It seems 到, 到了, 了 can all be used to indicate completed actions.

What's the difference in terms of indicating an action has finished?

For instance, this grammar page offers a number of examples:

你想到了什么好办法 ?
Nǐ xiǎngdào le shénme hǎo bànfǎ?
Have you thought of any good methods yet?

我们今天学了很多生词 。
Wǒmen jīntiān xué le hěn duō shēngcí.
Today we learned many new words.

In the first example, does the meaning change if you say 想到 instead of 想到了? What if you say 想了?

In the second example, does the meaning change if you say 学到了 instead of 学了? How about 学到?

  • re 想办法,学生词,想办法 even exists as one word, (is in IME Chinese input editor),bkrs:想办法 think of a way; try to find a solution,学生词, however does not seem to be a common expression, see examples for verb 学,学技术 学跳舞 学时髦 学孔好孟,iciba: learn vt. 记住; 学习; 得知; 认识到 ,learn new words 学习生词,学习到新的生字 (as in Q, 学到生词)
    – user6065
    Commented Jun 3, 2018 at 1:24

3 Answers 3

  • 想 is the verb

  • 到 is the result complement in 想到 ('think and successfully recall'/ 'think and successfully come up with')

  • 想到 does not indicate what tense the action is in. E.g. 將會想到 (future tense); 此时想到(present tense); 曾想到 (past perfect tense)

  • 了 indicates 'completed' action (but not an indicator of past tense)

想到 indicates a successful action (you think and come up with something)

想了 indicates a completed action (you thought but might not had came up with anything)

想到了 indicates an successful and completed action (you thought and recalled or came up with something)


了does not mean "completed action", it's a realis aspect marker. Only 到, which is a resultive verb complement, marks the verb as "action reached its goal".

  • 你想到了什么好办法 ? - Have you come up with any good methods yet?
  • 你想了什么好办法 ? - Have you given it a thought?
  • 你想什么好办法 ? - Without 到 complement and withiout 了, the reading should be "habitual" in most cases. That is: You usually think about the good methods?
  • 你想到什么好办法 ? - Still habitual or irrealis/probabilistic reading without 了. That is, You usually come up with good methods?
  • your answer gave me a sort of a mini light bulb / eureka moment! Is it possible to move 了 to the end of the sentence, in the first two examples? Does doing so change the meaning? Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 14:16
  • 1
    That's why I spend time to post here. I would have given half of the kingdom for this knowledge back in the days... But I struggled with了 for a long time... Yes, you can move 了 to the end. But the meaning will change. 了 after verb is a relative realis marker, 了 at the end of the sentence is an absolute realis marker. It works just something like "relative and absolute tense". I finished (了) reading before you've opened the door(了). Using google translate, then you can try reading ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/… on the topic
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 19:26
  • 1
    And read some of my older posts. I've raised the LE issue couple of times.
    – coobit
    Commented Jun 4, 2018 at 19:27

Regarding 学 and 学到:

  • 学 means to study. 我们学了很多生词 indicates you studied lots of new words.
  • 学到 means to study + success. It emphasises that something has been learned successfully. 我们学到了很多生词 indicates you LEARNED lots of words

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