In my lessons, I came across two different meanings for the adverb 都 dōu:

  1. "Already" with the structure: Subj. + 都 + Predicate + 了, where 了 stands for completion of the predicate (see Expressing "already" with "dou" in resources.allsetlearning).
  2. "All" or "both" with the structure: Subj. + 都 + Predicate (see The "all" adverb "dou" in resources.allsetlearning).

I wonder if it is possible in some sentences to distinguish between these meanings without more context. In particular, I'm thinking about the situation when the sentence has a final particle 了, such as:


1: They have already eaten.

2: All of them ate.

Maybe there is not much difference, but I believe in English there is a difference in the emphasis: in 1., the emphasis is on the time (they ate before expected); while in 2., the emphasis is on the number of people. For example, if this was a sentence said in a restaurant by a waiter on the phone, interpretation 1. could mean a particular table just finished eating then, while interpretation 2. could mean all tables finished eating.

2 Answers 2


Other than context, stress can also be a clue. Typically when the construction is used to express "already" there will be stress on the verb (perhaps in an indignant tone!).

  • What about when it means all, is the stress in the subject?
    – Puco4
    Commented Jul 5, 2020 at 22:08
  • 1
    @Puco4 When it means all, there's usually no particular stress, as it's not a very emphatic sentence. If you wanted to emphasize "all", you'd probably also change the wording to 他们全部都吃饭了. Commented Jul 30, 2020 at 20:54

It expresses "already" with the structure: Subj. + 都 + Predicate + 了

Only '了' indicates 'completion of a verb' in this structure

'都' in [Subj. + 都 + Predicate + 了] mean 'even'. Try write a sentence in this structure without 了, and you wouldn't say 都 expresses "already".


  • "他(都)说 不知道" = "(even) he said he didn't know"

  • "他(都)说 不知道 (了)" = "He (has already) said he didn't know" or "(Even) he said he didn't know"

It is used for "all" or "both" with the structure: Subj. + 都 + [Verb Phrase]

The 'all' and 'both' meanings can only apply with multiple objects


  • [A and B (都) + Verb Phrase] = [A and B (both) + Verb Phrase]

  • [subjects (都) + Verb Phrase] = [subjects (All) + Verb Phrase]

For a singular subject, 都 cannot expresses the meaning of 'all' or 'both' . It can only expresses 'Even' or 'too/ also' (Cantonese)

  • I haven't found a reference where 都 can be considered as 'too' or 'also' but instead it can be translated as 'even' (see this dictionary), which also covers the point.
    – Puco4
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 10:59
  • 1
    cantonese.sheik.co.uk/dictionary/characters/329 [3] [粵] [adv] also; too. Seem like it is a Cantonese usage of 都
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jun 6, 2020 at 11:02
  • I do not think here the 了 is perfective indicating completion, but instead it is a change of state 了 as it occurs at the end of the sentence.
    – Puco4
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 12:30
  • I think it could be either
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 12:33
  • From C. Li, S. Thompson, Mandarin Chinese. A functional reference grammar: "As long as 了 occurs at the end of a sentence after any word other than a verb, it is easy to be sure that it is the CRS [Current Relevant State - i.e. the change of state] 了 [instead of the perfective 了]". In the sentence "她们都吃饭了。", 了 appears after the object 饭 and it can only be a change-of-state 了.
    – Puco4
    Commented Aug 11, 2020 at 15:59

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