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Consider the sentence

我出发了。

with the translation

I'm leaving.

This was given to me in a list of examples demonstrating the putting 了 after a verb expresses a completed action (perfect aspect, I guess). But in this particular example the action isn't completed. So then why does 了 belong here? How would the meaning change without it?

  • See chinese.stackexchange.com/questions/16048/… (...sentence-final particle that works as an intensifier) – droooze Jan 12 at 23:10
  • So would you say it's not giving perfect aspect in this situation? Instead it "intensifies" the sentence, which is translated as progressive tense in English? – ebrahim Jan 12 at 23:18
  • Possible duplicate of Use of 了 - when is it necessary? – Tang Ho Jan 13 at 4:53
  • No it's not a duplicate. The answers below addressed my question perfectly, thanks. – ebrahim Jan 13 at 7:36
  • 了 implies a perfective tense, it means 'already'. – Daniel Yeung Jan 17 at 0:11
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I'm leaving is rather ambiguous; going from English to Chinese, it is either

  • I'm getting ready to leave (我在準備出發)
  • I'm going to leave (我出發了)
  • I'm in the process of leaving (我正在出發, e.g. if you're waiting on a plane ready to take off)

我出發了 is also ambiguous; going from Chinese to English, it is either

  • I'm going to leave [now] (我[現在]出發了)
  • I've already left (我已經出發了)

Context is essential; if 我出發了 is translated to I'm going to leave, then「了」is used as a function where it is put at the end of a sentence to declare (to a listener) the beginning of an action. In this sense, we have:

  • 我走了 (declaration: I'm leaving/going [to go somewhere])
  • 我(去)吃飯了 (declaration: I'm going to have food)
  • 我(去)讀書了 (declaration: I'm going to study)

It is mandatory to drop「去」in verbs which involve going/leaving anyway, such as「走」and「出發」. In other verbs, including「去」is optional, but it reveals the sentence structure better. You can see that in the written language, without explicitly writing「去」, it is hard to see that 我吃飯了 is a declaration of I'm going to have food, but in spoken language the context should be clearer.

How would the meaning change without「了」?

It is ungrammatical to say just 我出發, like it is ungrammatical to only say in English I leave.

  • 2
    Good answer. I'd like to note both 我出发 and 'I leave' are actually grammatical. They are not meaningful without context or in most contexts, though. – NS.X. Jan 13 at 0:32
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我出发了 can be taken as the shorthand of 我要出发了. The literal translation can be: I'd be leaving. 了 denotes a completion state you would enter in the very near future. E.g. 我走了, I'd be in the 'gone' state in a second(or just right now), that is, I'm going. By the same token, we can translate 我出发了 as I'm leaving.

In practice, people say 我走了, often accompanying with their actions: stand up and walk away. It means I've decided to go and I'm doing it(going).

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You are with me. You want to go. You say: 我走了。

You and I have an appointment in a restaurant. You are late. I call you. You say: 我已经出发了。

我走了。 I'm leaving.

我出发了。I already left. (I'm on my way to the restaurant)

The difference is, whether or not you are talking to a person face to face, 我走了,or you are on the phone, 我(已经)出发了。

出发:leaving with a specific destination in mind 走了:leaving

我们出发了。:Let's go.
我们走吧。:Let's go, let's leave.

The problem arises with English. English and its predecessors maintain there is a thing called Tense. Thus, English speakers look at Chinese and want to find Tense. Language is more complicated than that.

My advice: do not even try to match Chinese to Western Grammar concepts. Tha past was never perfect, forget it.

  • Good advice but it's not really tense I was trying to find. It's the "completed action" aspect that I'm always told to attribute to 了 when it comes after a verb. I guess my example was just ambiguous and contained a different one of the many possible usages of 了 ... – ebrahim Jan 13 at 17:58
  • (如果)你把东西放行李箱就好了。You haven't put your things in the suitcase yet, so there is no completed action here. 这是我昨天买的东西。 ‘昨天’ tells us, this is 'completed action'. – Pedroski Jan 15 at 1:39
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了 means something you already done I'm leaving is wrong 我出发了 means I (already) left 我吃了 means I (already) ate 他已经去过美国了 means he has (already) been to US

  • 假如你跟朋友聚餐,你訂的菜先上了。你肚子餓死了,跟朋友說:「我等不及了!我吃了!」。按這個答案的說法,「我吃了!」意思是「我已經吃完了!」是嗎? – droooze Jan 16 at 8:19

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