I'm learning some grammar and there are many rules with 了, to express action completion or change of state. My book examples seem strange for some Chinese people, so I made those small following sentences.

My questions are: Which sentences are totally incorrect? Which ones are weird? For the remaining ones, are they expressing the same meaning? For each meaning, which is the "best" orally and during writting? Thx

(A1)我学了六年法语了

(A2)我学六年法语了

(A3)我学了六年法语

(A4)我学六年法语

(A5)我学了法语六年了

(A6)我学法语六年了

(A7)我学了法语六年

(A8)我学法语六年

And the small ones:

(B1)我学法语

(B2)我学了法语

(B3)我学法语了

(B4)我学了法语了

(C1)我学六年

(C2)我学了六年

(C3)我学六年了

(C4)我学了六年了

  • See my answer: chinese.stackexchange.com/a/18061/13501 – 超酷爆帅型男 Aug 15 '16 at 7:16
  • regarding A5-A8, see grammars regarding quantitative complements (数量补语) in particular complements of duration (时量补语),which as a fundamental topic have been discussed at this site before (search site). Accordingly A5-A8 can be corrected as follows: (A5)我学法语学了六年了。(A6)我学法语学六年了。(A7)我学法语学了六年。(A8)我学法语学六年。note repetition of verb 学 if duration comes after object, alternatively to A1-A4: 我学六年的法语。etc. – user6065 Aug 15 '16 at 8:07
up vote 0 down vote accepted

(A1)我学了六年法语了

The first 了 is an aspect marker, indicating completed action. the second 了 is final particle, indicating change of situation. It is not grammatically incorrect, but native Chinese would most likely skip using the final particle to avoid 了 appear in a short sentence twice.

(A2)我学六年法语了

Without the aspect marker 了 to indicating completed action, 学六年法语 could be confusing... are you going to learn "six years of French?" or you going to learn " Sixth Year French?"

(A3)我学了六年法语

This one fixes the problem (A2) has. A grammatically correct sentence

(A4)我学六年法语

Just like (A2) is it "six years of French?" or " Sixth Year French?"

(A5)我学了法语六年了

This one is similar to (A1) just the object 法语 and the relative phrase 六年 switched place. Again, the final particle can be omitted.

(A6)我学法语六年了

Similar to (A3) with the object 法语 and the relative phrase 六年 switched place, also a grammatically correct sentence.

(A7)我学了法语六年

Similar to (A5) with the final particle omitted, Which make it better structured sentence.

(A8)我学法语六年

Without either the aspect marker 了 or the final particle 了, the sentence is unfinished.

  • (A3) , (A6) and (A7) are the three grammatically correct and well structured sentences on the list.

  • (A1) and (A5) are not grammatically wrong, just not sounding smooth with two 了 in the same sentence

  • (A2) and (A4) are not grammatically wrong, but a little bit ambiguous with 六年法语 could mean either "six years of French" or " Sixth Year French"

  • (A8) is unfinished sentence

(B1)我学法语

I learn French

(B2)我学了法语

I learned French

(B3)我学法语了

if 了 is treated as a aspect marker, the sentence would mean "I have learned French"

if 了 is treated as a final particle, the sentence would mean "I've started learning French"

(B4)我学了法语了

I learned French (already)- like in Group A, final particle 了 could be omitted

*Group C are all incomplete sentences.

  • Omitting the final 了 changes the sentence meaning: 我学了六年法语 I studied French for 6 years. 我学了六年法语了 I have been studying French for 6 years. – Enrico Brasil Aug 16 '16 at 15:44
  • In the case of 我学了六年法语了 (I have been studying French for six years), the second 了 is a final particle, therefore it can be omitted. If you treat the second 了 as an aspect marker, then the first 了 can be omitted, the result is:(A5) " 我学法语六年了" which express "I have been studying French for 6 years" without repeat 了 in a same sentence. – Tang Ho Aug 16 '16 at 19:10
  1. Which sentences are totally incorrect? C1 only this one is totally incorrect, all others are ok from grammar point of view but some(could be list in answer 2) are not used by local Chinese.

