I am analysing the sentence below in order to gain an understanding of when 了 is omitted, in sentences which have several verbs in sequence within a given time context:


I know 了 indicates the termination (i.e. completion) of a verb within a given time context. From this, I am interpreting every action without a 了 as still in progress in the given time context. It seems to me that each verb without a 了 merely makes the time context more specific, as in my translation below:

"One day, while the girl was reading a book in the library, a boy was walking past her, and he was seeing her glove, which was falling to the ground, after which that boy, while very politely helping her, picked it up."

You will notice I've avoided any sense of termination for every verb except 捡, since 了 has only indicated termination of that action.

My specific questions are:

For verbs which have 了 omitted in sentences such as the example given, can termination of these actions be implied without 了?

Does 了 following the final verb of a sentence imply termination of previous verbs in the sentence?

  • 1
    1. Yes. 看到她的手套掉在地上 has the same meaning with or without . 2. Usually yes. But may have other meanings. btw, I guess the translation uses too much past continuous tense, especially the sentence 看到她的手套掉在地上 is kind of status, which should be translated to some adverbial phrase or clause.
    – halfelf
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 4:40
  • Thanks. I agree the translation was awkward, and, from your answers to the questions, it was also wrong. Now I just need to figure out when it's best to use 了 and when it's best to imply 了. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 4:44

3 Answers 3


You should use "了" when you are implying an event has happened in reality.

"了" is not about past. It's a marker, rendering verb's result to reality realm. Verbs can be in imaginary state, you know...

ex: "I would have done that..."

Ask your self:

"What chinese bare verb mean? How to translate 她在图书馆看书? Is she reading right now? was reading? will read? The correct answer is : it's all at once!"

The best translation will be using some kind of indefinite forms (maximum ambiguity). Imagine that a freind of yours tells you about a girl:

"So I walk in and she is like.. reading in the library"

Ask a question about this picture: "Did it take place or will it take place? Are you telling me about factual past or telling me about probable future? Have you walked in and saw her or will you walk in and see her"

Now, about your sentence: 有一天,她在图书馆看书,一个男生从她身边走过,看到她的手套掉在地上,那位男生很有礼貌地帮她捡起来 (no 了, no 就)

The translation should be indefinite in some sence:

"There is a day once, and a girl reads in a library and the other guy passes her by. He sees that she drops a glove, he picks it up."

Do you see the mood here? It looks like a fairy tale of some sort, it's not real.

Now, if you add 了 at the end, it comes with 就 (since it's a stiff structure here). i.e. 了 is linked with 就 and not with the rest of the sentence, and thus addition of THIS 了 will not render the whole sentence from a fairy tale realm to this world.


Now translation changes a bit: the first part stays the same and we can't tell if it's an imaginive or real situation (took place in the past), but the last part translates like this:

"He sees that she drops a glove and then就 he picks了(for real) it up. (He will do it if situation is\was\will be real"

Now, unless you add 了 to the first part of the sentence 有一天,她在图书馆看书,一个男生从她身边走过,看到她的手套掉在地上 you can't tell that situation took place or will take place. You know 有一天 makes you think that a fairy tale is about to start, so lack of 了 reality makers makes sence! The last 了 is not a marker for the whole sentece but for 就_了 part, there it just stresses logical consequence of the actions (real or imaginary), but it never answers to the question: "Is the WHOLE story a reality or are you imagining things?"

  • If you start: "有了一天" it will be completly different ballgame. Now suddenly you just made clear that whole situation TOOK place in reality.
    – coobit
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 8:37
  • Notice that you can't say: 没有了一天, since 没 says that "it's not real i.e. never took place" but 了 says "it really happend" - contradiction. Yes, 了 CORRELATES with "completion", "past tense" but "correlation is not causation". If a verb "did take place" than it's mostly means it was in past but not always.
    – coobit
    Commented Nov 16, 2017 at 8:40

You should use "了" when you are implying an event has happened (completed) in the past.

看到她手套掉在地上 makes sense on paper, but when I am talking, I would always say "看到她手套掉在地上了。" The "了" does not have to be really pronounced. You can pronounce it very briefly, similar to "the" or "a" in English.

But since "了" is somewhat informal, in writing it can be omitted. However, there are cases that 了 is never omitted, such as 捡起来了 or 捡了起来, unless you are trying to say "someone is picking something up." When to omit 了 does not really follow a clear rule, because it is something "we just do." It just sounds right. I would suggest always using 了 if an action has been completed in the past.


她在图书馆看书: She was reading in the library.

她在图书馆看了书: She has read (and finished reading) in the library.


It's a tough question.

As for "when it's best to use 了," in my opinion, it's about the time you can't determine the tense without 了. When you could clearly determine the tense without 了, you can omit or imply it.

For example, when you say 我出去, we can not determine if you mean '我要出去','我现在出去' or '我已经出去过'. So, in this case, you have to add 了 to indicate you have been out already--我出去了.

In your case,

她在图书馆看书: 在 already denotes tense, you don't have to add 了.

一个男生从她身边走过: 走过 already express completion. 了 is not needed.

看到她的手套掉在地上: 掉在地上 connotes it already fell to the ground. 了 can be omitted.

那位男生就很有礼貌地帮她捡了起来: 捡了起来 sounds like a completion for a whole sequence. The sentence itself could work without 了 in this case, "那位男生就很有礼貌地帮她捡起来", because 捡起来 denotes the verb 捡 has the result of 起来 already.

  • '走过 already express completion' '捡起来 denotes the verb 捡 has the result of 起来 already' Oh, so directional complements imply completion of a verb? So I can run on the assumption that 了 is optional for verbs with result complement or directional complement. Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 10:59
  • 1
    @CasKent欧凯斯, I think it's optional for the result complement. You could take 起来 as a result too. Not quite sure for the directional complement. We need to have more examples to figure it out.
    – dan
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 12:19

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.