Do Chinese people say the particle 了 (le) every time when they are talking about something that’s happened in the past?
First, let's do a small exercise designed to show when and when not to use 了(le) after the verb. Please complete the following paragraph by choosing whether or not to add 了(le) after the verb in brackets.
Zuótiān wǒ ____(qù) wǒ de péngyǒu jiā. Wǒmen yìqǐ ____(zuò) hěnduō hǎochī de cài. Tā ____(shuō) tā fēicháng xǐhuan Zhōngguócài, kěshì bù zhīdào zěnme zuò. Wǒ _____(gàosu) tā, xiàcì wǒ huì jiào tā. Yǐqián wǒ zài Zhōngguó____ (zhù) de shíhòu, ____(yǒu) hěnduō Zhōngguó péngyǒu, tāmen ____(juéde) wǒ shì gè hěn yǒuyìsi de rén, ____(xǐhuan) gēn wǒ liáotiān, suǒyǐ chángcháng (qǐng) wǒ qù tāmen de jiā. Tāmen yě ____(jiào) wǒ hěnduō Zhōngguócài.
Many students consider the particle 了(le) as a marker for the past tense. Sometimes even teachers say this in order to make things simple for students. The grammar of Chinese, however, is not as strict as most languages in the world. For Chinese, there is no "tense", let alone "past tense".
We use 了(le) to stress that an action has happened already. The truth is, though, we don't always say 了(le) when we are talking about something in the past. Here are some common exceptions.
1. 有 (yǒu)
If you want to say "When I was in university, I had many books" in Chinese, you should say:
- Zài dàxué de shíhou, wǒ yǒu hěnduō shū.
- When I was in university, I had many books.
Here, you’ll notice, we don’t say 有了(yǒule).
You may wonder how, if there is no time clause in the sentence, will people know that this refers to the past and not the present? This is ambiguous sometimes. But, in a real conversation, you will have the context to know.
For example, when you and your friend are talking about your life ten years ago, and your friend asks you, “How could you buy such a big house?”, you may want to say "Because I had a lot of money". In Chinese, you would simply say:
- Yīnwèi wǒ yǒu hěnduō qián.
- Because I had a lot of money.
If you want to imply that this is no longer the case, you can add 那时 (nàshí) or other similar words. We will often say something like:
- Yīnwèi nàshí wǒ yǒu hěnduō qián.
However, we cannot confidently say that all sentences including 有 (yǒu) are past tense, and that we don’t need to use 了(le) for such sentences. You can use some adverb or time clause to express that it is about the past and not the present. The reason, I think, is that 有 (yǒu) almost is ‘a state’ rather than ‘an action’.
2. 想 (xiǎng), 觉得 (juéde), 认为 (rènwéi)
When describing an experience, you may want to say something like “I thought he was not at home, so I drove to another place”.
In Chinese, you would say:
- Wǒ xiǎng tā bú zài jiā, suǒyǐ wǒ kāichē qùle lìngyíge dìfang.
- I thought he was not at home, so I drove to another place.
When it comes to verbs like: 想 (xiǎng), 觉得 (juéde), 认为 (rènwéi), all of which conveys an opinion, we don't use 了(le).
Sometimes you may see 想了(xiǎngle), for example:
- Wǒ xiǎngle yìtiān, yě bù míngbai tā wèishénme shēngqì.
- I thought for a day, but still don't understand why he was angry.
Here, 想 (xiǎng) is a real action, which means you thought hard with your brain. So, in this case, we can say 想了(xiǎngle)。
3. 喜欢 (xǐhuan), 爱 (ài), 讨厌 (tǎoyàn), 担心 (dānxīn)
For verbs which indicate emotions, we also don’t usually use 了 (le). This includes such words as 喜欢 / xǐhuan (to like), 爱 / ài (to love), 讨厌 / tǎoyàn (to hate), and 担心 / dānxīn (to worry). When it comes to these verbs, we can use adverbs like 很 (hěn) and 非常 (fēicháng) to describe the degree of your emotion. So in Chinese, these function more like adjectives in a sentence.
Take, for example, the example below:
- Nà shíhou wǒ xǐhuan dǎ lánqiú.
- During that time, I liked playing basketball.
4. 说 (shuō), 告诉 (gàosu)
Here you may get confused. 说 (shuō) and 告诉 (gàosu) are real verbs and real actions, so why shouldn’t you follow them with 了(le)?
Sometimes, you should use 了(le), like in the following examples:
- Wǒ yǐjīng gēn nǐ shuōle sānbiàn le!
- I have said this to you for three times!
- Qíshí zuótiān nǐ gàosu tā le.
- Actually you told him yesterday.
However, when you quote the words in your sentence, you should not use 了(le):
- Tā shuō zhège gōngzuò duì tā hěn zhòngyào.
- He said this job is very important for him.
5. …的时候 (…de shíhou)
Another important exception is in a past time clause, for instance:
- 昨天我们吃晚饭的时候，他打破了 一个杯子。
- Zuótiān women chī wǎnfàn de shíhou, tā dǎpò le yíge bēizi.
- When we were having dinner last night, he broke a cup.
Here, we don’t say 吃了晚饭 (chīle wǎnfàn), since it is in a time clause. We only add 了(le) in the main clause of a sentence, not in the time clause.
These are the most common situations in which 了(le) is unnecessary for referring to things in the past tense. Now, would you like to re-do the test at the beginning? Anything you want to correct? The answers are below.
Zuótiān wǒ qùle wǒ de péngyǒu jiā. Wǒmen yìqǐ zuòle hěnduō hǎochī de cài. Tā shuō tā fēicháng xǐhuan Zhōngguócài, kěshì bù zhīdào zěnme zuò. Wǒ gàosu tā, xiàcì wǒ huì jiāo tā. Yǐqián wǒ zài Zhōngguó zhù de shíhòu, yǒu hěnduō Zhōngguó péngyǒu, tāmen juéde wǒ shì gè hěn yǒuyìsi de rén, xǐhuan gēn wǒ liáotiān, suǒyǐ chángcháng qǐng wǒ qù tāmen de jiā. Tāmen yě jiāole wǒ hěnduō Zhōngguócài.
I hope you enjoyed reading this article and I wish you a great day to come!