  2. Which ones are weird? A4,A8, B1. they are similar with the simple present tense in English, but actually in Chinese speaking, they are seldom used though without grammar issue.(practically, for B1, a prep. "在" can be added before the verb to express the current status. for A4, A8, they are really weird without “了”)

  3. For the remaining ones, are they expressing the same meaning? For each meaning, which is the "best" orally and during writing? All remaining ones, they are basically expressing same meaning in their groups, but there is tiny differences in tense and in points wants to emphasize.
    e.g.

    • in Group A, putting 六年 first is to emphasize that it is six years I have been learning French for. but putting 六年 behind is not emphersizing this duration.
    • in group B, B3 is a little different, it can be understood in some context as: I decided to learn French.
    • in group C, they are basically same.

Best(local) ones:A1/A2/A3/A5/A6/A7/B2/B4/C2/C3/C4

Being tensless, chinese developed into modal language. There are two realis markers 了: verbal 了 marks relative realis and sentence final 了 marks absolute realis. So everytime you want to speak, you need to decied is the thing you are going to tell was/is/will be in "real world" or "was/is/will be in your head/dreams/desires i.e. "irreal world".

It's a bit like aspect and tense in English. Aspect marks relative time of the verb (relative to situation time) and tense marks absolute time (relative to speach time).

So I was sitting on the bus just reading a book when somebody tapped me on the shoulder.

Slanted words mark relative time (doing) (time relations between verbs inside the situation), bold words mark absolute time (did/was) for the whole situation.

IMHO perfectivity/completion has nothing to do with either 了. Perfectivity is being marked by other means in chinese (see 六年 in your sentences).

So with this in mind lets try to understand your list:

(A1)我学了六年法语了

First 了 is a relative realization modal marker (that is this V+了 tells us that you was learning the language before ??? (some time) what time is not clear though) but having 六年(perfectivity marker) after 了, transforms relative 了 to absolute realization marker (making it a past marker). So secondary 了 (which always marks absolute realization of the whole situations) is redundant.

(A2)我学六年法语了

  • incorrect. The sentence is marked by absolute realis 了(past time) so nothing wrong here but "六年-thing" is just confusing. See Tang Ho answer.

(A3)我学了六年法语

  • relative realis 了 made absolute by 六年, so everything is ok. It's just a plain old "past tense".

(A4)我学六年法语

  • Without any of the 了's the situation is not rendered real! The reading of this sentence can only be in some irrealis mood. i.e. "I usually learn..." or "I always learn..." (yes, habitual mood considered irrealis in chinese) ect.

For (A5)(A6)(A7)(A8) see other users answers.

(B1)我学法语

(B2)我学了法语 well, this almost unfinished sentence because verbal 了 marks that the situation took place while/befor/ect but the tense of the situation is not marked explicitly. Some indication of "absolute tense" must be added.

P.S. When I was investigating the nature of 了 the most problems gave me this pair of sentences:

I was eating. vs 我吃饭

In 我吃饭 there is no information about tense. So I added it -> 我吃了饭 but this is ungrammatical! I couldn't understand why. But then I read one article and it struck me: The reason why natives (majority of them) think 我吃了饭 is incomplete is due to 了 being relative. It translates to english as "I eating (for real and it's not a fantasy or wishful thinking)".

You see, in "I eating" there is ONE problem - there is relative tense marker (-ing) but no absolute tense information! In other words we can ask: "WHEN you eating? Past? Present? Future?" You have to add absolute time to this sentence: "I was/is/will be eating."

The same thing with chinese: 我吃了饭 - we can ask "WHEN you eat? Yes, you told us that the "eating" took/take/will take place in reality(了) (by the time) xxxxx" but WHEN? By what time was/is/will it take place in real world? You have to add absolute tense to the sentence i.e. to render it to past, present or future!!!

Now, there are two ways (I know only two) to add absolute tense information to the sentence:

  1. by adding 了 to the end of the sentence.我吃了饭了
  2. by adding some perfectivity information. 我吃了一碗饭 (一碗 marks the perfectivity).

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