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I've read in many grammars and have seen in many places that, when we have a verb-了, its object has to be a complex one (taking a number, an attribute, etc.), for example:

我吃了一个苹果。
我吃了那个红苹果。

These grammars also state that when the object is a simple one, the only possible and correct 了 would be a sentence 了 or a double 了, as in:

我吃苹果了。 (ambiguous)
我吃了苹果了。

But I have heard and seen in many places people saying (and accepting) sencences like:

我吃了苹果。

Once, a native Chinese friend of mine said that when he heard these two sentences:

我吃了苹果。
我吃苹果了。

He felt that in the former he knew what apple was being talked about. After that I started to wonder if it would be possible to accept sentences with a simple object and if the verb-了 in those cases would define the object in the same sense as the 把 structure does.

Any comment would be appreciated.

  • It does flow a little bit unnatural of saying 我吃了苹果,however, it still makes sense to native speakers. Could you also make it more specific of you question as well? For example, could you write out the 把 structure that is equivalent to 我吃了苹果 in your mind? – zyy Oct 17 '18 at 1:47
  • @zyy As in: 你做什么了?我把苹果吃了 or 我吃了苹果。According to grammars, the only possible 了 would be 我吃苹果了 or 我吃了苹果了。When he said he KNEW what apple was being talked about with the verb-了 option, I started thinking about "I ate THE apple" instead of "I ate AN apple", as the 把 structure sugests. – Enrico Brasil Oct 17 '18 at 15:15
  • You are correct, the 把 structure you had is equivalent to 我吃了苹果。However, if you do want to specify which apple you ate, you would say 我把那个苹果吃了。 – zyy Oct 17 '18 at 18:50
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我吃了苹果。

我吃苹果了。

In practice, both sentences are applicable depending on the context. See these examples:

A: 你吃了什么东西?

B: 我吃了苹果。

A: 你吃什么了?

B: 我吃苹果了。

  • Don't you feel any difference as in "I ate AN apple" and "I ate THE apple" at all? – Enrico Brasil Oct 17 '18 at 15:09
  • @EnricoBrasil I feel it's more important to understand the sentences in the context than the grammar itself, because you would finally use it in the context, not playing with it in a book. My examples showed you how you can use them in the different contexts. – dan Oct 17 '18 at 22:51
  • @EnricoBrasil I think what dan is trying to show here is that sentences always exist in context, and in you can always construct a context where 苹果 after the verb has definite reference (in this case as a category of foodstuffs) to satisfy verb-了's need for a noun with definite reference. – Ben Jackson Dec 17 '18 at 4:27
  • Anyway, what I'm trying to find out here is if 了 has anything to do with object definition, because recently this started to make sense to me, but since I'm not a native and since NO GRAMMAR says so, I need natives to tell me if it really makes sense or not. An example: - 爸,我可以出去玩儿吗?- 不,你妈妈说每天都玩儿以前应该吃一个苹果。- 可是我吃了苹果啊! - 那可以吧。"But I ate the apple!" would be probably better translated as "可是我吃了苹果" or "可是我吃苹果了"? – Enrico Brasil Dec 17 '18 at 15:41
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It is almost same in daily usage, depends on what you want to emphasize, there are some differences.

A: 我头痛.

B: 去医院吗?

A: 我吃药了, 暂时不去.

In this context: 吃药 is a complete concept, most people won't add 了 between them.


A: 我好饿, 你呢?

B: 我刚才吃了苹果, 还好.

In this context, either the action 吃 or the thing 苹果 is what you emphasize.

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Chinese does not differentiate between singular and plural nouns as English does. Unless specified, a noun does not imply singular nor plural by default. Thus,

我吃了苹果 (我吃苹果了)

can mean "I ate an apple" or "I ate two apples" or even "I ate half an apple".

The grammar you mentioned is unknown to Chinese native speakers. "了" when coming after a verb implies past tense, nothing less, nothing more.

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