually means 了结, which is "end" in English, while 完 is 完成, which is equivalent to "finish" in English. If you can distinguish between "end" and "finish", you should be able to identify the difference between 完 and 了.

For this definition, I am not so sure, but an example will be:

我吃了饭 > I ended eating (I was eating, but now I am no longer eating), 
我吃完饭 > I finished eating
  • The last sentence actually makes a lot of sense! I'm a native speaker and I haven't thought of that. Commented May 25, 2016 at 2:37
  • If 了 is perfective than what is the difference between those: 吃了才觉着有点儿香味. and 吃完才觉着有点儿香味. ?
    – coobit
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 7:47
  • I shall explain this one later, maybe in an hour
    – user13501
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 8:48
  • Your addition about 完了difference doesn't help. Can you translate those sentences with food?
    – coobit
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 16:18
  • 天晴了三个日. It would seem that you suggest the meaning of: "Sky stopped(ended)being clear for 3 days"? Sonds odd at least.
    – coobit
    Commented May 25, 2016 at 16:54

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